So many citizens came out to the Stamford Zoning Board meeting Monday night to support Silvia Torres' plea to save her business that the fire marshal almost had to move the meeting to the Cafeteria.
Instead, many members of the audience—more than almost half, in fact—willingly scattered to conference rooms and the downstairs lobby to keep the halls clear.
These are people that care about Silvia Torres and everything she represents to the community.
"We want to maintain the vibrant sense of neighborhood," said Laure Aubuchon, Executive Director to the Office of Economic Development. "Nothing says that more than street-level small businesses."
Silvia Torres was at the Zoning Board meeting because she was going to lose her business. Actually, it was already lost. A first generation immigrant from Ecuador, Silvia and her family showed up to America, started working and didn't stop until she'd opened Why Not Silvia's Hair Salon.
She operated the business out of a building she was renting at 911 E. Main Street and, for 15 years, established herself in the community. She hired local workers, served local customers. People arrive to the shop on bikes or on foot. It wasn't just a salon, it was a destination within the community and she was a fixture.
"Many people have said this isn't the best part of Stamford,' said Maria Cadena, Torres' youngest daughter. "She's been here 15 years in this community. She's taken people in. She's showed them how to be good citizens. She's taught them how to grow up... How to be adults... She gives so much without asking anything back."
Then, as part of the Urban Transitway Phase II, the building Torres was renting was claimed by the city under Eminent Domain. She was forced to try and find a new building out of which to operate.
"People were saying, well, you knew this was coming for so long," said Laura Cadena, Torres' oldest. "We were looking for the best way to handle things because we didn't want to lose any business. Three employees live within four blocks. Then Mom got cancer, and we focused on her well-being."
The government, at a federal level, was required to help Torres find new quarters, but Torres didn't want to leave. This was her community, this was home. Torres was struck with inspiration.
Torres wanted to reopen the business out of the first floor of her home mere lots away at 970 E. Main Street. She discovered in that process that her lot was not zoned for commercial use. It was designated R-6 for one-family/two-family residences.
Twice, since 2001, Torres has attempted to change the zoning regulations of her home to that pf a C-N, or Neighborhood Business District. Twice it failed.
Torres was hoping third time's a charm.
After more than an hour of pleas to the Zoning Board from family, friends, neighbors, employees and government officials familiar with the case, the board adjourned the public hearing portion of the evening and convened to vote on agenda items, one of which Torres' proposal.
One tough customer, Zoning Board member Audrey Cosentini, repeatedly tried to sell Torres' legal representation Jackie Kaufman of Sandak, Hennessey & Greco and the rest of the board that Torres should pursue a "Village Commercial District" designation. Cosentini's theory was that neighbors were supportive of the idea because a zoning change could benefit them all later.
"If there's ever an issue of Eminent Domain, it would mean the property was more valuable later," Cosentini said. "There's nothing compelling us to have to change this. That's the rules of the city. It seems like a very mixed situation to me right now. I'm feeling uneducated."
By the end of the evening, regardless of the number of times she insisted, she would be the one abstention among four votes to approve Torres request to change her block from R-6 to C-N and grant her the ability to keep her business right where everyone who knows her wants it to be.
Almost everyone in support of Torres, including the matriarch herself, went to eat after the public portion ended, to get out of the board's hair. Only the woman's two daughters stayed to relay the affirmative vote.
"This has always been her dream," said Maria. "Really, for her, this is what she wanted her legacy to be. She wanted a local business in a place she called her community. A place where people could come to be themselves for a bit."