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Bill would circumvent preservationist ‘Goliaths’

A recently proposed bill to the General Assembly has the state’s preservation community up in arms, claiming that the measure will devastate protections for historic buildings. In doing so, the preservationists are painting themselves as the underdog, the David to the Goliath of insensitive developers and municipal officials bent on sacrificing historic buildings at the altar of economic development.

Here in Windham, however, the opposite is true. The preservationists are the Philistines.

The preservationist lobby is formidable. Their numbers rival those that faced the Israelites in the Valley of Elah. One only need see the testimony submitted to the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee to observe the armies of statewide support that can be mustered when the group feels it is under attack.

The stone and sling in this scenario arrive in the form of SB-1107, which was passed by the committee last week and heads to the full General Assembly. The bill proposes a narrow exception from what has become an extremely subjective and myopic historic preservation process.

Of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities, 25 are designated as “distressed,” including New London. Sixteen of these also have certified Opportunity Zones within them, again including New London.

As a pilot measure, SB-1107 only exempts developments in four of these municipalities with populations of 30,000 or less where a historic district overlaps the other two (an Opportunity Zone in a distressed community); and where a building has been chronically undevelopable for a decade or more. The bill is germane to situations in Windham, but its effect would provide relief to other communities struggling with downtown redevelopment, including New London.

The key here is the Opportunity Zones. Governor Lamont has touted the new zones as a way to unleash private capital into Connecticut’s distressed municipalities. However, anyone familiar with the state’s historic preservation process knows that it is excruciatingly time consuming, exorbitantly costly and requires large commitments of taxpayer resources. It is anathema to the private-investment dynamic associated with Opportunity Zones.

In Windham’s case, a developer seeks to use private funds to raze two arguably “historic,” yet badly deteriorated buildings on Main Street and create a 145-unit market rate housing development with ground floor retail. This would be an absolute game-changer for the downtown's economic future.

The Town Council, local businesses, downtown property owners and community-at-large overwhelmingly favor the project. The preservation community, led by its Goliaths — the Connecticut State Historic Preservation Office and the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation — oppose the plan. It is the inability of such agencies to recognize the unique nature of Opportunity Zone investment that led to the proposed exemption.

The two structures in question are the Hale and Hooker buildings. The State University System abandoned the use of Hale, first as a dormitory in the late 1970s and completely by the late 1990s, citing the deteriorated condition of the building and the unreasonable cost of bringing it up to code.

Hooker was the focus of a now infamous 60 Minutes segment on heroin use in town. The building was Ground Zero for prostitution, drugs and other illicit activity. This is the history the residents of Windham and Willimantic see when looking at the building. The days of Hooker being a luxury hotel are a distant past. All that remains is a monument to Heroin Town.

It is important to note that the Willimantic Historic District, established in 1982 with 45 buildings identified as contributing, still has 44 structures in place and the town has supported several historic preservation projects over the years. The demolition of these two dilapidated structures will guarantee the preservation and enhancement of the remaining 42 long into the future.

SB-1107 does not imply that Opportunity Zones and historic preservation can never work in tandem. But as communities like Windham try to write the next chapter in their history rather than hold on to a past that no longer exists, it is critical the historic preservation process be flexible enough to accommodate necessary exceptions within the new Opportunity Zones.

Jim Bellano is the Economic Development director for the Town of Windham.




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