Not in Fairfield County?
October 16, 2019Cart

Business

by Fairfield County Business Journal
by FCBJ

Showdown coming on proposed High Ridge Park development

The vacant building at High Ridge Park.

A proposal to repurpose one of the six buildings at Stamford’s High Ridge Park office complex into a fitness facility has run into significant opposition from neighboring residents — something that real estate firm George Comfort & Sons said is indicative of a growing “anti-development” trend in the city.

“It’s definitely something we’ve seen in Stamford in particular,” said Andrew Joseph, a vice president at Manhattan-based George Comfort & Sons, which also maintains an office in the High Ridge office park. “We’ve been working with the city to address
the concerns.”

Those concerns center primarily on traffic and noise that would result from Life Time, a chain of health clubs headquartered in Chanhassen, Minnesota, removing the existing building at 3 High Ridge Park and replacing it with a facility that would have the same footprint, Joseph said. The three-story building, once the corporate headquarters for Frontier Communications, has been vacant since the telecommunications provider moved to 401 Merritt 7 in Norwalk in 2015.

3 High Ridge was built in 1970 and, like the other buildings on the 38-acre site, was designed by architect Victor Hanna Bisharat, who also designed Landmark Square Tower downtown. Most of the buildings retain the sort of space-age, “futuristic” design then in vogue, but unlike them, 3 High Ridge is in dire need of cleaning and repairs; several windows are boarded up and cracks are visible in its façade.

Joseph noted that the building will be eligible for consideration as a historic place by the National Register in just two years — but no one seems particularly interested in waiting that long for a resolution.

At the center of the dispute is Stamford’s master plan, which three years ago was amended to allow for “the adaptive reuse of compatible office, research and development, residential, government, educational and medical uses” outside the downtown area — a way of addressing the fact that the once popular single-corporate tenant concept has mostly passed. “Adaptive reuse” allows for new buildings to be constructed, provided they maintain the general tenor of the surrounding
neighborhood.

Last June, the city’s zoning board unanimously voted against Building and Land Technology’s proposed development of an 800-unit residential complex at 260 Long Ridge Road — a project that Mayor David Martin, regularly accused of allowing overdevelopment in the city, opposed. On Feb. 26, the planning board voted against the Life
Time project.

However, George Comfort & Sons and Life Time believe that zoning board approval could come at its scheduled March 26 hearing — although such an action will require a super-majority, rather than a simple vote, of its six members.

Comfort & Sons “in our opinion is not looking to ‘adaptive reuse,’ but to redevelop,” said Steven Grushkin, an attorney with Stamford’s Wofsey, Rosen, Kweskin & Kuriansky, who has been hired by some of the residents living near High Ridge Park.

“The neighbors’ opinion is that (Comfort) is primarily looking for the highest and best return on their investment, not that they are trying to find other uses for the building that would be more compatible,” he said.

The concept plan.

Joseph at Comfort maintains that the property does not lend itself to subdivision into smaller units, a statement with which Grushkin disagreed.

“When all is said and done, there’s no question that what they’re trying to do would affect not just this particular parcel but the entire city,” the attorney said. “What they want is Chelsea Piers on steroids.”

The laughter that accompanied Grushkin’s last remark indicated he was aware of his hyperbole. Stamford’s Chelsea Piers measures 300,000 square feet and encompasses seven indoor tennis courts, ice rinks, batting cages and an Olympic-size swimming pool as well as the headquarters of the NBC Sports Group. But the meaning behind his remark was clear: In his clients’ opinion, Life Time would be a disruptive force.

“We’ve run into this kind of opposition before,” said Aaron Koehler, director of real estate development at Life Time, “but we were taken a little off-guard with this particular location. It will have the same footprint and impact as what’s currently there — and involves redeveloping an eyesore.”

Although full details of what Life Time hopes to build in Stamford won’t be finalized until all approvals are obtained, Koehler said the building would end up at “under 100,000 square feet. We’d originally said 114,000, given the traffic we expected, but the city said to keep it under 100,000.”

Although expectations are that the Stamford club would draw 5,000 members, both Koehler and Joseph said that they would hardly all be coming in at the same time, and that most of the increased traffic would take place outside of morning and evening rush hours. Weekends would, of course, be another story — employees at other High Ridge Park tenants like Affinion Group, PDC Brands, Eagle Ridge Investment Management and Comfort itself are rarely to be seen there on Saturdays and Sundays — but Joseph insisted that disruptions would
be minimal.

As for concerns over increased noise — the Life Time facility would include an outdoor pool — Joseph said that, given its positioning, most of the sound would be absorbed by the new building itself. “Noise-mitigating landscaping” would take care of much of the rest, he said.

Life Time has been on something of an area expansion binge of late. In 2014 it opened a 206,000-square-foot facility in West Harrison, New York, on the former site of The Journal News. It expects to open the doors of an under-construction 40,000-square-foot center on the former Reader’s Digest property in Chappaqua, New York,
in November.

High Ridge would be the chain’s first Connecticut location. Koehler said the company had looked at various spots in Stamford — all of them corporate parks — before deciding on High Ridge. He said should the current project fail to be passed, “We’d be looking at the same situation at
the others.”

Joseph was unwilling to lay odds on how the March 26 zoning hearing might go. “We’re hopeful,” he said.