Downtown Special Services District, Stamford, CT
“Urban planning and economic development are two of the most stimulating and intellectually satisfying types of work one can do,” says Sandy Goldstein (MS 1998). “And a business improvement district,” she adds, “is an incredible way of helping to create a sense of place in a community, increase real estate values, and support local businesses.” Goldstein is the president of the Downtown Special Services District (DSSD) in Stamford, Connecticut, a post she has held since 1993. Since that time, she has implemented a number of programs and initiatives that have had tremendous impact on the city. In the last five years alone, for example, the cumulative real estate value of downtown Stamford has nearly tripled, to $2.1 billion, according to the Stamford Advocate.
Goldstein got her start in community engagement with the Stamford chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW). Having moved from her native Brooklyn to Stamford in the early ‘70s with her husband and two young children, joining NCJW was a way to connect with local women who were “active in the community and interested in local, national, and global affairs,” she explains. When her children approached school age, Goldstein and her NCJW committee were appalled at the number of school bus accidents in the region and they were particularly concerned for their children’s safety. Her team investigated solutions to the problem and they found a small town in North Carolina that had implemented the novel but effective strategy of attaching retractable stop signs to school busses. The committee believed the strategy was brilliant and submitted a proposal based on that model to the Stamford school board. “We thought it was the best idea in the world,” says Goldstein, “but unfortunately, the school board did not, as it was working on local educational issues which they considered higher priority.” So the group galvanized to educate the community and garner support for the premise that "if “kids” can’t get to school safely what good is the rest of the curriculum?” After tireless effort, the proposal passed. Once school bus stop signs were employed in Stamford, it wasn’t long before they became standard across Connecticut and the rest of the country.
That experience, Goldstein says, “really solidified my sense of the importance of community involvement, and how small groups working together can truly make a difference.” Goldstein’s ability to motivate others did not go unnoticed. She was soon approached by the head of Stamford’s Democratic City Committee and asked to run for public office. Although she was young, and thus a little surprised by the request, she decided to give it a shot. “At that time I was a fabulous idealist,” says Goldstein (admitting that she’s perhaps “a little more cynical” now). “I really believed in the power of the political process, and that’s what I ran on.” Her idealism was contagious and Goldstein was elected to the Stamford Board of Representatives in 1975.
Once in office, Goldstein’s political career was off and running. She became the first female president of the Board in 1979 and she served in that role for ten years. After her fifth term as president, she ran for mayor. Goldstein lost that campaign to a native of Stamford and she decided to move on from politics. She had developed a side career in real estate during her political tenure, and now turned to it full-time. But she didn’t find it as fulfilling as her previous political and community oriented work. Her second golden opportunity came along in 1993 when the newly established, Stamford Downtown Special Services District (DSSD) searched for an executive director. Goldstein applied, but kept her application a secret. “I wanted to get the position on my own merit,” she explains, “not through a phone call from someone I knew from my time in office.” She spent several days preparing for her interview and produced a report of recommendations, which ultimately helped win her the job.
A few years into her role, Goldstein decided to apply to graduate school. “I always wanted my master’s,” she says. She had been a school teacher before moving to Stamford and had completed 30 credits for an MA in English at Brooklyn College by the year she relocated to Connecticut. “I always felt that my education was incomplete without a master’s degree,” she explains. Of course, by the time she was President of the DSSD, she no longer wanted a degree in English, “but I did want an MS in Management, as the credentials for the job that I had, even though I already had it,” she says.
Goldstein attended NYU Wagner part time after work and thrived in the classroom where she describes the curriculum as engaging and challenging. “I was a mentor to many of the students because I had the community, political and professional experience many of them sought, she says. “The school was dynamic,” she continues, “the cutting edge classroom conversation really motivated me and I would come home from school on a high.” She also appreciated her professor’s interest in her career. Several years after graduating from Wagner, Professor Mitchell Moss wrote to congratulate her after reading an article about her work in the New York Times. “It just shows what a great teacher he was and how much he cared,” she says. “I could say the same thing about many of the instructors, such as Ellen Schall and Mary McBride, just to name a few outstanding professors on the Wagner roster,” she continues.
Goldstein applied much of what she studied directly to her job. “I learned a lot about strategic planning at Wagner,” she says, “which has been integral to the way I run the DSSD. Everything we do,” she explains, “is through the prism of creating programs to enhance the downtown and by extension the rest of Stamford.” Goldstein is particularly proud of the DSSD’s economic development initiatives. For example, she and her team worked hard to prevent urban sprawl. “Urban sprawl kills downtowns,” she asserts. “It was very difficult to educate the public on this, but we did. We got regulations to limit most “big box” development in industrial areas and thus create a critical mass of retail in the downtown area.” As a result, Stamford’s downtown is a dynamic center with restaurants, entertainment, and department stores. It even includes retail outlets one might expect to find along a highway strip mall. As a matter of fact, Target’s first urban model was built in Stamford. Goldstein admits, however, that one of the biggest challenges “is getting boutique retail on the downtown streets.” While it’s desirable to have such retail downtown, it is hard to sustain those stores in the current economic climate.
Mitigating the challenge of sustaining retail businesses is the fact that downtown Stamford is also a residential area. “We realized very early that if we didn’t have dense housing downtown, we would never have enough residents to sustain the businesses,” says Goldstein. She and her staff worked hard early in her tenure to change zoning laws, alter parking regulations, and encourage residential development to ensure the downtown area became a “24-hour environment.” As a result of altered regulations, “we tripled the housing stock, at a minimum.” Goldstein says.
The housing development in downtown Stamford works hand-in-hand with the city’s economic development initiatives. Furthermore, in addition to the theater, concerts, ballet, opera, movies, restaurants, and shopping available to residents and visitors, the DSSD also works to ensure there are plenty of engaging events that bring in additional visitors from the surrounding area. “We just finished a summer with twenty events, including a Beach Boys concert that brought 15,000 people downtown,” says Goldstein. Under her leadership, the DSSD also vamped up the city’s pre-Thanksgiving Day, helium balloon parade, which once received a couple hundred spectators and now attracts over 100,000 people every year, with its 60’ high colossal balloons.
Despite the achievements that the DSSD has had, Goldstein doesn’t take license to sit back on her laurels. She is currently working with her team on a major planning and zoning initiative which will help ensure effective zoning for the downtown area in the future. With Goldstein’s track record, she’ll likely not rest until she believes the new plans are as strong as possible. “Sandy is never content,” said the DSSD chairman, Stephen Hoffman, interviewed in the Stamford Advocate. “If something is good, it can be better. If something is better, it can be the best.” Despite Goldstein’s claim that she’s become more cynical over the years, her work proves she is still an idealist at heart. And as long as she’s going strong, surely downtown Stamford will be going strong too.