Rally on steps of City Hall before the Planning and Zoning Commission hearing.
Michael Voytek, the attorney representing neighborhood groups in opposition to the halfway house proposal that was rejected by city zoners Monday night, delivered the following presentation in City Council chambers.
Acting Chairman Reilly and Ladies and Gentlemen of the Planning and Zoning Commission–I am Attorney Michael T. Voytek. I appear before you tonight representing the City Wide NRZ Leadership Committee on behalf of the five Neighborhood Revitalization Zones of the City of Bridgeport. I appear before you in opposition to the Community Solutions’ petition for a second 1-year extension to the 2008 Special Permit to build a 120 bed halfway house at 34 and 48 Norman Street and 828 Railroad Avenue in the City’s West End/West Side and South End. The members of the City Wide NRZ Leadership Committee and the NRZ stakeholders behind me here opposing this 120-bed halfway house for convicted felons are NOT against halfway houses in general or rehabilitation and reentry of convicted felons into society. On the contrary, many of the religious; non-profit; individual and business members of the NRZ’s work closely to support the re-entry of convicted felons into the community. However we believe that this neighborhood and the City as a whole is faced with changed circumstances that your Commission must consider. The statistic you will hear often this evening is very telling. Over 80% of the halfway beds for ex-convicts in our parole district which extends from Greenwich to Milford are in Bridgeport while Bridgeport only accounts for about 40% of such ex-convicted felons.
I am sure that many of you saw the Sunday edition of the CT Post dated February 20th, which had an article entitled “Halfway Houses wear out welcome in Bridgeport.” Among many things, one thing that really stuck out to me in that article is a quote by the CEO of Community Solutions, Robert Pidgeon, who said the following when asked about this proposed halfway house in Bridgeport: “You’re not going to put it in downtown Westport, there’s too much community pressure there. That’s just a general rule.” Well I have been retained by the good people behind me to question that “general rule.” What the CEO of Community Solutions is in essence saying is that the minority neighborhoods of Bridgeport have a big target on them for facilities such as this.
An overwhelming number of projects such as this halfway house target predominantly minority neighborhoods for their placement. We can all debate as why this is so–but it is a fact. I am looking into the civil rights aspects of all this–so I want to put this body on notice that there are very likely civil rights issues involved here that may amount to a class action suit.
What I will do here tonight is share with you the reasons that this body ought not to grant yet another 1-year extension to the special permit for this project and it boils down to 2 words: CHANGED CIRCUMSTANCES. Commissioners, there is significant legal precedent for you to reject this request for a second extension of the special permit for this residential group facility The original petition in 2008 was approved for 2 assigned reasons:
1. The halfway house provides a support service for those in need of a re-entry program–and with this we as a body do not disagree–however, I will point out to you that the character of this neighborhood as well as the City has changed since your 2008 approval which calls for your denial of this second extension.
2. No Unacceptable adverse impact on the area as a result of approving this petition. I will point out that this project, given the changed circumstances in City and the neighborhood will have an unacceptable adverse impact on the neighborhood.
Special Permits have a one-year life for specific reasons. An applicant has the opportunity to take advantage of a market and build what they propose. Your Commission already gave them one extension. In our opinion, Community Solutions has had the opportunity to do what it set out to do but to date has failed to do so. In other words, Community Solutions was given a chance and failed to take advantage of it in a timely fashion. Its ship has sailed. In fact the special permit has expired. The petition was submitted after the expiration date. That alone should provide you ample reason to deny.
A second reason as to why time limits are placed on approvals is to prevent a body such as Community Solutions from getting an approval and “sitting on it” to prevent other uses that might actually and in fact have a positive impact on the neighborhood. The correct philosophy is to “use it or lose it” and then rejustify why this halfway house remains a good and positive idea for the affected neighborhoods. Attorney Willinger has failed to provide the reasons why this facility will provide a positive impact on the neighborhood given changed circumstances. He did not present the case that the positives outweigh the negatives.
And lastly and perhaps most importantly–forcing Community Solutions to come before this Board and rejustify its proposed halfway house to ask for an additional one-year extension–allows the City and its neighborhoods to gauge whether the approval remains appropriate due to changed circumstances conditions. Otherwise, the approval would be automatic or not subject to a public hearing and Board action. Your regulations, both the old regulations as well as your new regulations contained this one-year time limit on special to allow a re-look at the proposed project and to allow your independent judgment to determine whether it still makes sense or not. I tell you here and now if this facility ever did make sense at one time–it sure as heck does not make sense anymore!
Let’s look at the relevant facts. Since 2008 when this original project was approved.
A LOT has changed in the neighborhood and the City.
a. Many real estate developments have happened in this neighborhood that present a changed demographic to the neighborhood immediately surrounding the proposed site.
i. In 2009-2010, The City purchased 9 buildings containing 27 units to serve what HUD classifies as the lowest possible income group on Norman and Hanover streets–within 1 block of the proposed facility. These units were purchased in partial fulfillment of a Court Consent Decree. This is a changed circumstance in the immediate neighborhood.
ii. In 2009-2010, within a few blocks (Black Rock Ave, Hanover and Lewis Streets) the City also built 10 additional units for the same low income group under the same Court decree. Again, this is a changed circumstance.
iii. 110 units for the elderly and disabled–many of them formerly homeless–are now living in the former Park City Hospital. The Eleanor and Franklin apartments opened in 2010. It serves extremely low income persons. This development happened in partial fulfillment of a Federal Court Decree resulting from the demolition of the former Father Panik Village. This is a changed circumstance from 2008.
