Critics say Bridgewater deal sidesteps state and local policies

Opposition to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s $115 million deal with Bridgewater Associates is growing, as observers charge that he is sidestepping state and local policies to move the country’s largest hedge fund from Westport to his hometown of Stamford.

Many in Stamford are incensed that no city officials, not even the mayor, knew of the deal with Bridgewater until it was announced last August. Critics also say the global investment company should not be getting state funds to build an office complex in a high-risk floodplain, in apparent violation of state environmental policies. They say the move shows that Bridgewater is getting special treatment when compared with agencies such as housing authorities, which have historically been unable to use state money to renovate housing projects in floodplains.

bridgewater map

Map showing location in Stamford Harbor of Bridgewater Associates’ new headquarters

Malloy said on WNPR’s “Where We Live” Wednesday that the move saves jobs from potentially leaving the state, and could create as many as 1,000 more. “They were being courted by New Jersey and New York for the purposes of relocation out of Connecticut,” Malloy said. “That would have cost us tens of millions of dollars per year.”

But critics argue that economic development cannot be achieved at the expense of breaking the rules.

“I think the governor and some of his top staff … are asking [the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection] staff to cast a blind eye on the coastal protection laws and policies that they’re charged with enforcing,” said Cynthia Reeder, a Stamford resident who has been active in a growing local movement to oppose the Bridgewater plan.

“The DEEP is being compromised by impossible-to-validate economic promises, and by the political and financial ambitions of a few people willing to gamble away public funds,” she said.

The fate of the 14-acre peninsula that Bridgewater plans to build its $750 million headquarters on is under contentious debate in Stamford. Once home to the city’s last boatyard, it may now become a large office complex — which Reeder’s group, “Save Our Boatyard,” says threatens Connecticut’s coastline.

The state’s Coastal Management Act calls for waterfront land to be preserved for water-related uses, rather than “critical uses” like office buildings or housing. And a few years ago, state environmental officials argued in a strongly worded letter to the city that the land (now reserved for Bridgewater) should be “permanently preserve[d]” for a water-dependent use. The contents of the letter were reported by the Stamford Advocate. Now, Stamford residents want to know why the agency seems to be changing its policies.

“There’s always some trade-off and some balancing when we look at how the coastline gets developed,” said Dan Esty, DEEP commissioner. “That probably does entail a somewhat different striking of the balance that might have been done in the past.”

“There is a commitment in the current Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, D-E-E-P, to take a third E on board, that being the economy,” Esty said.

The DEEP generally does not allow state funds to be used to build projects on high-risk floodplains unless they involve minor renovations or fixing roads and bridges. So in order to offer Bridgewater $115 millon in incentives to construct its headquarters on the Stamford peninsula, the state Department of Economic and Community Development had to apply for a waiver from DEEP.

It’s rare for the DECD to apply for such a waiver — so rare, in fact, that Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Director Tim Sheehan thought it could almost never be done.

“I’m not aware of such a request being made previously for a project in Connecticut,” Sheehan said. When he was informed of the Bridgewater waiver, he said that represents “real movement” on the policy.

Sheehan said that in the past, he’d asked the DECD to apply for a waiver to rebuild Washington Village, a public housing complex in Norwalk that was built on the waterfront more than 70 years ago and which routinely floods during rainstorms. He was not successful.

Asked why Bridgewater got a waiver, but Washington Village didn’t, Malloy said Bridgewater is making sure its new headquarters will be protected from future storms by raising the land as much as 12 feet.

“Building above the floodplain is very different than saying ‘we want to go in and build at exactly the same level that we built before,” Malloy said.

But the plan to rebuild Norwalk’s housing on the water also includes raising it out of the floodplain. Many public housing developments across the state lie on floodplains, and the Connecticut Housing Coalition’s Betsy Crum said the DEEP’s policy puts housing advocates and agencies in a difficult position.

“They’ve historically had this blanket prohibition against funding anything that’s in a floodplain, and that’s frankly cut out a lot of potential new development,” she said. “It’s also made it very difficult for existing housing that’s in the floodplain to get funding to bring them back up to standard.”

If Bridgewater is getting a waiver from the DEEP, Crum said, so should housing authorities. “There should be softening of the policy for redeveloping existing housing.”

In the past five years, more than 300 applications have been sent to the DEEP (previously the Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP) asking for a waiver to spend state funds on a floodplain project. Most were made by the Department of Transportation for road and bridge projects. Of 27 total applications from the DECD, a handful are for projects other than minor construction or environmental remediation. They include a $3 million project to renovate an elderly housing complex and a $1 million project to move part of an East Haven museum that is prone to flooding to higher ground.

Bridgewater is one of the biggest projects on the list of applications, provided by the DEEP. Most of the entries in the list show a status of either “Issued,” “Withdrawn,” or “Rejected,” or “Technical Review.” The review process takes many months, sometimes years.

The entry pertaining to Bridgewater’s headquarters is slightly different. It is listed as an application for “Construction of a new building, parking garage, access driveways, public accessways, utilities, landscaping and other appurtenant site improvements – Stamford.”

The DEEP is still working with the DECD on its waiver request for Bridgewater, having asked it twice to revise the application. In the database of applications provided by the DEEP, the status of the project was unique out of all 325 on the list: It read “Tentative Determination.”

UPDATE: After this story appeared, the DEEP told the Mirror that Bridgewater’s “Tentative Determination” application status was an error in the database. The application is still in technical review, the DEEP said.

 

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