Stamford is a vibrant city. But experts are worried if that can keep the momentum going.



STAMFORD – Elia Kazan’s 1947 film “Boomerang” opens with a photo of downtown Stamford. All of the old downtown features are in plain view.

The actors climb the stepped steps of the old town hall; trees peek at present-day Columbus Park in the background; the camera passes the Stamford Savings Bank, then surrounded by other storefronts. It’s supposed to be any bustling little town, and Stamford is teeming with life onscreen.

This downtown bustle captured on the big screen has fluctuated over the years. Still, experts and residents alike agree that Stamford town center is a success, even with the challenges any town faces like low retail occupancy rates and era-era design. of urban renewal.

Despite the overall wins, reviews of downtown Stamford range from too many restaurants to too high rents.

Amiel Gause, a 22-year-old student at UConn Stamford, said he believes Stamford still has a way to go to have something for everyone. Gause works at Honey Joe’s, one of the few cafes in the neighborhood.

“In Bedford where I live there are a lot of bars, and that’s not really my thing,” he said. Put simply, he wants to see “more artistic” offerings nearby, like art galleries and open mic parties.

Gause’s colleague UConn student Michael Roca also has a fairly favorable view of the city center, although he admits he doesn’t spend much time there outside of work and school. . However, with his praise comes a caveat: “There is nothing wrong with it, but I think we should fix the mall.”

As the Head of the Neighborhood Business Improvement District, part of the job of Stamford Town Center President David Kooris is to address concerns such as those of Gause and Roca and develop a cohesive strategy for the neighborhood, its shops and restaurants.

The mall is a beast in its own right, and one Kooris said he was keenly aware of this, although he pointed out efforts underway to revitalize it. The 761,000 square foot fortress lost flagship businesses throughout 2021, including longtime tenant Gap and Saks Off 5th, one of its flagship businesses. However, with a new owner, the downtown area hopes to reconfigure itself into a more community space.

“We need to strengthen the relationship between the city center and the shopping center, facilitate these connections… and not let it be this kind of fortress on the outskirts,” Kooris said.

When he looks to the future of downtown, he says he understands that he is limited by the size of the city. So understanding what Stamford can and can’t achieve is an exercise in setting expectations.

“You have to be sure, above all, that you are standing at an achievable level,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to compare us to New York City – at least Manhattan – or Boston, or Salt Lake City just because it’s a whole different scale.”

Instead, he looks to small towns close to big metropolises for inspiration. Think of Santa Monica, California; Arlington, Virginia; or Bellvue, Wash.

Emulating these places means embracing features of urban design that most people believe are good for cities and people. For example, city officials have supported alfresco dining, more trees on the streets, and wider sidewalks over the past year. All three features have lent themselves to the increased pedestrian potential – how easy it is to navigate an area on foot – in Stamford town center.

Stamford’s comparison with these towns also recognizes the ignorable – Stamford has grown tremendously over the past decade. The city’s population grew by more than 10% between 2010 and 2020.

In many ways, the downtown area is one of the epicenters of the city’s growth, along with its neighbor to the south, Harbor Point. Census data released in 2021 shows that the city’s central district has become home to thousands of new residents over the past decade.

This population growth has been essential to building the city’s central district, according to Kimberley Parsons-Whitaker of the Connecticut Main Street Center, a nonprofit dedicated to downtown growth.

“Retail follows people,” she said. So, the more people there are who live in a community, the more businesses will open there.

But nothing is that simple, especially when it comes to profit and loss.

Particularly in the past year, physical stores have been closing their doors across the country at an historic rate. Business Insider US reported that retail vacancies have peaked in seven years in the United States as the pandemic has exacerbated conditions in an already vulnerable market.

Kooris knows there are plenty of restaurants now in Stamford’s central corridor – “It’s over 100 now,” he said – but he sees abundance as a distinctive positive feature of the neighborhood rather than like a detractor.

“We are a regional tourist destination because of our restaurant group,” Kooris said. He said it gives people an easy feeling of having so many restaurants in one neighborhood.

“If an interesting place you want to go doesn’t have a table, you want to know that there will be other things nearby that you can just go to,” he continued.

Still, downtowns aren’t all about shops and restaurants, wider sidewalks and street trees, Parsons-Whitaker said. They also draw on the energy of a place – and the people who live there.

Parsons-Whitaker said she sees city centers as a series of overlapping circles, each containing a vital component of life on Main Street. There is economic vitality, inclusiveness, sustainability, stewardship, connectivity and a strong sense of belonging. Without a single link, the whole chain falls apart.

“Without being inclusive, you can have all the parades and events and beautiful architecture you want, but you don’t have a city center,” she said.

Fostering inclusiveness means making the physical environment of downtown Stamford a place where people feel welcome. It means giving everyone something to do and a place where they can exist without necessarily engaging with restaurants or retail outlets, officials said.

Problems aside, Downtown Stamford looks more like Kazan’s “Boomerang” opening scene than it once did. The players have changed and so has the neighborhood, but the streets are still teeming with people jostling from place to place at the right times of the day, just like they did on the big screen.

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