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Have Malloy policies destroyed historic Seaside?

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published April 13. 2014 4:00AM

Historic preservationists sometimes use the term "demolition by neglect" to refer to the process by which significant properties are allowed, through lack of maintenance, to decline to a state in which they can no longer can be rehabilitated.

There is even some thinking that owners who practice this form of neglect on significant structures could be sued for a violation of the Environmental Protection Act, for destroying historic resources.

There seems little doubt that Gov. Dannel Malloy, like Gov. M. Jodi Rell before him, has been practicing demolition by neglect in the case of the historic Seaside sanatorium buildings in Waterford, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The administration has allowed the condition of the buildings to seriously decline for years, while they allowed a potential buyer with severe financial problems, including a tax lien saying he hasn't paid his Connecticut taxes, to tie up the property.

The question is whether the evil deed is finished, whether the Malloy administration's neglect has effectively demolished the buildings by famed architect Cass Gilbert, the former president of the American Institute of Architects who designed New York's Woolworth Building, the U.S. Supreme Court building and other American architectural icons.

Curiously, it is town officials in Waterford who must eventually decide the fate of the buildings on the historic Seaside campus, to determine whether they should be saved or whether a developer can tear them down.

The Malloy administration has weighed in on the topic, saying demolition is inevitable, agreeing with the proposed developer, financially challenged Mark Steiner, who has been doggedly fighting a foreclosure on his Avon home for the last three years while stringing the state along on his purchase of Seaside.

Daniel Forrest of the state Historic Preservation Office in the state Department of Economic and Community Development said his office based a determination that rehabilitation of the buildings is no longer feasible on an engineering report commissioned by Steiner.

Steiner has long wanted permission to demolish the buildings, so it is not so surprising that a report he commissioned suggests just that.

It would be interesting to hear from more independent experts. The brick-and-stone structures appear to be generally sound, though in great disrepair.

Town zoning rules require that the four principal buildings at Seaside "be retained, renovated and integrated into the overall development plan."

So if Steiner or a successor developer proposes tearing them down, they will have to make an argument and convince the Planning and Zoning Commission that the buildings should not be saved. Expect that engineering report saying the buildings can't be saved to appear in those commission proceedings.

Maybe the commission could also require any developer wishing to tear down the buildings to pay for an independent analysis commissioned and supervised by the town.

Forrest said the state, in agreeing with the proposed demolition of the building, accepted a recommendation that essentially said that rehabilitating them would be too costly.

"But the costs have increased to the extent that (rehabilitation) is an impractical or problematic option," Forrest said. "It doesn't say that under no circumstances could these buildings be rehabilitated."

This caveat to the state's agreement with Steiner that the buildings should be torn down opens up all kinds of thinking about what might happen next with Seaside.

Maybe it would be possible to sell the property for less money to someone who could respect and save more of the historic architecture, create the public access to the beach required in zoning regulations and start generating more tax revenue for the town.

But it doesn't look like that will happen if the Malloy administration stubbornly sticks with a developer who is busy keeping the foreclosure wolves from his door, while Cass Gilbert's Seaside creation withers.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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