One of the new apartment complexes, called Alto, is located about 100 yards from the train platform. Molly Ingram / WSHU

Fairfield Metro is one of the newest stations on the Metro-North’s New Haven line, having opened in 2011. The area around it is rapidly becoming a case study in transit-oriented development. This kind of development has been suggested as a solution to curbing climate change, while simultaneously helping connect residents more closely with their neighborhoods. Advocates say it cuts emissions, bringing residents closer to a train station as a central hub and relieving them from dependence on cars.

That’s a big deal for commuters in Fairfield County who rely on Interstate 95 — recently named the most congested stretch of interstate in the United States.

Advocates say transit-oriented development could be a good solution if done right. But in order for it to succeed, they say it’ll need to be both affordable and environmentally sustainable. Building in wetlands like the area around Fairfield Metro requires infrastructure that can mitigate the effects of climate change and reduce the impact of wastewater on a vulnerable environment.

Transit-oriented development and climate resilience

Gail Robinson is a real estate agent for the neighborhood of Black Rock, technically part of Bridgeport, the state’s largest city, but served by the Fairfield Metro train station across the town line. She’s also the president of the Ash Creek Conservation Association, and in that role, she’s one of the most vocal advocates for the environmentally sensitive wetlands that surround the train station.

WSHU met with Robinson at a coffee shop so close to the station that we could watch the trains go by on the tracks and hear announcements from the loudspeaker. Trains stopped and released crowds of commuters as we talk — most headed toward their cars at the station’s massive parking lot, but some set out on foot.

Robinson showed a printed dossier full of details on a flurry of similar-looking new apartment complexes that have been built or are under construction within a few blocks from the station with more proposed in both Fairfield and Bridgeport.

“It’s all generations moving in there,” she said. “All different ages, but it’s really popular with young professional people. They’ll spend $2,000-$3,000 a month on an apartment and not think twice about it.”

Ash Creek is the body of water that separates Bridgeport and Fairfield. She said, wearing her conservation hat, the ongoing developments concern her. One, for example, called the Crossings at Fairfield Metro, is being built just across Ash Creek Boulevard from the train station.

“It’s being built on a spit of land that’s directly on the Ash Creek tidal estuary,” she said. “We’ve been concerned for a while with that land.”

Ash Creek is seen running behind construction on The Crossings at Fairfield Metro. (Molly Ingram/WSHU) Molly Ingram / WSHU

Ash Creek draws its name from the day the British burned Fairfield to the ground during the Revolutionary War, ashes from the fires settled in the creek. It’s also the last remaining saltwater marsh in Bridgeport.

“It’s only about four feet deep,” she said. “When the tide is down, it’s mostly a mud flat.”

Ash Creek faces the Fairfield Metro train station along the appropriately-named Ash Creek Boulevard. The land slopes up near the train station, rising away from the tidal marsh to an elevated street. A wide stretch of long, low, marshy trees span out from the creek up to the station. (There’s a walking trail back there, it’s beautiful, but its entrance is not well-marked from the street.)

“It’s out of the flood zone, because it’s up high enough,” Robinson said. “But over time, and particularly with storm surges, that land could get vulnerable.”

Then, Robinson adds, there’s the toll these new complexes will put on Fairfield and Bridgeport’s infrastructures. The Crossings at Fairfield Metro will add nearly 700 new apartments, meaning the town of Fairfield will have to put in a new sewer pipe. Robinson says both cities will have to strengthen their infrastructure to handle the new load.

“Can we handle it?” Robinson asks. “We’re in the process of having to replace an aging wastewater plant in Black Rock. And if all of this sewer water is going to that plant that’s aging and beyond capacity now, then what’s going to happen? Because when it gets a lot of rainfall right now … they have to dump the raw wastewater into Black Rock Harbor.”

The conservation group Save the Sound gave Black Rock Harbor a “D-” for its bacteria count in its most recent Long Island Sound Report Card last year.

“Bridgeport is a combined sewer overflow community,” said Bill Lucey, who holds the title of Soundkeeper with the group. “That means when it rains, the stormwater drains mix with the sewage mains. So what ends up happening if you have too much rain, the sewage treatment plants are legally allowed to open up the side tunnels and side culverts, and have raw sewage mixed with rainwater go right into Black Rock Harbor, for example.”

“People are dying for something reasonably priced”

Three new complexes have appeared near the train station in recent years — one to the north, one to the west, one to the south. All are easily within walking distance of the platforms.

The Crossings at Fairfield Metro is the largest of the proposed developments. One building is already under construction. Eventually, the sprawling complex will include nearly 700 apartments, a hotel, an eight-story concourse building and more than 40,000 square feet of office space. That’s based on an ambitious expansion of the project from the developers, Accurate Builders, in March.

Eighty of those units will be below market rate, a fact the developers highlighted as a way for the town to fulfill its requirements under 8-30g, a state law meant to encourage a minimum amount of affordable housing.

The Crossings at Fairfield Metro is expected to add 700 new apartments to the area. Molly Ingram/WSHU

Eighty units is significantly more than is offered in other nearby new developments, Robinson said. Another four developments have been proposed, mostly in Bridgeport, and none have offered plans for any affordable housing. But she said those 80 units won’t solve the need.

“People are dying for something reasonably priced,” she said. When Robinson puts up a listing she considers “reasonably priced,” she said she gets about 60 applications. That tells her that 80 new affordable housing units isn’t enough to meet demand.

