Groton — A plan to transform the boarded-up block in downtown Mystic into retail and condominium units was unanimously approved by the town Planning Commission Thursday night — the last major hurdle before construction can actually begin.
Two previous plans to rebuild the so-called Central Hall Block had fallen through in the seven years since the building burned down.
But this time, Rod Desmarais, who represents developer Historic Mystic LLC, said the firm carefully spent 31/2 years preparing the right plan.
“Downtown has certainly suffered,” he said. “I think this will be a catalyst for the downtown area. It's just what we need.”
The four-story building at 18-22 W. Main St. will include six street-level retail shops and 16 residential condominium units. Desmarais said he hopes activity on the site can begin before the fall. Construction would take 12 to 18 months.
Desmarais knows there are still challenges ahead.
There's no staging area in downtown Mystic, he said, and the building will be built over water. Desmarais said he doesn't want to disrupt the community.
But Thursday night, he was simply relieved, as were a few other business owners who attended the commission's meeting.
Cathie McHugh was forced to move her business out of Mystic after her store, Stonewear, was lost in the fire. She returned four years later, locating across the street from the Central Hall Block site, which is covered by a green, wooden wall that some refer to as “the green monster.”
“I am very, very pleased,” she said. “I just feel sorry it took so long.”
McHugh has seen how pedestrian traffic is diverted to the other side of the street at times, hurting the stores that share the side with the wooden wall.
Tricia Cunningham, president of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, said the new building will not only benefit the business owners who have supported the project, but residents and visitors as well.
“It's such an anchor for the character and charm of downtown Mystic,” she said.
The last steps leading to approval involved ensuring safe pedestrian access from the rear of the proposed building to parking areas, in addition to maximizing the public boardwalk area along the water.
The commission discussed parking in detail, a constant concern in downtown Mystic. Desmarais has proposed using seven parking spaces at the Tift building, 36 W. Main St., which he also owns. Sixteen spaces would be leased from the Mystic Arts Center.
Desmarais plans to lease from the town nine more spaces at the Gravel Street pump station. That lease will ultimately have to be negotiated by the Town Council.
Desmarais has also agreed to participate in a parking validation program to allow stores in both the Central Hall Black and the Tift building to offer customers parking at discounted rates.
Such design details as lighting and fencing are subject to final approval by the Historic District Commission.