State to make case for saving two New London buildings

The building at 130 Bank St., at left, is one of two historical buildings in downtown New London that property owner Bill Cornish is seeking to demolish. (David Collins/The Day)
The building at 130 Bank St., at left, is one of two historical buildings in downtown New London that property owner Bill Cornish is seeking to demolish. (David Collins/The Day)

New London — Testimony began Tuesday in a hearing that could decide the fate of two Bank Street buildings whose planned demolition has so far been stymied by an outcry from historic preservationists.

The state has intervened in the case and asked a judge to grant an injunction that would bar William Cornish from taking down 116 and 130 Bank St. on the grounds that would adversely alter the character of the downtown historic district.

Cornish, who owns several downtown buildings, has argued that a historic renovation of the structures is not financially feasible and would severely limit future revenues. His initial idea was to use the land of the two adjacent properties for one larger building that could accommodate 20 market rate apartments, something in demand in the city’s downtown.

The first of what could prove to be several days of testimony before Judge Joseph Koletsky was aptly held in the historic courthouse at 70 Huntington St., where a plaque identifies it as the oldest courthouse in the state.

Representatives from New London Landmarks are paying close attention. The nonprofit group had collected more than 1,500 signatures in opposition to the demolition and brought it to the attention of the Connecticut Historic Preservation Council. Cornish's planned demolition last year initially was delayed for 180 days by the city's Historic District Commission and Design Review Board.

Alan Ponanski, a lawyer from the attorney general’s office representing the state Department of Economic and Community Development, has lined up at least 11 expert witnesses to help try and prove the buildings are protected from “unreasonable destruction,” under the state Environmental Protection Act.

Mayor Michael Passero was first to testify. He acknowledged the growing market for residential properties in the downtown but said the loss of the buildings “would not be in the best interests of the work we’re trying to do to revitalize downtown New London.”

Catherine Labadia, deputy state historic preservation officer, testified that the two buildings are among the nearly 200 others listed as contributing resources to the historic downtown district, a location that is part of the National Register of Historic Places. The loss of the buildings would diminish the integrity of the entire district, Labadia testified.

She also said that Cornish had not seriously explored options for historic tax credits and other avenues that could make the historic renovation feasible.

Cornish’s attorney, David Sherwood, questioned why the buildings contribute to the historic nature of the district, eliciting testimony that showed the Bank Street addresses are listed on the register but not descriptions, photos or anything to indicate exactly when they were built or what they looked like.

The long vacant and deteriorating 130 Bank St. building was once a ship brokerage house and 116 Bank St., a former adult video and bookstore that has been renovated and now is a tattoo shop, was once a sailor’s boarding house, Labadia said.

Sherwood’s pre-trial memorandum seemed to indicate Cornish has abandoned the idea of one large structure across two lots.

“After more consideration of the concerns expressed ... and a structural examination by its structural engineer and architect, the defendant now proposes to utilize any structurally sound elements within the two buildings and reconstruct them with facades very close to the plaintiff’s representations with respect to their historical appearance,” Sherwood wrote in a Jan. 26 memorandum.

Reached by phone on Tuesday, Cornish said he had not finalized any plans for the buildings but maintains a full historic renovation is cost prohibitive.

“It’s good conversation but is it feasible?” Cornish said. “Who’s going to rehab them and bring them back to what they were? It’s not me and it’s not them.”

The hearing is expected to continue next month.

g.smith@theday.com

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