Stamford City Focus: Moving Forward
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“These young professionals working in Stamford know they can be in midtown Manhattan in 50 minutes on the train, but you know what? They really like it here too,” says McGee. “This city’s downtown offers great restaurants and nightclubs and it is thriving. The downtown has become a true destination, and that wasn’t always the case.”
Before the turn of the century, in fact, much of the downtown was boarded up and lacking character. Crime was a real concern. Stamford Town Center, though successful, seemed disconnected from the city’s center.
“We wanted to tackle the crime problem first and soon after add housing and new retail,’’ says former Mayor Dannel Malloy, a Democratic candidate for governor. “It’s hard to say which factor is more significant. The reduction in crime? Popular restaurants and bars? A good arts and entertainment community? Luxury housing right in the downtown? They are all connected and we knew they all fed each other, but getting a handle on crime was the first domino.”
The city enjoyed a unified strategy and markedly little political strife, according to Michael Freimuth, the city’s former economic development director. “Stamford had a plan and didn’t accept development for the sake of development,” he says. “It has a larger physical footprint than most Connecticut cities, and is able to dictate how development would be done. The city is able to set the terms, and that is a huge luxury to have.”
For example, when Target indicated interest in a Stamford location, city officials did not accept the store’s typical “big-box” layout, but rather dictated a two-story retail space that sits atop three levels of parking. As a result, the store is a big draw, but fits in well with the urban landscape.
Aside from these development decisions, much of the credit for the rebirth of Stamford’s downtown can be credited to the 17-year-old Downtown Special Services District (DSSD), a coalition of businesses in the heart of the city. The organization not only represents the interests of the businesses, it stages several important events, such as the annual Thanksgiving Parade. Organizers say close to a quarter-million people have turned out for the event, the second-largest giant-helium-balloon parade in the country behind its New York counterpart.
“We are happy that Stamford’s downtown has become a destination for businesses, for residents, for those seeking entertainment and nightlife,” says Sandra Goldstein, the DSSD’s executive director. “Stamford has been lucky to have great political leadership. We have been fortunate to work with leaders in both political parties and two different administrations who share the same concern, the same view, the same commitment to the downtown. It’s a wonderful success story.”
Another DSSD initiative, the summer concert series “Alive at Five” in Columbus Park—which closes several downtown blocks for seven Thursday evenings to feature music, food and drink—has become a huge draw as well. This summer’s series—from June 24 to Aug. 5—showcases the Beach Boys, the Gin Blossoms and Soul Asylum. Other events in Columbus Park include pops concerts, arts-and-crafts festivals, a new Battle of the Bands series and the holiday tree lighting, in which Santa Claus rappels down 1 Landmark Square, one of the city’s tallest buildings.
“What the DSSD has been able to do is bring all of us together—the big shopping mall and the businesses downtown—so we can air our concerns to each other, in a collaborative and not competitive way, and really do advance planning together,” says McAndrews, of the Stamford Town Center. “They work well with the city and the police to address crime patterns and concerns so we are all part of the solution, not the problem. Every city should be as fortunate to have an advocate for all its downtown interests.”
Though the city currently has a greater than 7 percent unemployment rate and about 25 percent vacancy in commercial buildings, most observers say it could be far worse (as it is in many other cities). Those numbers, most assume, will improve, but Stamford is moving forward with other plans as well.