b. A major new development is underway that will affect the immediate area.
i. The City and Housing Authority announced in 2009 that they are attempting to develop Marina Village into a mixed-finance, mixed-income and mixed-use development. One of the criteria considered in obtaining the necessary public and private funding to make this worthwhile project a go is the type of development in the neighborhood. Marina Village is just 2 to 3 blocks from this halfway house in which it is proposed that former criminals–convicted felons will reside–and Marina Village has had 5 murders in the past 18 months due to a significant increase in gang activity. This is a changed circumstance for the immediate neighborhood that questions the sensibilities to put a halfway house in this location.
c. Use of Went Park has increased substantially most notably by the members of the Caribe Little League and by Bassick High School athletes and students. Suffice it to say that there are more children of all ages using Went Field since 2008. These are changed circumstances.
d. There is a larger school population in this neighborhood. The brand-new eight-acre pre-K to eighth grade Cesar Batalla is now located just a few blocks away. In addition, the Brighter Beginnings Charter School has expanded its operations on Garden Street. These are changed circumstances.
e. A new Master Plan for the City has been put in place
i. On page 133 of the Master Plan the Policies and Goals with respect to the neighborhoods are set forth. The 2 policies are succinctly stated to rejuvenate and revitalize neighborhoods. The goals are to 1) emphasize property upkeep and safety and 2) encourage and support neighborhood level and planning. In fact the very first sentence of the section dealing with neighborhoods states “Enhancing Quality of Life” in the city’s neighborhoods is one of the … overarching themes of the Master Plan.” Well I have a really hard time seeing how a halfway house is good for the affected neighborhoods–how it will enhance quality of life or encourage ANY stability or sense of neighborhood–or how it will promote safety.
One more quote from the Master Plan again from page 135: “When … people feel safe in their neighborhoods, residents take pride in their communities and become invested in them. Investment of social capital–the time and effort that people contribute to civic engagement–is an essential building block of stable neighborhoods.” And I want you to look behind me at the men women and children of these neighborhoods–the faces of Bridgeport–the “BUILDING BLOCKS” that the Master Plan talks about. Let’s not deny them their will. Let these building blocks build Bridgeport into what it can become and not force upon them what they do not want–what they do not deserve. And what Bridgeport does not deserve to continue to be a DUMPING GROUND.
f. During and since 2008, the affected NRZs have enacted the neighborhood plans and received City Council approval. The new Master Plan calls for support in their implementation. You will hear from the two NRZ Chairs who will refute Mr. Willinger’s interpretation of their Neighborhood Plans.
i. The West End/West Side NRZ Zone Plan on page 34 asserts as one of its goals: to provide buffer areas from industrial areas. This is provided to protect neighborhoods. None of it anticipates a 120-bed halfway house in an industrial building.
ii. Page 35 of that very same Plan shows the focus of the Zone is to create jobs. I hardly see how converting an industrial site to a residential use does this–it doesn’t create jobs in any significant or meaningful way to the neighborhood.
iii. And on page 38–where Attorney Willinger inaccurately points to the education discussed therein to education for ex-cons when in reality the education actually being referred to is to increase the home ownership rate in the neighborhood–NOT PROVIDE EDUCATION FOR NEW TENANTS WHO ARE living in a halfway house.
THE FOREGOING ALL AMOUNT TO CHANGED CIRCUMSTANCES WHICH WILL PROVIDE THE BASIS FOR YOUR COMMISSION TO DENY THIS PETITION. THIS PROJECT IS NOT IN ACCORDANCE WITH APPLICABLE LAWS AND REGULATIONS AND ISN’T GOOD FOR THE CITY OF BRIDGEPORT AS A WHOLE.
Much of what I said will be expanded upon by the people who will speak after me. In particular, I ask that you give time to each of the following persons who will speak in opposition to granting the Special Permit extension for this Project. I incorporate their testimony into my arguments herein for the record): (1) Frank Borres, Chair of the West Side/West End Neighborhood Revitalization Zone Implementation Committee who will address the inconsistency with the neighborhoods officially adopted NRZ plan. Mr. Borres will rebut Attorney Willinger’s “clever” attempt to use the NRZ Plan against the neighborhood in our opposition to the Project (2) Pastor Carl McCluster, Chair of the South End Neighborhood Revitalization Zone Implementation Committee who will address particularly the impact of the Project on the South End and its inconsistency with the South End’s officially adopted NRZ Plan; and (3) Vanessa Liles who will address the changed circumstances involving the children and students in the affected neighborhoods.
To hear Attorney Willinger tell you that you should approve this because you as a body approved it once before and extended it once already is not relevant. To state that to extend the special permit for one more year should be an easy decision for you is wrong. He tells you that this halfway house for convicted felons is actually good for the neighborhood. That it is in accordance with the neighborhood’s goals. That it will reduce all the bad in Bridgeport and enhance the good. I respectfully disagree. No matter how Attorney Willinger eloquently “spins” this, the fact is that the NRZs DO NOT want this project to be granted an extension.
Let me reiterate one final time. The special permit has expired. CHANGED CIRCUMSTANCES dictate that you vote not to allow an additional 1-year extension of this special permit. The stakeholders of the five Neighborhood Revitalization Zones through its City-wide leadership committee are counting on you to do the right thing for their neighborhoods and the great city of Bridgeport. Thank you very much for your time and consideration.