Opposition grows to Bridgewater project; sweeteners added

Stamford Gov. Dannel Malloy’s plan to pay Bridgewater Associates $115 million to move from Westport to his hometown’s waterfront has gotten a little sweeter for Stamford.

The developer for the giant hedge fund’s new headquarters, Building and Land Technologies (BLT), recently agreed to pay for $5 million in improvements throughout the city. They include: Renovating a decrepit animal shelter, repairing damaged marinas, fixing up city parks, and even paying for Stamford’s Independence Day fireworks — which the city had to cancel last year because it couldn’t afford them.

On top of those offers are even bigger sweeteners coming from the state: $25 million on environmental cleanup and other improvements in and around Stamford’s South End, where the new Bridgewater headquarters will be, and $50 million to repair and expand a 150-year-old railroad underpass in desperate need of a fix.

But those incentives haven’t soothed the fierce controversy over the deal. If anything, they’ve sparked renewed claims that Stamford is unduly influenced by Malloy, its mayor for 14 years before he became governor in 2010, and by corporate special interests like Bridgewater and BLT. The $5 million deal with BLT prompted a Stamford Advocate columnist to dub the Norwalk-based developer “Bulldoze, Loophole and Technicality.”

 

“How can we not view the developer’s attempts at giving back as anything more than presenting residents the gift of its ignorance and arrogance wrapped in millions of crisp green dollar bills?” he wrote.

The issue has already become a hot topic in Stamford’s mayoral race. Most recently, candidate and current Board of Finance member David Martin, a Democrat, announced during a rally that he would vote against the BLT deal.

“Are important decisions being influenced by those who have the most political muscle and the most cash?” Martin asked, rhetorically. “Are outside interests getting special favors and allowed to skirt important regulations?”

Mary Uva, a Republican member of Stamford’s Board of Representatives, echoed Martin’s tone. “My constituents are absolutely appalled,” she said.

Rapid development in Stamford led by BLT and Malloy — especially in the city’s South End neighborhood, where BLT has built 2,000 luxury apartments in the past few years — has a history of controversy. But the Bridgewater project pushed some over the edge because the hedge fund’s planned headquarters used to be the site of the city’s last full-service boatyard.

“If you want to destroy the middle-class boating on the western end of Long Island Sound, you can do it by putting a hedge fund on the Stamford Harbor,” said Cynthia Reeder, a member of the group “Save Our Boatyard,” the focal point of opposition to the Bridgewater project.

Maureen Boylan, the group’s founder, said opponents plan to delay the process as long as possible.

“It’s corporate greed,” Boylan said. “The governor wants what he wants when he wants it. And you have the average taxpayer who’s fighting back, because they are sick and tired of overdevelopment in Stamford.”

Boylan’s group — which, she said, consists of people from Annapolis, Md., to Newport, R.I. — is urging officials on Stamford’s boards to vote against the various deals that come before them related to Bridgewater’s move.

But Barry Hersh, a Stamford resident and clinical associate professor of real estate at New York University, said Save Our Boatyard is made up of mainly boaters scattered throughout Fairfield County. “The opposition is not a neighborhood,” Hersh said. “Those elected officials aren’t going to look at those faces and say, ‘Oh, those are my voters.'”

But the opposition has been fierce enough that even though Stamford’s current mayor, Michael Pavia, is not running for re-election in November, he has been careful not to endorse either side.

“Far be it from me to become autocratic in any decision-making, and far be it from me to try to weigh in on this at this point in time,” he said, responding to criticism of his recent $5 million deal with BLT.

The controversy hasn’t stopped Malloy from proceeding as though the Bridgewater move is a done deal. Even when he announced it last August, he acknowledged possible controversy over the boatyard issue. He added at the time that “a fair amount of money’s been spent already on this project.”

The state has also already asked to bond the $25 million in environmental remediation and infrastructure improvements on the 14-acre parcel along Long Island Sound that Bridgewater plans to build its 750,000-square-foot office complex on. And work to secure the $50 million needed to repair the railroad underpass that has long been a bottleneck into the South End is underway.

The underpass project is an especially big win for Stamford, which has worked for decades to lobby the federal and state governments for such funds. Now that Bridgewater is in the picture, the state has committed to getting it done by 2016; previously, the city thought it would be at least a decade away.

Jim Redeker, commissioner of the state’s Department of Transportation, said there was no connection between the decision to speed up the project’s timeline and the Bridgewater plan.

“No one’s actually talking about the $100 to $200 million in infrastructure improvements the city’s going to receive as a result of Bridgewater,” said Michael Handler, the city’s director of administration. “No one’s actually talking about this. They’re talking about boats.”

There are even more obvious positives to the deal.

“This is a city that’s down 10,000 jobs from six years ago,” said Joe McGee, vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County and the state’s former top economic development official. “It has a 25 percent [office] vacancy rate. And it really needs to solidify its reputation as a major financial center along the East Coast.”

Bridgewater had threatened to leave its current headquarters in Westport and head to New Jersey or New York; instead, its 1,225 highly paid workers will be coming into Stamford’s rapidly growing South End neighborhood each day. Its new headquarters will generate millions of dollars in property tax revenue. And the hedge fund has promised to create as many as 1,000 new jobs as part of multi-billionaire founder Ray Dalio’s arrangement with Malloy, brokered in Switzerland last year.

Stamford can’t afford to chase Bridgewater away, despite any concerns about special interests or undue influence, McGee said.

“We’re going to be proud of ourselves for saying, ‘The world’s largest hedge fund is not going to come to Stamford?’ You’d have to be an idiot to do that to yourself.”

If none of those arguments satisfy the opposition, there’s one final way to look at it, McGee said.

“Boatyard vs. world’s largest hedge fund.”

He then sits back in his chair silently, daring anyone to guess who will win that battle.

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