Written by Dan Quigley, Greenwich
The topic of Transit Oriented Development (TOD) and the bevy of 8-30g proposed developments in Greenwich and other towns has clearly become an issue of focus. While adding affordable housing and TOD are laudable goals, to what extent it gets done and in whose hands it rests to determine that process is a very complex debate. This led me to do some research on the main proponent for affordable housing in our state, a group called Desegregate CT. Below, I will present publicly available information about this group, and allow the readers to reach their own conclusions.
On the Desegregate CT website, it states that, “We are a pro-homes coalition of neighbors and nonprofits advocating for more equitable, affordable, and environmentally-sustainable land use policies in Connecticut”.
However, it is not as simple as it seems.
Desegregate CT does not appear to have ever formed as its own legal entity – there is no record of it forming as an LLC or a non-profit. So how does it operate its expansive and well-funded website, large staff and lobbyists? According to its website, Desegregate CT relies on funding and logistical support from a group called the Regional Plan Association (RPA), a New York City based non-for profit group. The Chairman of RPA, is also the CEO of RXR Realty which owns more than 30million square feet of residential and commercial real estate valued at over $22billion dollars. In a February statement, RPA announced that Desegregate CT will become an “official RPA program” that will work toward “boosting the coalition’s strategic goals and capabilities across the state”.
The list of donors to RPA (available on their website) is weighted toward real estate and development companies. More than half of those listed as top donors of $100k or more are a who’s who in the real estate field; The Durst Organization, RXR, SL Green Management, Suffolk Construction, Related Properties, Cushman Wakefield, Edison Properties and others.
One of RXR Realty’s main objectives is to increase transit oriented living through TOD. One of its most successful test cities has been New Rochelle, NY. In a Forbes magazine article, a high ranking executive for RXR was quoted as saying; “We worked with our partners and the city to change the zoning laws on 5% of New Rochelle.” He continued to say that the model for New Rochelle could work for many other suburban communities on the rail corridor. For the record, the city of New Rochelle voted to support the zoning change. However, smaller towns and less dense municipalities may not support or have the capacity for such changes.
We have all heard the concerns from residents that don’t want what took place in New Rochelle to happen in their community. From an architectural and density perspective, I think most would agree with that. However, as their words suggest, that is precisely what these groups are trying to do. Unlike the legislation being pushed by Desegregate CT this was a New Rochelle initiative, not imposed by the State.
The idea that Desegregate CT is simply a coalition of underdogs working to establish more affordable housing options is very hard to reconcile considering the fact that its main financial and logistical sponsor, RPA is itself backed by many large corporate interests all of whom stand to profit from more development. On one hand because Desegregate CT has not filed as its own non-profit entity it is difficult to identify its donors, which apparently are funded through RPA. While on the Desegregate CT website is a list of their “Core Team Members”which consist of seventeen people, fifteen of whom are still active students in university. Most of this “core team” has likely not experienced entering the job market, owning a home or paying an electric bill, yet they are the face of Desegregate CT, and testify at public hearings advocating for TOD oriented policies.
Think of it this way. The CT transit corridor is a connector to some of the state’s most prosperous and wealthy communities. New Canaan, Darien, Westport, Greenwich and others have traditionally been the most attractive places in CT to live and a significant driver of our state economy for decades, not to mention the biggest contributor to the state’s tax receipts. Companies like RXR Realty have identified these communities as “emerging markets” that are ripe for development. It begs the question; is this about finding creative solutions to add affordable housing that will simultaneously solve a problem and bring benefits to their communities, or is it just a corporate profit grab?
In 2016, a real estate industry publication noted the RXR business strategy on “emerging markets” as follows:
One opportunity: suburban transit nodes. There are great places with efficient access to Manhattan, yet are surrounded by low density or surface parking; think places like New Rochelle, Yonkers, Hempstead, Huntington
Station, Glen Cove, and Stamford, where RXR has projects in the pipeline.
“If you keep trying to cram more and more material into the same sized bag, eventually you’re going to reach capacity,” he continued. “So your only option is to increase the size of the bag, and we have the ability to do that with our transportation infrastructure.”
The “bag” that this executive is talking about represents Greenwich and all of the towns and municipalities along the CT coast. When the executive talks about “increasing the size of the bag” he is talking about development. The question is, do we, as residents and stakeholders of our communities have a say in this process or is it going to be determined by developers? We should. Many of our elected local and state officials have joined together, in a bipartisan fashion to oppose TOD, and 8-30g and related legislation. Stand with them. Make your voices heard.