Saving some historical aspects of Seaside now the goal

Editor's Note: This clarifies an earlier version.

After years of heated debate, delays and a lawsuit to protect the historic buildings at the former Seaside Sanatorium in Waterford, preservationists for the state have agreed with Farmington developer Mark Steiner's plan to demolish at least some of the waterfront buildings.

Steiner, the preferred developer of the state-owned property, has been attempting for years to build an upscale condominium development on the grounds of the former state hospital for tuberculosis patients, later a residence for developmentally disabled children and adults.

The architectural centerpiece of the 32-acre compound is the infirmary designed by famous American architect Cass Gilbert and built in the early 1930s.

In a letter dated May 30, 2013, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) said it "concurs that the historic buildings on this former State of Connecticut-owned property are severely deteriorated and have been sufficiently documented as structurally unsound. Rehabilitation of the existing buildings is no longer feasible and prudent. Therefore, SHPO has no objection to the proposed demolition."

It is not clear from the letter which buildings would be demolished. Waterford First Selectman Dan Steward said he hasn't seen Steiner's proposal yet. But Steward said he understands that the buildings have fallen apart.

It is clear that the walls would have to be completely reconstructed because of structural damage, said Daniel Forrest, director of arts and historic preservation for SHPO, which is part of the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

"Part of our task was to retain the historic nature such that this is a landmark for anyone on the water, and retaining those concepts," Steward said. "But it is very hard with a building that is in this condition, so he has his challenges cut out for him."

Whether some of the four Cass Gilbert buildings would be preserved is unclear, but Christopher Wigren, the deputy director of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation in New Haven, said the trust is working to preserve some of the Seaside buildings.

"Clearly,  if it's possible to preserve some of the buildings. We would be very much in favor of that," Wigren said.

In 2011 Seaside neighbor Kathy Jacques filed a lawsuit against Waterford's Planning and Zoning Commission to protect the historic buildings. The lawsuit was dismissed in March 2013.

That dismissal and the green light from SHPO might open some doors for Steiner.

Last year, around the same time that SHPO gave Steiner permission for demolition, the developer proposed a special taxing district to reduce his reliance on loans and equity. After a four-month review by state and town officials, the proposal failed.

State officials said Steiner is continuing to work on design plans, but Steward said he does not know when Steiner intends to present anything to the Planning and Zoning Commission. Steiner did not return multiple phone calls from The Day last week.

Waterford Town Clerk Bob Nye, who is also the municipal historian, said he has come around to Steiner's idea to demolish the buildings as long as the developer reuses pieces of the main infirmary building when reconstructing.

During an informal meeting last year Steiner said he is planning to reuse the granite arches and spire from the top of the infirmary building, Nye said.

Steiner also said that he would abide by U.S. Department of the Interior regulations because the property is on the National Register of Historic Places.

"So I thought, 'OK, the place is just going to hell, and if he is that interested then you know … .' It is clear that he had become pretty educated about Cass Gilbert," Nye said.

Steiner also said that he planned to use the granite stonework on the face of the building to replicate the historic style of the building, Steward said.

State remains owner

Steiner first inquired about the property in 1997 and was in negotiations with Gov. M. Jodi Rell's administration for several years over the sale of the property. He wasn't given the $8 million purchasing agreement until 2011. According to the most recent plans available, Steiner is planning to build a 122-unit condominium complex along with a 4.5-acre park with public access to the beach.

Last year Steiner said the completed property would be valued at $125 million to $150 million and could yield $1.6 million to $2 million in property revenues for the town.

For now the state remains the owner of the vandalized and dilapidated property.

"I don't think it is a brilliant statement to make that the state is a lousy landlord," said state Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford. "I don't think there is much doubt about that. You only have to go down there for a second."

The town collects about $370,305 a year from the state through the state-owned property Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program for Seaside and for a state Department of Transportation garage.

Ritter and Steward said they would like to see the state set a deadline for Steiner to complete the purchase of the property.

"Giving someone an open-ended contract like that to me is not sound business, but I am not a lawyer," Steward said.

Opening up the purchasing agreement to other potential buyers "would serve the town and the state well," Ritter said.

The spokesman for the state's Department of Administrative Services (DAS), Jeffrey Beckham, said the state is satisfied with Steiner's progress and doesn't have concerns about whether he will be able to purchase the property.

"The office is in touch with him periodically, and DAS is satisfied with his progress to date," Beckham said. Steiner regularly updates DAS and is moving to get his site plan approved, Beckham said. Beckham would not provide details on what Steiner's updates entailed.

Forrest, of the state preservation office, said there is intent to reconstruct portions of the properties in a "fashion that would reflect the original design of those buildings" and that "there is ongoing work on the architectural design of the proposed development."

There are "no recent submittals to the office for plans, but it sounds like they are getting close," he said.

Day Staff Writer Tess Townsend contributed to this report.

j.somers@theday.com

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