Preservationists, developers clash over when to use wrecking ball


The search to reach balance between historic building preservation and economic development in several local towns has moved to the legislative arena, with lawmakers contemplating a bill to loosen restrictions on the demolition of vacant structures.

Raised Bill 1107, originally aimed at amending the term limits of board members sitting on the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, also includes a rider that would allow developers to raze historically-recognized buildings situated in the designated opportunity zones of four Connecticut towns designated “distressed municipalities” with populations of fewer than 30,000 residents: Ansonia, New London, Putnam and Willimantic.

Though the bill’s language doesn’t specifically mention it, supporters and opponents of the proposal say the issue has direct roots to an ongoing effort by developers to tear down and build on property occupied by the Hooker Hotel and Nathan Hale buildings on Main Street in Willimantic.

A private developer is proposing to demolish the two structures as part of an $80 million residential/retail project that would extend onto two other parcels.

Current law allows opponents to seek exemptions for such demolition work through the State Historic Preservation Office, or SHIPO, and the Connecticut Environmental Policy Act. The proposed bill exempts buildings that have sat unused for a decade or longer in the four towns from the review clause.

Former Windham First Selectman Jean De Smet said the new bill constitutes an end-run around preservation efforts.

“The ramifications of allowing any private or municipal entity to wantonly demolish any historic building without challenge after 10 years of vacancy are enormous, unpredictable and with unknown consequences throughout the state,” she said. “The danger is acute to the fate of historic buildings and has the potential of razing the downtown area.”

De Smet said the proposed law could prompt developers to purchase historic buildings and wait out the 10-year clock.

“Because they know it’s cheaper to demolish than renovate,” she said. “But there are state and federal tax credits available to these developers to encourage them to rehabilitate these historic structures, many of which were built to last for 300 years.”

Windham Town Manager Jim Rivers said the proposed bill represents a long-overdue overhaul of existing law.

“In a town like Windham, it can cost a developer twice the cost of demolition to rehab a building,” he said. “We’ve tried for 40 years with various developers to fix the Hale and Hooker buildings and it hasn’t worked.”

Rivers said the proposed law, which was moved favorably out the state Government Administration and Elections Committee, would not apply to projects where state and federal money is used.

“These are the kinds of buildings that if they are not demolished and reused, the town will have to take them down themselves,” he said. “The hope is developing these vacant buildings will raise the values of adjacent historic properties.”

Rivers said it’s all a matter of timing for potential developers.

“No developer is going to buy a property and wait five or seven or 10 years just to demolish it,” he said. “And there’s the cost. For $30 million, the developers can demolish the Hale and Hooker buildings and put up between 130 and 140 units. If they have to spend $20 million to renovate, they’re looking at maybe 40 units.”

De Smet said retaining and readapting the town’s historic buildings pays dividends in tourism dollars and aesthetic value.

“There’s value in these historic buildings and no arbitrary exceptions should be made,” she said.


John Penney

April 7th, 2019

The Bulletin