New London's greatest asset is at risk

A trial underway in Superior Court, in which the attorney general is trying to save two historic buildings on New London's Bank Street from demolition, is the result of an encouraging uprising of community outrage over the possible loss of the historic fabric of downtown.

But it is an indication, too, that the historic downtown, certainly the city's most valuable asset, is at grave risk.

Even if the court rules in the attorney general's favor, preventing demolition of the buildings at 116 and 130 Bank St., there is no guarantee they will be preserved in a way that ensures they will continue contributing to the authentic 18th and 19th century streetscape, the goal of the intervening preservationists and attorney general.

Indeed, attorney David Sherwood, representing William Cornish, owner of the buildings, in his cross-examination this week of a state historical preservation deputy director, asked about a number of ways the buildings could be improved without violating an order not to demolish them.

He asked, for instance, if it would be acceptable to keep the exterior shells of the two buildings, demolish the interiors and erect a tall, skinny building between them. He asked if you could change the windows, the siding materials, the roof, all kinds of changes.

Apparently, came the answer from the witness stand, none of that could be challenged in the way actual demolition can.

So, because there are no historic district rules governing changes to buildings in the downtown district, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, owners can change the buildings or build new ones in all kinds of ways that would destroy the historic character of the streetscape.

The process, with the attorney general suing to prevent the demolition of two buildings on the national register, is the only tool available to preservationists, and it is a limited and cumbersome one, at that.

New London desperately needs leadership to develop a historic district downtown with authority to review appropriateness of improvements to historic buildings, the kind of system that has protected historic neighborhoods all over the country, generally making them more attractive to investment and raising property values.

Just in this part of the world you need to look no further than places like the Groton Bank of Mystic, Block Island, Newport, Nantucket, New Bedford or Provincetown, essentially some of the most expensive real estate in New England, to see how well this works.

The remarkable assembly of historic buildings in downtown New London, once the richest city in the state, is every bit as exceptional as those marquee places with strict historic district controls.

This is a valuable resource, one that can really be the basis for a renaissance in New London, instead of the suburban-style apartment projects proposed for the outskirts, on which the city's mayor is pinning his redevelopment hopes.

Single big projects — and that includes, for instance, the proposed National Coast Guard Museum on the New London waterfront — rarely are enough in and of themselves to sustain urban redevelopment.

If the historic downtown is diminished or lost, New London is just another failing small Connecticut city down on its luck, less rather than more appealing than the suburban sprawl that courses through much of the state.

This historic core of New London, what survived the bulldozers of 1960s redevelopment, has been spared more destruction since by a variety of economic downdrafts.

But it seems, with buildings being bought by speculators without specific renovation plans, some talking about demolishing big swaths of the downtown, the time has come for the community to have a say in the future of downtown.

It would be nice to see some leadership assuming a more proactive role in improving and preserving the downtown, not just waiting to see who or what happens next. Even without rules about how buildings may be improved, codes relating to their disrepair, at the hands of speculating investors, should be enforced, as they routinely are in other municipalities.

Stop the blight.

It's great that so many preservation-minded people stepped up to save two buildings that stand, as they have for centuries, along the bank of what was once one of the most important harbors in New England. But what good will it be to save those buildings, together holding the same place on the same street all these years, Bank Street, if in between them someone builds an ugly and inappropriate tall modern building?

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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