Is it still a plaza if there are no businesses?

May 5, 2019

Norwich — Starrwood Food Market closed in July. At the other end of the plaza, a branch of CorePlus Credit Union moved out in October. Gary’s Wine & Spirits moved from its location between the two to 680 Boswell Ave. last month, and Subway is closing at the end of this month.

That means there will be zero tenants doing business at 20-30 Norwich Ave.

Real estate broker Sheri Speer calls it “a good piece of property” that is “on a desirable road, because there’s a lot of traffic count.” She blames the city’s high taxes and red tape, but former tenants — along with city officials — all voice the same complaints about lack of maintenance at the property.

They cite a roof in need of repair, electrical issues, sewer problems and lack of adequate lighting in the parking lot.

The Mineola, N.Y.-based Central Houston Holding LLC has owned the building since 2003, city records show. The city’s Building Inspection Division has had issues with Central Houston Holding about the building for years.

But the closure of Starrwood had a ripple effect on the other businesses.

According to Superior Court records, Central Houston Holding filed a complaint against Starrwood in September 2017 for nonpayment of rent. In response, Starrwood wrote that no rent was due because of health code violations: “mold issues, inadequate heating, numerous ceiling leaks, tiles falling.”

The parties reached a payment agreement last February, but less than three months later Central Houston Holding said Starrwood was not in compliance.

An objection from Starrwood’s attorney stated that “the roof had been leaking for well over a year, the building inspector and Uncas Health Department have been involved and to this date, the roof continues to leak. Also addressed by the building inspector were electrical issues and those still have not been completed.”

The court ultimately ordered an eviction, and Starrwood closed in July.

CorePlus had operated in the plaza since 2005, but Chief Operations Officer Ray Currier found that after the market closed, “the overall lighting in the plaza and the traffic in the plaza decreased significantly.”

The lighting from the grocery store carried, he elaborated, and its closure made it apparent that lights in the parking lot were out.

“We’ve worked really hard over the years to build our brand in eastern Connecticut,” Currier said, “and we felt that the image of the plaza was no longer consistent with the experience we wanted our members to have when they visited a CorePlus location.”

He added that Central Houston Holding and Speer were accommodating to some requests, like doing some repaving, but the improvements were still “probably not” consistent with the image CorePlus wanted to portray. Currier said the roof “was in good repair and wasn’t leaking” when CorePlus left.

Niral Patel, owner of Gary’s Wine & Spirits, said the 5,000 of his own money to fix water leaks, which were above the walk-in cooler and in front of the counter.

He said the Subway sandwich shop operating next to the bank is closing at the end of May, which an employee confirmed. Subway corporate media relations did not respond to emails seeking further comment.

Having moved to 680 Boswell Ave. in mid-April, Patel said, business is “not what it used to be” and the store is roughly half the size, but he is paying about a third of his former rent costs.

“Even though I do less business, I can still afford it,” he said.

Speer said she has been doing direct marketing of the property, which is for sale or lease, to commercial investors, and that there’s been interest and showings.

“We’re talking to other grocery stores, we’re talking to storage facility units, we’re talking to car dealerships, we’re talking to boat dealerships,” Speer said. She also said there are plans to improve the parking lot.

Bob Mills, president of Norwich Community Development Corporation, said, “the owner has not been providing a safe environment for the tenants.”

Mills said he has been talking to the former owners of Starrwood about other locations. A prospective business in the plaza impacted by the issues was Annie Lee’s, a Southern cuisine restaurant that Mills said never ended up opening because of electrical problems.

“It’s pretty much (on) the blight path it’s been on for a number of years,” Mills said of the plaza. With a lack of tenants, Mills added of the owner’s lack of action, “It’s a puzzle, isn’t it? What do they possibly stand to gain?”