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Bill would make it easier to demolish historical New London buildings

April 9, 2019

There is a pitched battle underway in Willimantic over the proposed demolition of two historical buildings, and New London has been swept into the fight.

I was alerted to this by some preservation-minded people in New London who have been watching in horror as the General Assembly considers new legislation that appears crafted for Willimantic but also would undermine existing protections for historical buildings in three other small “distressed municipalities”: New London, Putnam and Ansonia.

These communities would become collateral damage to the fight in Willimantic.

The proposed legislation, introduced by Susan Johnson, a Windham Democrat, would help settle the fight in Willimantic between those who support a developer’s plans to tear down two large and iconic buildings on Main Street and the city’s entrenched preservation community, which is fighting to save them.

The law essentially would carve the four distressed communities out of the state’s environmental protection laws that include historical buildings and allow preservationists to intervene to prevent their demolition.

The campaign to save the massive Hooker and Hale buildings — together they stretch for about the length of a football field along Main Street — is similar to what was done in New London recently to save two Bank Street buildings that owner William Cornish was planning to demolish.

The state Historic Preservation Council, as it did with the Cornish buildings, agreed to ask the attorney general to intervene in the Willimantic standoff and go to court to save the buildings, as part of the state’s environmental resources.

While well-connected politically, even Cornish wasn’t able to summon the kind of juice in Hartford necessary to demolish his buildings and rewrite the state’s environmental protection laws.

Johnson got her bill out of committee in a tight vote, after withering testimony from mostly preservationists who attended a public hearing on it.

Now she needs to do a lot of arm-twisting. I hope New London’s delegation is up to the challenge to stop her. I’ve heard from a lot of their constituents, who produced hundreds of signatures on the petition to save the Cornish buildings. More than 750 signed the Willimantic petition.

If this law had been in place, those Bank Street buildings would be long gone. Who knows which ones in New London could be next?

I find it encouraging that there are enough energetic and determined preservationists in challenged little cities like Willimantic and New London to fight for the historic character of their communities, successfully arguing, among other things, that historical architecture is one of their greatest assets.

I compare this to a much wealthier community in the region, Stonington, where two contributing buildings on the National Register of Historic Places recently were torn down without warning. The town itself tried to tear down another but was blocked by the state.

Stonington, which has an economy that depends to a great degree on its history, is one of the few communities in eastern Connecticut that doesn’t have a demolition delay ordinance to protect buildings for a few months so that the reviews like the ones in New London and Willimantic can take place.

The Willimantic preservationists were surprisingly aggressive in their attacks at the public hearing on Johnson’s bill, even accusing a town councilor with a trash business of planning to profit with the removal of debris from the demolitions.

One woman called the legislation “a nasty vindictive little bill created to gut the State Historic Preservation Office.”

Engineering studies showing the two buildings to be sound have been produced.

My favorite testimony came from Sara Bronin, wife of Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, who holds an endowed chair at the University of Connecticut Law School, serves as chair of the Connecticut Trust for Preservation and has written two books on historic preservation law, promoting preservation as a catalyst for economic development.

Bronin used a quote from Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun to criticize the way Johnson’s bill broadly undermines the Connecticut Environmental Protection Act to justify tearing down two buildings.

″‘Today,’” she said, quoting Blackmun. ”‘the Court launches a missile to kill a mouse.’”

She then proposed some sensible solutions, including offering to help the developer with tax credits, grants and architectural assistance for a renovation, tools that have helped rehabilitate other large buildings in Connecticut’s cities.

She also suggested a land swap for a city-owned parcel not far away, where the developer could build new.

Mostly, she asked lawmakers to prevent “an erosion of our nationally-recognized statute on environmental protection.”

I hope New London’s lawmakers were listening.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com