Bridgewater Plan Faces Another Potential Setback: Climate Change

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A view of the proposed location for Bridgewater's new headquarters from Kosciuszko Park.
Georgia Lobb
Bridgewater's plan, from an application to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
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Concerns over Bridgwater's new HQ location
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Concerns over Bridgwater's new HQ location

There’s already a lot of skepticism about the state’s $115-million deal with Bridgewater to move the world’s largest hedge fund’s headquarters from Westport to Stamford. But there’s a second aspect to the controversy – the location of their new headquarters, right on Stamford’s waterfront and right in the middle of a high-risk flood zone. 

You can get a pretty good view of the site for Bridgewater’s new proposed headquarters from Stamford’s Kosciuszko Park. Just stand at the park’s edge, look across the West Channel of Stamford Harbor, and there it is: a 14-acre peninsula surrounded on three sides by water. Ever since a boatyard that used to lie on the peninsula closed a few years ago, this piece of land has been the subject of intense debate. Randy Dinter remembers what it once looked like.

“It was completely surrounded by boats in the water, at docks," he recalls.

Dinter has lived in Stamford for 12 years and worked in the boating industry for almost all his life. He says Governor Dannel Malloy’s plan to replace the boatyard with the headquarters of the world’s largest hedge fund is the nail in the coffin for Stamford’s boaters and for a waterfront dedicated to recreational use, not office-building views.

“When you came into this harbor 20, 25 years ago and saw boatyards and everything here, it was pretty welcoming," Dinter says. "When you come in here now, and see how sterile it’s become, with the offices and whatnot, it’s not a welcoming site as far as recreation.”

There used to be nine boatyards in Stamford, Dinter said. Now there are zero. But it’s not just about losing a place for people to store their boats. Since Tropical Storm Irene and Superstorm Sandy, it’s also been about what happens to the area during, say, a hurricane. In the past, when there were severe storms,

“There was some flooding, but it was a boatyard. And nobody lived there. And there were boats," says Barry Hersh, a Clinical Associate Professor of Real Estate at New York University who lives in Stamford. Any development in flood zones like the proposed Bridgewater site is risky. But building a gigantic, in this case $750-million office building is a lot riskier than limiting the area to just a water-related use.

"There is a challenge if the Bridgewater project or another project goes forward on that particular point," Hersh says. "They’re going to have to take some steps to protect it.”

The developer for the project declined to comment. Even officials at the state were skeptical at first. Catherine Smith is Commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, which is giving Bridgewater as much as $115 million to put its headquarters here.

“We looked at that and said, you know, you’re going to put a building basically into Long Island Sound. If you don’t do it right, it could be a disaster," she says.

But Smith said she was convinced Bridgewater is doing it right when she looked at the plans for the 8-story, nearly million-square foot building. They are pretty elaborate. Parking for 3000 cars will be underground. The office itself consists of 2 linear buildings, joined by bridges and paths across exterior courtyards. A helipad, recreational barge, and public access walkway along the water are all planned. And, the land will be raised as much as 15 feet higher above the flood zone. Smith says it’s a building that should withstand storm surges or other natural disasters.

“I’ve been convinced that the way that they’re building that building is going to be solid and sound…that it should survive any earthquake, knock on wood, that comes its way.”

Although Malloy has announced the plan almost as though it’s a done deal, Stamford residents and officials aren’t quite there yet. The city’s mayor Michael Pavia didn’t attend Malloy’s announcement in Stamford back in August. And when he was asked recently whether he thought he and the city boards would approve the project, all he said was this:

“I’ve seen a lot of large and controversial developments that came forward. But this one is by far, the most interesting, the most complicated, most dynamic that I have ever seen.”

In other words, it’s going to be a tough fight for Bridgewater to get approval from all of Stamford’s local boards and commissions. And maybe for future developments like it, as the city gears up to write a new 10-year master plan. Questions include: What does Stamford want its waterfront to be? What’s the best way to protect it from storms? Eventually, that could mean restricting big office complexes from occupying flood zones. But NYU professor Barry Hersh sees it more like this:

“I don’t think you retreat completely from the waterfront, but you do it in a much more sustainable, well-designed, and to some degree, expensive way.”

Those who can’t afford to do that, won’t. And those who can, will – like Bridgewater, with the help of the state.

Read more in the Connecticut Mirror here.