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New London blight ordinance aimed at vacant buildings

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New London — The city is toughening up its blight ordinance again with a new provision aimed at improving the look of the downtown business district and prodding the owners of nuisance properties to make changes.

“Storefront standards for commercial properties” regulate the look of empty vacant properties and buildings under renovation and allow the city to impose fines of up to $250 a day for violations. The ordinance, one of several measures taken by the city to address blight over the past few years, seeks to rid the downtown of vacant storefronts whose outward appearance consists of things like construction equipment, plywood-covered windows and sloppy window dressings.

Felix Reyes, the director of the Office of Development and Planning, said the perception of downtown has suffered over the years because of a few owners whose buildings are negatively impacting their neighbors. Reyes said he has been meeting with members of the City Center District’s blight committee over the past several months for input on ways to address the issue.

“You can’t just put up construction paper and blue tape and walk away for several months,” Reyes said. “This ordinance establishes a standard we desperately need in the city. With this ordinance, they can no longer get away with doing the bare minimum.”

The new ordinance, approved by the City Council on Monday, mandates that when a vacant storefront can be seen from the street, the owner needs to keep the interior “neat and clean and free of all debris, tools, building materials and/or construction activity.” The ordinance lists materials not permitted in the windows of commercial properties: construction paper, painters' canvas, trash bags, tarps, hand-written signs, real estate signs not hung on any glass or improperly centered and out-of-season displays.

The ordinance details that graphics on storefront windows must be uniform, signs consistent and windows completely blocked with paint.

'A sad situation'

Reyes said the root of the problem has been that some owners have gotten away with “doing just enough” to satisfy existing rules but the properties remain blighted.

One example, he said, is the 130 Bank St. building owned by Bill Cornish. Cornish was blocked by a court order from demolishing the building, which now sits with boarded up windows, with a blue tarp and a "for sale" sign in the front window.

Cornish painted the building after being cited for peeling by the blight officer this summer. Reyes met with Cornish on Friday to explain how the new ordinance might impact his buildings. Reyes said he would continue to work with Cornish and other building owners to explain the new rules for everybody's benefit. Reyes said owners in violation of the new ordinance would have time to correct violations before being fined.

Ric Waterhouse, who runs Waterhouse Salon and owns his 136 Bank St. building, applauded the city's efforts. His building is adjacent to Cornish's and said Cornish has left it exposed to the elements as if he wants the building to deteriorate.

Meanwhile, Waterhouse's own property assessment jumped by 30 percent in the latest revaluation.

“It’s a sad situation when the least you can expect is for someone to put windows in their building. You can’t just put up plywood and leave it there for years on end. I think it’s general common sense things," Waterhouse said.

He said the city's new ordinance "helps protect our investments and the hard work we’ve put in.”

“I think they’re trying and headed in the right direction,” Waterhouse said of city officials.

Cornish said he had not yet read the ordinance but planned to comply with what the city asked.

"If they say the boarded-up windows have to go, I'll take the boards down," Cornish said. "As long as everybody else does the same. There are a lot of boarded-up windows on Bank Street." 

Reyes said he and the blight officer have made multiple attempts to ask business owners to clean up their properties, with mixed results.

In December, the council passed an amendment to the property maintenance code that addresses boarded-up windows and doors on vacant structures. It mandates that all coverings must be painted to match the buildings and can remain no longer than 180 days.

Previous revisions to the blight ordinance, part of the city's property maintenance code, allow the city to take a civil route or send repeat violators to the state for criminal citations and possible fines of up to $250 a day.

Cleaning up the city

Barry Neistat, the co-owner of Muddy Waters at 42 Bank St., said he was encouraged by the new ordinance, considering that from his storefront he has a view of a stretch of Bank Street buildings, including the former Capitol Theater, with missing windows and plywood on display.

“I’m a property owner and we do whatever we have to keep our buildings in shape,” Neistat said. “It’s not fair to them to be maintaining theirs while their neighbors do not. Why should we suffer?”

Frank McLaughlin, a downtown building owner and member of the City Center District's blight committee, said the district has worked with the blight officer and submitted areas of concern for investigation.

“It’s still not perfect but we’re pleased with the progress the city is making. We feel they are a partner in getting the downtown cleaned up," McLaughlin said.

Most councilors appeared optimistic that the new ordinance could have some impact. Councilor Martin Olsen said the ordinance looked to be “an attempt to change a longstanding culture in our community. I applaud you.” Council President Don Venditto said the ordinance addresses what he called the cheapening of downtown.

Council member John Satti, who voted against the measure, voiced concern that the new rules could be an obstacle for some. He also said the city needs to manage its own properties, such as the boarded-up former Thames River Apartments on Crystal Avenue.

“I think we’re driving businesses out of town,” Satti said.

Reyes said, "The city needs to be an example and is currently working on cleaning up its own blight and property maintenance violations."


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