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The building crisis on Bank Street

January 31, 2019

If the intersection of Bank and State streets in New London, across from the Parade, is the fulcrum of the historic downtown, then one of the city’s main assets, the architectural remains of its glory years in whaling, seems to be at grave risk.

Last week, a building just a few doors up from this crucial intersection, the knuckle of the city, essentially began to collapse, its roof caving in.

The city’s solution so far: another notice to the owner, this one with a warning in capital letters, and new barricades blocking off the sidewalk and parking spaces out front.

Never mind that it appears as if a good wind could blow over the now barely supported façade.

Just move along folks, be brave and try not to get hit by the falling bricks, if they start to rain down. Welcome to New London.

Both sides of the entire lower section of Bank Street — New London’s Fifth Avenue or its Champs Elysees — is now a collection of vacant buildings and unoccupied storefronts. Visitors apparently are not meant to pay attention to this, but rather marvel at the suburban style apartments being built on the other end of Bank, at the outskirts of downtown.

Last year I suggested Mayor Michael Passero be known as New London’s empty buildings mayor. Maybe he is on his way to becoming the collapsing buildings mayor. Most worrisome about the collapsing building on lower Bank is that it’s full failure or eventual removal could leave a gaping hole in the historic streetscape, and there are no rules to require a suitable replacement.

The city’s recent strengthening of its blight laws is encouraging, but tougher rules are not going to help if too little is done to enforce them.

The structural engineer who had been working on the collapsing building fired off what should have been an earthshaking warning to city officials, as long ago as October.

“I am deeply concerned about the safety of the existing condition of the roof,” the engineer wrote to the city building official in the fall, before resigning from the project and putting on record the need to secure and stabilize the roof.

It seems like, in the world of building regulations and permits, this would be the equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded auditorium.

And yet the city did little more than issue more warnings. The latest, with its writing in capital letters — that should scare them — wasn’t sent until after the roof collapse.

Certainly, with the clear record of warning to the city last October from a structural engineer familiar with the building, the city would have shared in any liability for injuries in the subsequent roof collapse. I would expect the city also would be liable going forward, as the building’s large and now poorly supported façade hovers over the entire street, with only the sidewalk and a parking space blocked off.

The collapsing building was sold in 2016 to the current owner by Frank McLaughlin, assistant director of the Renaissance City Development Association. The owner of the adjacent abandoned vacant buildings, including the Capitol Theater, had made no secret of his hopes of buying the collapsing building before it was sold to the current owner. He has said he would like to tear it down and use the space for access to the theater.

Someone else affiliated with the RCDA, board member William Cornish, has a clear record of trading in empty downtown buildings, including one that dominates the intersection at State and Bank.

The mayor has complained in the past about my observations that little of the structural work once recommended to the city on a now Cornish-owned garage was ever done, despite an engineer’s warning that the structure was in danger of imminent collapse.

Apparently, in New London, an engineer’s warning of a collapse produces little concrete response. With an actual collapse? Well, that’s when they start with the capital letters in the warnings.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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