To start things off, here's a flashback post from April 2007 from former Democratic Town Committee chairman Joe DaSilva that breaks down Boughton's most outlandish proposals that have had a negative effect on Main Street.
What we don't need is another study in Main Street but an administration that actual cares about Main Street.
As I stated several times in the past, the NUMBER ONE issue on the minds of voters is NOT IMMIGRATION but Mayor Boughton's approach to development.
In a HatCityBLOG first, I'm going to turn this site over to Danbury's Democratic Town Committee chairman Joe DaSilva. In his first guest post, DaSilva will set the record straight regarding Mayor Boughton's failed development policy.
Joe, thank you for taking time to offer your remarks and the floor is yours...
The following represents my own ideas. In other words, I am writing as a resident of the City of Danbury, specifically downtown Danbury; a Democrat; and a soon to be homeowner. While I happen to be the Chair of the Danbury Democratic Town Committee, the opinions expressed here should be not be ascribed to the members of the Town Committee or be considered an exposition of its opinions.
This post is an outgrowth of conversations I've been having with Al about issues that concern the voters in Danbury. Contrary to the opinions of Danbury's Mayor, the most significant issue confronting Danbury is not immigration. Frankly, its so low on the list that it probably follows confronting litter as an issue to be resolved. Fair property taxes, economic development that creates real jobs that pay a living wage, quality education for every student, and a real plan to combat traffic congestion should all rank higher on the priority list.
One problem that seems to over arch most, if not all, of those challenges is housing and development. This is not a problem that was created overnight and its not one that we will solve in a day. Moreover, it's a problem that faces communities all over the State of Connecticut. The legislature has been working on this issue for several years. Anyone seeking true expertise, I am hardly an expert on this issue, should look at the work that former State Representative Lew Wallace was doing on Smart Growth.
This, however, is my take on the issue of growth, housing and some ideas on how it could be tackled. The first proposition is that growth, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. Growth is however something that should be managed and when it is not is when it causes problems.
1. Residential v. Commercial:
As a city Danbury has a distinct advantage - we have a commercial and business tax base. Properly configuring property taxes allows the city to use this commercial/business tax base to ease some of the burdens on home owners.
Most important, however, is that this is the property upon which economic development should take place. Proper economic development should, hopefully, be targeted to create quality jobs. In an effort to encourage business expansion, the State of Connecticut permits municipalities to defer property taxes in exchange for creating jobs or expanding a business. This is a perfectly appropriate use of tax abatements.(we'll get to a perfectly inappropriate use of them by the current administration later).
Example: "The previous administration under Mayor Eriquez granted tax deferrals for economic development that preserved and created jobs. These tax deferrals kept GE in Danbury; gave an incentive to Belimo Air Controls USA Inc to relocate to Old Ridgebury Road, expand its operation and clean up a contaminated property; and allowed Cendant Mobility (now Cartus) to consolidate its operations in Danbury, becoming Danbury's second largest employer. It should seem obvious that these examples show a judicious use of tax deferrals for the right reasons: the retention and creation of thousands of stable, well paying jobs for Danbury residents. Unfortunately, the current administration seems to miss the point entirely."
Critically, this is one way in which challenges of properly managing growth dramatically affect other issues confronting the City of Danbury. Unfortunately, the current Danbury administration has done little or nothing to address economic development in this manner. Worse, the actions of this administration have actively damaged Danbury's ability to generate this type of growth. The most poignant example: the Westside reserve. Residents of Danbury will no doubt remember the controversy of whether the City should build a baseball stadium or not.
A little background: in 2002, the Boughton administration created a bogey man: specifically they claimed that if nothing were done a casino would suddenly spring from the earth on the west side of Danbury. Of course this claim was absurd. (Anyone seen a new casino going up in Connecticut recently?).
Then, the Mayor pushed for the approval a zone change for several hundred acres of land on the west side of Danbury. The several hundred acres of property are adjacent to the Union Carbide property and represented one of the last significant undeveloped commercial/industrial properties left in Danbury. The zone change allowed the large-scale development of a mixed use project. Specifically, the project will develop single-family housing, condominiums, and some retail shopping.
There were three things wrong with this zone change: 1.) It eliminated the last significant opportunity industrial/commercial development on the west side of Danbury; 2.) The zone change was approved in a single meeting so the residents of the City had virtually no chance to comment on the issue until it was too late; and, 3.) The City received a measly ten million dollars or so in exchange for the zone change; foregoing the opportunity to offset the burdens this development would have on the City by requiring, for example, the building of a west side fire station on reserve property. (Contrast this with the fact that when Commerce Park was developed in the 1960s the developer built a fire station and then deeded it to the City).
2. Residential Development: Condominiums.
Out of controlled growth! Condo Moratorium! Too Many Condos! No one who lives in Danbury and has been awake in the last five years is unfamiliar with these statements. Yet, the current administration has done little to nothing to truly remedy the problem.
The first proposition is this: Condos are neither inherently bad nor good. Condominiums serve a useful purpose for people who either cannot afford a more traditional house or are not interested in owning or living in a traditional house with all that entails in maintenance, yard work, snow removal etc.
The problem in Danbury isn't that there are too many condos, its that there are too many condos in stupid places. For example: the West Side Reserve. Need another? Drive north on Route 37 toward New Fairfield. Between Padanarum Road and Stacy Drive, I bet you will see what I'm talking about: (Stetson Place?).
The Route 37 condos don't look particularly bad in an architectural sense, nor do they look cheap or shoddy. They do, however, look absurd in that they are far too close to a major roadway! Moreover, they add several hundred units and the associated traffic generated thereby to an already over burdened road.
