State decides on private hotel format for Seaside
Waterford — Officials at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection have spent more than three years weighing options for the future of the former tuberculosis sanatorium on Waterford's shoreline.
Last week they officially decided: The state will seek to enter into a partnership with a private developer who will renovate the historic Seaside buildings into a 63-room hotel with public access to the grounds, a significantly scaled-back version of the plan that state officials put forward as their preferred option for the site in 2016.
DEEP presented its record of decision on the plan for the property — which Gov. Dannel P. Malloy designated a state park in a surprise announcement in 2014 — to the state's Office of Policy Management on Jan. 9.
The decision envisions the former tuberculosis hospital, designed by renowned architect Cass Gilbert, remodeled into a privately run lodge with 63 rooms, dining areas, conference space, a pool, a fitness center and parking.
Seaside would remain open to the public from dawn to dusk, and hotel guests would have 24-hour access to the grounds.
The plan submitted last week resembles the proposal in a state-commissioned master plan for the 32-acre property by consulting firm Sasaki Associates Inc., but with several costly and unnecessary elements removed, DEEP Deputy Commissioner Susan K. Whalen said Tuesday.
"This preferred alternative definitely scales back a lot of the site improvements that Sasaki envisioned," Whalen said. "We've definitely dialed back."
An original 100-room plan for the hotel has shrunk to 63 rooms and eliminated previous plans for a boardwalk, tidal pools and an overlook.
"It's a beautiful site as it is," Whalen said. "I think that big sweep of lawn to the shore is lovely in itself — we didn't necessarily feel we needed to put in sculptures and bird blinds and walking trails. Let's let nature speak for itself there."
But the new plan retains the basic idea of a public-private partnership that would mimic the management structure of state park lodges like the inn at Bear Mountain State Park in New York or the hotels and lodges in the National Parks system across the country.
A private company would be responsible for the restoration of the historic buildings, which architects and historians have called an "unsung monument" to Gilbert's career. It also would oversee operation, management and maintenance of the buildings.
In addition to the hotel, the lodge could include a conference space as big as 16,000 square feet, a restaurant and bar as big as 8,000 square feet and a fitness center within one of the existing buildings.
State officials hired PKF Consulting USA last year to study the economic viability of a state-owned lodge. The firm found that the local market could sustain a private, 100-room hotel at Seaside with an occupancy of about 60 percent at a daily rate of about $200, assuming it opened in 2020.
An environmental impact study published in July compared the impact of the lodge proposal to three other proposed uses for the property: an ecological park with a nature trail, wildlife viewing areas and art installations; a passive recreation model featuring open lawns and tree groves, and a hybrid plan that incorporates part of the lodge and the two park models.
Local officials and neighbors of the property have voiced skepticism of the lodge proposal. They include Waterford First Selectman Daniel Steward, who has said he sees selling the property to a private developer as the ideal option for Waterford.
Developer Mark Steiner was contracted with the state to develop the property for almost 15 years. He requested the town make zoning changes three times, the last one rejected at a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting in 2014 shortly before Malloy announced it would terminate its contract with him and instead make Seaside a state park.
But Whalen said much of the feedback it collected over a monthslong public comment period was favorable toward the lodge plan.
"I really feel comfortable based on all the analysis that we've done, and all the public comment, that there's a fairly clear ... preference to finding an adaptive re-use for these buildings," she said.
If the Office of Policy Management deems the DEEP decision appropriate, Whalen said, the department next will seek proposals from prospective developers or hotel operators.
The decision leaves the plan open to change, stipulating that if developers do not think a 63-room hotel is economically viable, DEEP would accept proposals for up to 100 rooms.
The decision also stipulates that "if none of the lodging alternatives is deemed viable, then DEEP will implement either the Passive Park or Ecological Park concept."
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