They demolished historical Mystic buildings to put up a parking lot

Folk singer Joni Mitchell could have been predicting the current ruination of a Mystic neighborhood in her 1970 song "Big Yellow Taxi," as she lamented: "They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot / With a pink hotel, a boutique / And a swinging hot spot."

Actually, the hotel, the Whaler's Inn, has been a fixture in downtown Mystic for a long time.

But the new owners, the Heidenreich family of Fairfield County, after tearing down a couple of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, adjacent to the hotel, are now planning to pave the way for a parking lot and a swinging hot spot in their place.

The developers tore down not only the landmark John's Café, a simple and charming part of quirky old Mystic, but also two nearby buildings on Haley Street, a residential neighborhood of mostly 19th century buildings and sea captains' houses.

Plans for the cleared sites have now been presented to the town and had a preliminary airing this week before the town Architectural Design Review Board, which is just that — a reviewing body that can make suggestions but cannot demand changes, unlike the powerful Historic District Commission across the river in Groton, which can stop the kind of neighborhood historicide underway on the Stonington side of Mystic.

The Whaler's Inn plans include a three-story restaurant building where John's once stood. The ungainly new building is shown with outdoor decks on both the second and third floors, no doubt a swinging hot spot in the making. After all, Mystic lacks bars, right?

For the empty space created by the demolition of two houses on nearby Haley Street, the developer is planning to put up a parking lot, which would become a part of the larger hotel restaurant property.

The innocent residents and house owners on Haley Street, who have maintained their historic properties with loving care, thinking the town would protect the charm and character of their neighborhood, will instead have to look at a parking lot for a hotel and swinging hot spot, if the town continues to let the developers have their way.

The town seems poised to let them not only tear down properties on the National Register of Historic Places but to replace them with a parking lot, a parking lot not only in a residential neighborhood but created to accommodate an intrusive new commercial enterprise.

Imagine the noise and lights from the swinging hot spot, no longer blocked by residences.

The formal applications have not yet been made, and the ugly fight lies ahead. A lot of important decisions still must be made by the citizens of the Planning & Zoning Commission.

But I fear for the residents who have to go up against not only a developer who seems to have deep pockets but a town planning department that leans in toward developers and seems to have no respect for neighborhoods with historic character.

How did it even get this far?

The town, incredibly, has no ordinance to create even a delay of the demolition of buildings.

In the case of the Haley Street demolitions, neighbors were counting on a 90-day warning period enshrined in years of town policy. To their chagrin, Building Official Lawrence Stannard changed the building demolition procedures, eliminating the 90-day waiting period, on the very same day he signed the demolition permits for the Haley Street houses. There was not a peep of public notice before the rule changed.

You couldn't make up that kind of developer accommodation. Welcome to Stonington.

If you live on Haley Street and you don't want to look at the back end of a swinging hot spot and its parking lot, you now need to rely on a particular interpretation of zoning rules that still might prevent the further destruction of your neighborhood.

The developer, by putting a parking lot on Haley Street, which is zoned residential, would be combining those Haley Street residential lots with the rest of the hotel/restaurant property, which is in a commercial zone.

Residents then could argue that section 2.2 of zoning laws, in regards to a lot divided by different zoning districts, would not allow an accessory parking lot in the residential part of the zone if it was to be used for businesses in the commercial part of the zone.

"Only uses allowed in the respective zones shall be permitted in those respective portions of the lot," the town zoning rule says.

Stay tuned, as permit requests are filed and the matter rolls toward the Planning & Zoning Commission for decisions. It is too late to stop the demolition, but not the drop of the second shoe.

Maybe some gracious lawyer will step in and help the residents, since town officials don't seem to be on their side.

I think of this dispute as a mere warm-up for the battle that could unfold over the enormous development being planned for just a few blocks away from Haley Street, a proposed project that could change the Stonington side of downtown Mystic forever.

At least there is a Joni Mitchell soundtrack for the fight, from "Big Yellow Taxi": "Don't it always seem to go / That you don't know what you've got / Till it's gone."

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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