“Affordable housing” means the homeowner pays 30% or less of their income on housing-related costs, including mortgage or rent, taxes, insurance and utilities. Only 3% of all housing in Fairfield meets that definition as measured by the standards of 8-30g, far less than the 10% the state wants from all cities and towns. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Fairfield is $2,800 a month. (By comparison, Bridgeport — which has a vastly lower median income — has about 20% affordable housing, by far the most of any municipality in Fairfield County. If you want a two-bedroom apartment there, it’ll set you back $1,800 a month on average.)

Some quick math: if you’re spending $3,000 a month on rent, the amount Gail Robinson said her young clients “don’t think twice about,” you’d better be making at least $108,000 a year as a household in order to live comfortably. That’s not factoring in utilities and other costs.

At the time that Fairfield Metro was under construction more than a decade ago, Metro-North also had plans for another new station on Bridgeport’s East Side, a relatively lower-income area. It would be called “Barnum,” after the circus founder and former Bridgeport mayor P.T. Barnum, who built up the city’s East Side. It was planned to open in 2021, but the project eventually stalled in 2019. (Advocates had said it would be an opportunity to support transit-oriented development in that area.)

“There’s a huge movement for transit-oriented development to be more affordable so that it can benefit the folks who have been historically more marginalized from city centers or even other neighborhoods,” said Nyla Holland, a researcher with the Urban Institute. “But transit-oriented development can also offer market rate rents, and have really high prices which can price out those with lower incomes and prioritize more affluent residents moving in.”

Holland said redlining and racist infrastructure practices have physically marginalized low-income communities out of city centers, where transportation hubs are traditionally found.

“Transit-oriented development has the ability to create greater access to employment, education, and more,” she said. “So those folks who have been excluded from that can access career opportunities.”

But she adds she’s too often seen a practice she calls “climate gentrification.”

“So you have climate friendly cities,” she said, “Cities that are prioritizing energy efficiency, transit-oriented development, and folks really want to move there. And they’re willing to pay the higher prices for rents that can price out those with lower incomes who would really benefit from living near transit hub.”

Holland said one way to solve this problem is to incentivize developers to include affordable housing in their plans, just like how Connecticut’s state law incentivized Accurate to include 80 affordable housing units. But not all communities, including Fairfield, have seen Connecticut’s affordable housing law as a solution.

Fairfield First Selectwoman Brenda Kupchick rejected the idea that only 3% of the town’s housing is affordable. She said that’s a shortcoming of 8-30g.

“We have a lot of two and three family units in Fairfield that landlords rent out,” she said. “They don’t count, we don’t keep track of them, because they’re not under our purview. But we know they exist.”

“There are properties we can do the exact same thing with”

Last week, the town of Fairfield marked a first: a groundbreaking for four new homes built by the Georgia-based nonprofit Habitat for Humanity. They went up in the Tunxis Hill neighborhood, which borders Bridgeport. The organization has built 281 homes in Fairfield County, but these were their first affordable homes in the town of Fairfield.

“It is not due to the lack of need for affordable housing in the town,” Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County director Carolyn Vermont wrote in a letter announcing the groundbreaking, reiterating that only three percent of the town’s housing is affordable. “It is because we have never been able to obtain property on which to build.”

The town of Fairfield is providing the four lots, which will be developed through a 75-year renewing land lease.

At the groundbreaking, alongside Vermont and others from Habitat for Humanity, Fairfield First Selectman Brenda Kupchick said she grew up in the neighborhood and played in the woods around the houses.

“And when the owner of this property came to me and said, ‘First Selectwoman, we’d like to buy a piece of the Tunxis Hill Woods and knock down this house and build a house to sell,’ I said, ‘well, how about if we buy your property and we decide to do something different with it?”’

Fairfield established an affordable housing trust fund in 2018, which paid for the purchase of the property. The fund adds on a fee to permits for all housing and developments, allowing the town to then buy its own homes and sell them at affordable rates.

Kupchick said she wants to keep the project going across the town.

“There are properties in our town that we can do the exact same thing with,” she said at the Habitat for Humanity groundbreaking. “And to me, it’s not just giving affordable housing but actually an opportunity to build roots in a community, especially in a community as great as Fairfield.”

For example, she said officials are working with former Navy housing that was given to the town nearly 20 years ago. But she says she doesn’t see a need to prioritize affordable housing around train stations.

“My dream would be that we would have affordable units scattered throughout the entire town,” she said. “You can live in any neighborhood that you choose. So if you do have a car and you want to live farther away from the train station or the bus station, then you should be able to have that opportunity.”

Habitat for Humanity said the four houses mark a new opportunity for Fairfield. But four units may not satisfy the need at a time when real estate agents like Robinson say a single opening leads to 60 applications. And the Fairfield Metro station is a nearly 40-minute walk away, making this property less than optimal for transit-oriented development. But advocates say the model can be ported out across Connecticut and other areas with a lack of affordable housing.

State Senator Tony Hwang, also at the event, said the entire state has a critical housing need.

“We’ve got to get there,” he said. “This is four of hundreds that need to be built. But the solution is the model here. It’s a model of collaborative effort and creativity where local governments, state governments, private sector and federal government get involved to collaborate … It is not private developers looking at a market valuation. This is out of faith, love and a need in our community.”

This story was first published Sept. 19, 2023 by WSHU.