For Danbury, immigrants are key to downtown renaissance

Danbury — When Mayor Mark Boughton talks about his city’s downtown revitalization zone, he sometimes calls it “La Zona.”

It is hard to know whether he is being flip or sincere, considering that his city has been less than welcoming toward its Spanish-speaking population in the past. But this much is certain: Engaging the city’s immigrant community is central to bringing new prosperity to Danbury’s struggling downtown.

And it may be working.

When Danbury’s Downtown Special Services District — better known as CityCenter — first started planning a community meeting about revitalizing downtown, they expected around 25 people, chairman Tom Devine said.

More than 150 showed up.

It was heartening for a city that’s been trying to revitalize its downtown for years amid a struggling economy. And it was also an encouragement to Ingrid Alvarez-DeMarzo, executive director of the Hispanic Center of Greater Danbury, to see such a diverse crowd.

“You see the members of the Hispanic community, members of the Indian community here,” she said after the meeting, held last Wednesday at the Two Steps Downtown Grille. “It was a diverse group of people from these communities, which is nice to see.”

Efforts to restore vibrancy to Danbury’s downtown have puttered along for more than 10 years. Some say its decline started decades ago as highways were re-routed away from the city center and the Danbury Fair Mall opened, pulling development toward the highways and away from downtown.

More recently, the recession has also pushed major employers out of downtown. Construction of 500 apartment units set for Kennedy Place, in the heart of downtown, has been on hold since the recession hit.

But Danbury’s immigration policies and attitudes have also been a major drawback, causing scores of mom-and-pop shops and ethnic restaurants to close their doors. Much of that fear manifested in 2006, when a group of day laborers known as the “Danbury 11” were picked up by an undercover police officer posing as a contractor, then turned over to federal immigration officials and detained. The incident caused public demonstrations and, eventually, eight of the detained were paid a record $650,000 to settle a five-year civil-rights lawsuit that claimed they were the victims of racial profiling by the Danbury police.

“Some of the climate of opinion relative to immigrants was misplaced,” said Jim Maloney, a former congressman who now heads the community development corporation Connecticut Institute for Communities Inc. “A not insubstantial number of those folks were scared out of town. And that had an impact on the economy, which I think was regrettable.”

Changing attitudes

Despite the 2006 raids and continued detainments by the federal authorities, the immigrant population in Danbury has continued to grow.

A quarter of Danbury’s population is of Hispanic origin, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. That’s a substantial increase from in 2000, when it was 15.8 percent.

Data from 2007 show that 8.3 percent of Danbury businesses are owned by Hispanics, compared with about half that in Connecticut as a whole. The numbers don’t include Brazilians — who are not considered Hispanic by the U.S. Census because they speak Portuguese, but who make up a significant portion of Danbury’s population and businesses.

A large portion of that growth is concentrated downtown, where both commercial and housing real estate is cheaper. (According to CityCenter, commercial real estate downtown goes for around $11 per square foot, which is 20 percent to 30 percent less than elsewhere.)

The Hispanic population continued to grow even as Danbury’s overall population declined during the height of the recession. Now, some say, attitudes have changed. Fears in the Hispanic community have lulled.

“I do feel it’s a lighter administration,” the Hispanic Center’s Alvarez-DeMarzo said. The heavy turnout at the public meeting “was a reflection of that.”

The city has become more proactive. The city’s Planning and Zoning Commission has created an overlay zone for the downtown area known as the downtown revitalization zone (DRZ) to encourage development. The next step, Boughton said, is engaging the immigrant community.

He said foreign-owned restaurants and stores owned by immigrants need to have English menus or English-speaking staff so that everyone in the downtown area feels welcome.

The shift in climate is good for Danbury, said Maloney, though it may have to do more with the economic reality than a real change in attitudes.

“I’d like to think it’s because all of a sudden people realized wonderful things about the diversity of our culture,” said Maloney. “But I honestly do believe that the real bucket of cold water was when a lot of these smaller immigrant businesses closed or moved out of town. And people said, ‘Wait a minute.'”

Luis Diaz, a Guatemalan immigrant who opened a restaurant downtown in February, said the culture toward Hispanics in Danbury has definitely changed for the better in recent years.

“Very few people are…suspicious of immigrants,” he said of visitors to the mixed-cuisine restaurant Ortega’s. “Most of them are really friendly.”

Business has picked up, said Diaz, who pays about $2,000 a month in rent for the space. He’s adding another cook, a dishwasher and a bartender to the ranks soon.

Diaz echoed some of Boughton’s words when he described the key to his success: “We want to try to attract different people… Americans, Spanish …all different cultures. We have a little mix of everything.”

Most restaurants downtown offer exclusively one cuisine, such as Italian, Brazilian, or Spanish. Diaz’s two most popular dishes come from two different cultures: a South American churrasco topped with plantains, scallions and black beans; and classically Italian shrimp scampi.

Slow renaissance

While those who attended the recent meeting were energized about a potential renaissance to Danbury’s downtown, many are frustrated at the slow pace.

“We’re looking to downsize. We’re looking to sell our big houses out in the suburbs,” said Jean Campbell, a resident of Danbury for the past 37 years. “I’m at the point where I would like to live someplace where I could open my door and find a sidewalk and walk someplace. And it’s not here.”

So far, most of the changes downtown have been regulatory. Businesses that want to open or make building changes in the DRZ can go through streamlined permitting processes with dramatically reduced fees. The city has taken responsibility for major maintenance and repairs to downtown sidewalks, as long as property owners keep them clean. Most importantly, officials say, taxes on property improvements will be deferred for several years.

But so far, few private developers have expressed interest in large-scale development — especially residential buildings.

“You’ve got to get people to live downtown who have discretionary income. That is the key, it is the Holy Grail,” Boughton said. “It’s not hockey arenas. It’s not baseball stadiums. It’s not big bang projects. You’ve got to get people to live downtown.” About 500 multifamily housing units made up 16 percent of the downtown area as of 2008, according to a 2010 report commissioned by the mayor.

Maloney, who serves on a downtown renaissance task force, says the regulatory changes are encouraging. But more needs to be done. Buildings in the DRZ still can’t be more than five stories high, he said, in order to preserve the historic character of parts of the downtown. But not all of downtown has that nature. There are large parcels of undeveloped land, unused parking lots or vacated buildings.

“Where does the new downtown go?” he asked. “We want to have a real downtown of new buildings, of new economic opportunity, which will take new zoning, which will take new approaches to making things economically attractive for developers,” he said.

For now, CityCenter chairman Tom Devine said the plan is to engage more downtown businesses by going door-to-door, and to establish a merchants’ association that would meet regularly.

Eventually, however, a true downtown renaissance will mean a major culture shift — not just in immigrant relations, but in willingness to walk, bike, and live in high-density developments.

“There’s a lot of talk,” said Dennis Elpern, city planner for Danbury since 1988. “But I don’t see fundamental changes in peoples’ patterns of activity.”

“People talk about protecting the environment, about global warming, about smart growth. They’ll talk about all these sorts of things, but does that translate into action? And are there enough people pushing those kinds of things?”

This story is the result of a reporting partnership between WNPR and The Connecticut Mirror. For the radio version of the story, click here.