A tale of two New London parking garages

This wooden support beam, one of many installed as a temporary repair in 1995, is askew.
This wooden support beam, one of many installed as a temporary repair in 1995, is askew. David Collins/The Day Buy Photo

During a public hearing on New London's big new budget, former City Councilor William Cornish volunteered to buy the city's Water Street parking garage and adjacent parking lot for close to $1.8 million.

"I'll buy them both and you reduce the mill rate," said Cornish. "That's a serious offer, folks, and I'm only going to make it once."

I found this take-it-or-leave-it proposition amusing, but not just because of Cornish's hearty low-balling a valuable city asset.

Mostly, I was thinking about the deplorable condition of the nearby garage on Gov. Winthrop Boulevard, which Cornish bought from the city for $206,000 in 2005, while serving on the City Council.

(He had campaigned for office on a platform of selling city assets, including the garages, although he recused himself from the subsequent vote in which the council agreed to sell him the Winthrop garage.)

Today, Cornish's garage is a startling showcase of neglect, from obvious structural deterioration - the concrete garage appears to be supported by cracked wooden beams shimmed with plywood - to broken elevators, rotting stairway banisters and strewn garbage.

There is also a row of at least a dozen parked cars without license plates that make the garage look like some sort of illicit car dealership.

Because these cars are all neatly lined up in a single row, unplated rear ends facing away from the road, they seem distinct from other abandoned cars in the garage, like the old Caddy under a thick layer of soot or the dusty Trailblazer with a flat tire and smashed window, the broken glass still littering the next parking space over.

If I were a property owner and the city tried to cite me for any single building code violation, I would ask first if anyone had paid any visits lately to the Winthrop garage.

It seems like you would have to have friends in high places to get away with some of these things.

Most alarming is that the city, when it decided to sell the garage, was reacting to an engineering report that said the garage needed millions of dollars in immediate repairs and was in danger of collapse.

The 2001 report, by the engineering firm Desman Associates, said: "continued deterioration and eventual catastrophic structural failure can be expected unless steps are taken immediately."

The report said that the most "critical repair item" was the replacement of the wooden posts holding up the concrete structural beams. They were considered temporary when they were installed in 1995, the report said.

The wooden beams are still in place today. Many are split. Some are askew and held in place with thin plywood shims.

There are also obvious cracks in the garage structure, big potholes and weeds growing out of the crumbling concrete. I saw a firefighting standpipe so rusted out it has a hole the size of a watermelon in it.

If the garage was in danger of catastrophic failure back in 2001, what would the engineers say today?

Cornish did not return my phone calls, so I didn't get a chance to ask him which parts of the alarming engineering report he has tried to address.

I did see some fresh concrete curbing in a few places and some concrete mix bags discarded nearby, but these haphazard repairs look like a rag stuffed in the hole in the Titanic. Big chunks of concrete appear to be simply falling down all over the garage.

At the time the city agreed to unload the Winthrop garage, rather than embark on costly repairs, it decided to keep the Water Street garage.

In recent years, parking revenues have financed hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs to the garage, which has been repaired and rehabilitated and is a lynchpin for downtown development. The city should have kept and repaired the Winthrop garage, too.

Now that major repairs are complete, the Water Street garage will soon be positioned to contribute tens of thousands of dollars in busy months to city coffers.

That kind of income stream also makes Cornish's take-it-or-leave-it offer all the more amusing.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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