Michael Passero: The empty buildings mayor

In all my many years around New London — that's a lot, because I'm old — I can't remember a time when the downtown looked as grim as it does now.

This pains me to say, because I far prefer to be a voice of optimism.

I have always tried to hose down the pessimists when they complain about downtown New London, suggesting instead that the renaissance everyone has long dreamed of is indeed right around the corner.

And why not, with everything the downtown has going for it, from resources like trains, ferries, shipping, magnificent historic buildings and an impressive core of loyal enthusiasts, some of them businesspeople who have slogged hopefully through the darkest years.

And yet, it seems to me, the pendulum has finally swung too far in the wrong direction.

The bad — from empty storefronts, boarded windows, tattered signs from long-closed businesses, litter — now overwhelms the good. Attractive and well-tended buildings are the exception rather than the rule.

There are even piles of litter, embedded in last fall's unraked leaves, around City Hall.

The litter all over downtown is especially shameful. Last week I watched an employee of a Eugene O'Neill Drive bar blow all the trash from a sidewalk seating area, cigarette packs and butts, right into the street, not bothering to pick any of it up.

The new dark hole downtown is its principal intersection, at Bank and State streets, where the last business there to survive, a Subway sandwich shop, has gone dark, a handwritten sign on the door saying it is closed for maintenance, though no maintenance seems to be going on.

Interior demolition on one lower Bank Street building, started and stopped, the detritus of the project still littering the sidewalk, the staging still up, windows uncovered and open to the weather. It's a mess, another open wound on the street.

I blame Mayor Michael Passero for the sad state of downtown, which has most certainly declined during his two years in office. It's his job. He wanted it.

The mayor's failures range from minor to major.

In the category of major, I would include the lack of new development prospects. There is lots of real estate speculation, but few improvements.

When the mayor took office, the state legislature already had funded a $31 million project for a new arts high school downtown, a transformative project. Let me repeat: Funding was actually in place.

The mayor seemed nowhere in sight when the deal rattled apart. If ever there was a siren call in New London for leadership, someone to bring the various sides back to the table, that was it, and the mayor flunked.

The state funding for this exciting urban renewal project, combining a new school with performing arts space, was a retirement gift, a plum for an influential legislator, the region's last, and it was squandered.

The mayor's development strategy has been to fund with city money the Renaissance City Development Association, which hasn't successfully helped develop a single new building in all of its years and under all of its different names. Why should we expect success now, with the mayor giving the group money and a bigger assignment? I haven't seen a lick of attention to development outside the agency's core neighborhood, despite the mayor's funding promises.

This is, after all, the agency, with some of the same players involved, that presides over a neighborhood it emptied by eminent domain. It's not like the mayor could say, "Let's invest more city money in that success story."

All this has come to bear on the little failures you can see all over downtown.

Even if you can't lure promising new development or help building owners find storefront tenants, there are lots of things you can do, with sticks and carrots, to try to at least improve the image of downtown.

How is that, for months, a big building next to City Hall has been allowed to cordon off with yellow tape its crumbling and deteriorating stairway with rusted handrails, a glaring building code violation? The mayor and his department heads walk by it every day.

The city now has a blight officer but one of the first major cases the city chose to prosecute was not a downtown offender but rather a guy on a quiet dead-end residential street that has been tending a big batch of bamboo in his yard for decades.

This ridiculous prosecution is so absurd that a story about it landed on the front page of the New York Times, with quotes from experts saying how extraordinary it is to seek criminal penalties in such a situation.

It was just another embarrassment to put New London on the national radar in a negative way.

Even if the mayor is not insisting on strict building code and blight enforcement downtown, how about some persuasive visits with property owners?

I'll bet, for instance, if the mayor paid a call on the Frontier phone company offices on State Street, he could convince them to sweep up the trash on their sidewalk, take down the sun-faded advertising posters in the windows and fix the broken, graffiti-marked flagpole, which hasn't been used to fly a flag in a long time.

The city's response to the last snowstorm was abysmal downtown, where the ends of sidewalks leading into major intersections remained uncleared. Not only are there few pedestrians downtown, but the city is not making it any easier for the ones who remain.

The closing of the high-rises on Crystal Avenue is shaping up to be the mayor's principal achievement from his first two years, a laudable one at that.

It is worrisome, though, that his legacy is shaping up to be about empty buildings and people leaving the city.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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