Demolition 'not our goal' at Reid & Hughes building, says Norwich mayor

Editor's note: This corrects an earlier version of this article.

Norwich - A $7.1 million heavily subsidized proposal to renovate the historic Reid & Hughes building on Main Street is in danger of falling apart, prompting city officials to seek engineering estimates on the cost to shore up the building or even tear it down.

Mayor Peter Nystrom has opposed the development proposal by Becker and Becker Associates of Fairfield from the start as too heavily dependent on city grants and public subsidies through state tax credits. Nystrom said developer Bruce Becker appears unwilling to negotiate, and talks have stalled.

The city now is asking the Norwich engineering firm CLA Engineers to examine the 1880 building for the possibility of saving the entire structure or just the historic façade and main structural framework.

He's also asking for an estimate to demolish the long-vacant, split-level building at 201 Main St.

"That is not our goal," Nystrom said of tearing down the building. "We want to save what we can of the building."

The discussion of possible demolition has prompted a group of historic preservation advocates to revive the Norwich Landmarks committee and brace for a fight akin to the battle won a decade ago to save the Wauregan Hotel. Becker and Becker Associates conducted the $21 million renovation of the Wauregan.

Five members of Norwich Landmarks met recently at a preliminary planning session and will hold a public meeting at 6 p.m. Monday at the Otis Library community room to discuss the Reid & Hughes building and other preservation needs in the city.

Norwich Historian Dale Plummer, leader of the Norwich Landmarks' Wauregan fight and also a member of the city committee that reviewed the Reid & Hughes development proposal, organized Monday's meeting. Plummer said the group became inactive after the exhausting Wauregan battle but is ready to start anew.

"Now we've got another major downtown building that is in peril," Plummer said Friday.

Becker and Becker submitted the only response last April to the city's request for proposals to renovate the Reid & Hughes former department store. Becker's proposal called for paying $1 for the building and for the city to provide an $800,000 city bond grant, another $100,000 grant through the downtown code improvement program and to forgive taxes on the building until it turns a profit.

The Wauregan, across Main Street from the Reid & Hughes, has yet to pay city property taxes. The 70-unit apartment complex opened in 2006 and used federal low-income housing tax credits and historic preservation tax credits. Becker would use the state Department of Economic and Community Development Competitive Housing Assistance for Multifamily Properties  (CHAMP) program to fund the Reid & Hughes building.

"We stand behind the proposal we submitted last year, but we're realistic," Becker said Friday. "While the project has great potential, it's not going to be successful without significant support from the city, and it also will require federal resources, such as the federal historic tax credits."

Becker also confirmed Nystrom's claim that the Reid & Hughes would be on the housing development firm's back burner regardless of the stalled negotiations and wouldn't get started for months to come.

Becker has been approved for CHAMP funding for an $80 million, 285-unit affordable and market rate apartment complex in a former office building at 777 Main St. in Hartford. He hopes to start construction there in May or June.

"I understand there's not a consensus in Norwich right now," Becker said. "We're focused on a big project in Hartford right now. We're focusing all of our energies there, so it's a good time for the city of Norwich to develop a consensus on what they want to do with the Reid & Hughes."

c.bessette@theday.com

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