Contrast this with the new project on the corner of Division Street and Park Avenue. These units also appear well constructed and well designed. Importantly, they also replace old and run down housing stock and create real housing opportunities in the downtown Danbury. Most importantly, however, all of the units in this project are three bedrooms. This creates real opportunities for home ownership by families. (More on this below).
3. Tax abatements and downtown development:
The current housing controversy in Danbury concerns the granting of tax deferrals to a major developer for the development of two large developments in downtown Danbury. Specifically, the City of Danbury approved, on the urging of Mayor Boughton, the granting of a seven-year tax abatement for the construction of a 115 unit apartment building on Crosby Street and the development of over 500 condominiums on Kennedy Avenue.
Mayor Boughton stated that he wanted to spur market rate housing in downtown Danbury and claimed the tax give away would be necessary because otherwise no developer would commit to the down town.
This claim and the project were both absurd and damaging to the future of Danbury.
First, tax abatements were not necessary and claiming they were is nothing short of insulting the intelligence of Danbury residents.
Unnecessary: There are many projects in downtown Danbury overseen by responsible developers committed to Danbury that didn't receive such breaks. For example: new three bedroom condominiums are being built on the corner of Division Street and Park Avenue. For example: several years ago the Nolan family developed the Harrison Square apartment project on Main Street. For example, the Nolan family has rehabilitated several multi-family houses on Terrace Place in downtown Danbury. None of these developers received a windfall in the form of a tax abatement; yet they committed their time, energy, vision and money to creating real housing opportunities in downtown Danbury.
Damaging: the tax abatements will cost the City of Danbury millions of dollars in lost taxes and lost sewer and water charges. Moreover, the developer has decided to market the rental building on Crosby Street to college students as an alternative to dorm living. I hold two degrees from Western Connecticut State University. I truly believe the college adds a lot to the City of Danbury and I have no problem with the concept of college students living in downtown Danbury. I do, however, recall that the reason the mayor and the developer gave for the granting of the tax abatement was to spur economic development through the creation of market rate housing in the downtown area. Even if you agree with this argument, it is hard to envision exactly how much economic activity will be generated by college students!
The 500-unit complex on Kennedy Avenue hasn't even begun yet. Once its open, however, this will generate traffic on an already congested downtown. Moreover, this will generate burdens on the Danbury Schools and the Police and Fire Departments. Yet while this project will create these burdens to the owners will not be contributing to the costs because of the tax abatement. Instead, the rest of the property owners in Danbury will have to carry these costs for seven years!
4. Real housing opportunities:
Every level of government is encouraging home ownership. Home owners tend to be more committed to their communities and have a strong motivation to take care of their property.
Unfortunately, owning a home in Danbury is very expensive, though substantially more reasonable than lower Fairfield County. In fact cost of housing is creating other problems for our state. The following story was shared by New Haven Mayor John DeStefano. A couple of years ago he spoke at our town committee meeting and this story stuck with me. He was discussing jobs and economic development in Connecticut. He related that a business owner in Stamford was moving out of Connecticut. Not because of high taxes or salaries but because his employees couldn't afford to live in Connecticut. They couldn't afford to purchase homes in lower Fairfield County and traffic is so bad they couldn't get to Stamford from the more affordable areas to the east of Bridgeport (Stratford or Milford for example) or northern Fairfield County (Danbury or Bethel for example). Mayor DeStefano pegged this problem clearly: housing is too expensive and we aren't creating opportunities for working people to own their own homes, especially since the vast majority of construction is centered on either McMansions or Condominiums. Unfortunately, there is little or no development of small single family homes for people starting out or seniors looking to downsize. In other words, what Connecticut, and Danbury, needs is a return to building regular houses for regular people. The example that Mayor DeStefano used was the housing boom that greeted the GI's returning from World War II.
This is somewhat understandable. Developers create and build projects in order to make money. This is how they make a living. There is a clear motivation to maximize what they can make on any single project. This does not mean that developers have bad motivations or are bad people. It means that we need to provide an incentive to create stock that is needed.
Thus, there is an opportunity here. The City of Danbury, and municipalities around Connecticut, should provide an incentive to developers to build affordable, starter level single-family homes. This type of construction has a lower impact on services, while simultaneously creating opportunities for working people to own their own single family home. This is an instance where tax abatements for residential development may be appropriate.
A modest proposal could permit the granting of a tax deferral to a developer who constructs three or four bedroom single-family homes under a certain number of square feet. The length of such a tax deferral could be pegged to the price, number of bedrooms, the total square footage, and/or the number of such houses created by a particular project.
While I am normally opposed to the use of tax deferrals for residential development, the above proposal would not create a significant burden for other taxpayers or city services. At the same time, it would create incentives to the development of housing that is needed and better serves the long term needs to the City of Danbury.
The foregoing are arguments and a modest proposal. There are many ways to address the issues of development and growth and reasonable people can disagree on which approach or blend of approaches would work best. Even the current administration has had limited successes. Specifically the UNIT inspection team program which targets properties that are non-compliant with zoning and building codes. While the program does, by the nature of its mission, over target multi-family property and thus tends to effect lower income and working people, the program has real benefits to the City. The other positive change effectuated under this administration has been the requirement that houses face, under most circumstances, face out to the street. This effectively combats the wedging of houses on undersized lots by spinning the house so that a side of the house faces the street.
These two actions represent the limit of this administrations positive vision. The balance of Mayor Boughton's attack on housing and growth represents a complete sell out to big developers and an abandonment of the rest of the city’s homeowners. A comprehensive plan to address growth and development must concentrate on preserving viable industrial/commercial property for the creation of good jobs, while at the same time limiting condominium development to appropriate places and encouraging the development of needed and under-constructed housing. Unfortunately, this type of comprehensive plan that targets the concerns of working families and property owners in Danbury over the concerns of big developers is unlikely to come from the current administration.