Plan for site of Central Hall up for approval 12 years after fire

Mystic More than a dozen years after a fire ravaged a building that housed eight businesses in downtown Mystic, developers are again poised to take the first step toward reconstruction.

The 18-22 W. Main St. site, commonly referred to as the Central Hall block, looks much today as it did shortly after the March 2000 fire - a pile of timber hidden behind a green plywood wall adorned with peep holes that offer a view of the Mystic River.

"It's dragged on for so long, I think I've become like other people who just walk by the green wall and forget about what's behind it," said Catherine McHugh, owner of downtown shops Stonewear Clothing and Catherine M.

McHugh, whose business was displaced by the fire, said she looks forward to redevelopment of the site but has a hard time envisioning more construction downtown, considering the recent streetscape and bridge repair projects.

Historic Mystic LLC, the group that has proposed erecting a four-story building with six retail shops and a dozen condominiums or apartments, comes before the Planning Commission tonight for site plan approval.

Rod Desmarais, a partner in the group of investors planning to rebuild, said his optimism of an approval tonight is tempered only by his expectation that the town's planning staff will attach a lengthy list of conditions to the approval. He said conditions have been one of the stumbling blocks to development.

Desmarais and his wife own Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream, a few doors down from the building site.

"There's a big difference between a site plan approval and getting a building permit," Desmarais said. "Everybody knows this needs to be brought back to downtown Mystic sooner rather than later. We're doing our best to meet the demands of staff. They've been strenuous in their efforts on dictating on how this project goes. But I'm encouraged this time around."

Desmarais said he and his partners took possession of the building in 2004 with hopes of a quick turnaround. But the economy, tweaks to the plans and a lengthy list of conditions proposed by the town's planning department have stalled construction, Desmarais said.

"When we bought it in 2004, little did we know it would take 14 months just to get the historic district commission (to approve it). That really set the pace for this thing," Desmarais said.

Town records show a variety of land-use approvals issued since 2001 when the building was owned by Rufus Allyn and Roy Bohlander.

The more recent back and forth with planning staff concerns items such as easements and the positioning of an underground propane tank on town property off Gravel Street, where developers are leasing parking spaces. Even with Planning Commission approval, developers would have to go back to the Town Council for approval of a revised lease agreement.

Michael Murphy, Groton's director of planning and development, acknowledges the site to be a challenge for any developer considering the lengthy list of state and federal requirements - a good portion of the building is built over the water.

He points out that no plan for the Central Hall has ever been completed and filed with the land records, a crucial step before a building permit can be issued. He said every time plans change, no matter how small the change, staff needs to review them to make an educated recommendation to the Planning Commission.

"Our role is to help protect the public interest," Murphy said. "The bottom line is they've made applications, gotten approvals but couldn't finalize the plans. It's their responsibility to finalize the plan."

When construction is completed, Desmarais said, the public will have unprecedented public access to the shoreline with a pedestrian walkway to the rear of the building.

"Are they impatient now?" Desmarais asked of downtown merchants. "I imagine they are. I am. We have a lot invested in Mystic."

Desmarais said with final town approvals, developers will look to secure commitments from six businesses for the retail portion of the project before construction can begin. He was reluctant to give a timeline.

"At that point, even without residential commitments, we can get the building up," Desmarais said. "But we can't start marketing until we have a plan we know we can build."


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