What is Bank Street supposed to look like?

Bill Cornish, owner of many an old downtown New London building, was just doing what he does when he purchased 116 and 130 Bank Street. Cornish's business model has been to buy and minimally rehab old buildings for use as rental space.

This time, however, he has run into an armada of preservationists. The city can thank both sides for raising the issue of what Bank Street is supposed to look like.

It's not enough to let the street be its gritty, colorful self and assume that developers will get the idea and play along. With economic development heating up, New London needs to renew and promote its vision for the downtown, starting with Bank Street.

Fortunately, the city is heading that way in the new draft Plan of Conservation and Development, which devotes a section to the need to "Capitalize on Historic Assets." The plan is supposed to be ready for adoption this fall.

That will be none too soon. Prospects are improving. Developers are lining up in anticipation of increased tourism, more local business from newly hired Electric Boat employees and eventually, they're betting, the opening of the National Coast Guard Museum. The new and popular Thames River Heritage Park — linking New London and Groton — and the 2017 summer festivals at Waterfont Park will be putting thousands more feet on the sidewalks in a few weeks.

Bank Street has looked so familiar for so long that locals may not expect that it could change radically. Yet it has done so many times: when Benedict Arnold burned New London, when the railroad cut off access to the shoreline, and when traffic became one way, out of town.

Downtown New London already has historic district status on the National Register of Historic Places, which puts it under the purview of the city's Historic District Commission & Design Review Board. The commission has existed in one form or another since 1981, born of the Starr Street preservation project. Its mission is to regulate exterior work within historic districts, advise the Planning & Zoning Commission about facade changes and, as it did for 116 and 130 Bank Street, hear applications to delay demolition.

Preservation in New London also has well-established private advocates and even a ready list of suggestions. Still on the shelves is a 2010 proposal "Choices for New London: Neighborhood Planning Strategy." Prepared by the Cecil Group, Inc. of Boston, it was shepherded by New London Landmarks and the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, both of which are leading the effort to block demolition of 116 and 130 Bank Street.

A spokesman for the trust, which funded the $45,000 study in 2010, said funding is still easiest to get when a project involves multiple buildings, a street or a neighborhood. Together with Landmarks the trust has offered Cornish help in designing a mixed-use renovation of his buildings.

So far he has declined the help. 

Other developers have seen the wisdom of showing the Design Review Board and planning officials what their ideas would look like. That makes it possible to weigh whether demolition could be better than restoration in some cases, and that's how proposals get fair treatment. Cornish said he sees no need to show a plan of his own. He has an idea in his head for an apartment building and that should suffice, he told the editorial board.

The recent Historic District Commission granting of 180-day moratoriums to 116 and 130 Bank Street have given preservationists time to build a case for a hearing before the state's Historic Preservation Council this summer. They claim more than a thousand signatures.

With such public interest and with that word "historic" cropping up all over among the parties to this process, it appears the odds may favor preserving the building owned by a baker who sold bread to the Continental Army and the former home built during the city's whaling era.

That's the way the odds are supposed to tilt under New London's preservation procedures. Bill  Cornish's plaint at the second demolition hearing, "They're my buildings. This is still America, isn't it?" pretends he hasn't had decades of downtown ownership to know how the historic district works. He has a track record of letting aging buildings just get older and he won't share design plans. Has anyone given him reason to expect special treatment?

The surge in interest in downtown real estate is good news for for Bill Cornish, who can probably sell his historic buildings at a profit if he doesn't want to play by the rules. For the city, a seller's market means the economic and historic stakes are evern higher. Put the vision in writing.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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