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September 17, 2018

STAMFORD — Three new developments that call for increased density and some demolition of old structures in the city have accomplished a rare feat — snagging endorsements from neighbors and preservationists.

The three — one approved, the other two slated for hearings this month — all call for adapting old brick buildings for new uses and building atop or in addition. Some aspects of the near-century old buildings will be demolished, but the brick core will be left alone. The re-use stands in contrast to the city norm dating to Urban Renewal in the 1960s and perpetuated amid a current bulldozing building boom, or so-called progress by tear down.

In the South End, neighbors who fight what they see as encroaching new development erasing their historic district lauded a new effort last week to build in the heart of it. And in downtown where preservationists are grieving the loss of one St. John cylindrical tower, they backed a proposal to turn an 1890 office building into apartments.

Meanwhile, a 25,000-square-foot antiques store in Shippan built in 1968 will soon become nearly 40 apartments - some built on the roof. The project met with little opposition at hearings this summer.

All three projects include some demolition — Shippan’s, at 614 Shipppan Ave., will incur the loss of a next door home, the South End’s industrial-era factory will lose an 80-year-old annex and downtown’s office building will see its facade, one of two veneers it has had, scraped away.

Renee Kahn, founder of the city’s Historic Neighborhood Preservation Program, said she has seen an uptick in developers seeking preservation, there have been some 10 ideas floated this year compared with two during an average year.

Kahn consults city boards and land-use staffers when developers apply to re-use historic structures.

“They’re coming in like the transom has broken,” she said. “I’m shocked. I’m delighted.”

Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing said there are often plans to switch commercial space to residential — especially downtown where the zoning code incentivizes it — but historic conversion is more rare. The older the building, the more difficult it is to restore, he said.

The recent spike is likely a coincidence, he said.

“It’s conditions — it’s the layout of the current building,” Blessing said. “If your floor-to-ceiling height is too low, or too high, for example, it might not create conditions that make for a an easy re-use.”

Jason Klein, a land use attorney who successfully oversaw the Shippan plan to city approval and will on Monday pitch converting a 1917 former machine-shop in the South End into a modern office, said the “key is finding those buildings that you can work with.”

The South End project, at 583 Pacific Street, calls for razing a one-story annex and replacing it with four stories of office space for textile design company Caro Home.

At a South End Neighborhood Revitalization Zone meeting last week, Caro’s owner and designer Carolina Feinstein said the old building was a perfect fit and the South End was where she wanted her team of a dozen designers to be.

Klein said the issue of parking can be the biggest obstacle to conversion.

“The lots are so small,” he said. “Cars weren’t really cars back then so it’s really hard to preserve those buildings with with 20th-century parking regulations.”

To make these kinds of projects easier, zoning code allows for some nonconformities in historic buildings and incentivizes preservation with density bonuses, such as scrapping front-yard requirements.

The oldest of the buildings in question, 36 Atlantic St., which was built before the turn of the century, is both a historic conversion and a commercial-to-residential switch. It calls for adding two stories and completing the third story for a total of 20 units.

The street-level floor, where sportswear seller Scout Adventure & Sport Scape now is, will remain retail.

Kahn believes the South End project will be a good addition and a well done conversion project, but she has some reservations about the Atlantic Street plan.

She hopes the developer restores the facade to its original masonry, a picture of which she forward the architect recently, she said.

“They’re trying to go back to original appearance and see if the historic brick remains,” she said.

Kahn didn’t consult on the Shippan Avenue project, but said anything would be a vast improvement over the dull warehouse it has long been.

barry.lytton@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2263; @bglytton

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