New London's SoBa: South on Bank

The blighted building at 130 Bank St. owned by Renaissance City Development Association Board Member William Cornish, as it appeared Oct. 22. (David Collins/The Day)
The blighted building at 130 Bank St. owned by Renaissance City Development Association Board Member William Cornish, as it appeared Oct. 22. (David Collins/The Day)

The bad news on the southern end of downtown New London's Bank Street is that the blighted building owned by Renaissance City Development Association Board Member William Cornish has been continuing to deteriorate since it was saved from demolition by state Attorney General George Jepsen, acting for petitioning citizens.

The blight of Cornish's 130 Bank St., protected from city enforcement by edict of Mayor Michael "no stick" Passero, grows worse by the week, with many windows boarded and some missing, leaving the building open in places to the weather. One window is partially boarded with a faded campaign sign from Cornish's candidate years in city politics, evidently a tenure that still endears him to the city's political elite.

The good news in the neighborhood is that other building owners are improving their property and attracting interesting new businesses. Indeed, I would suggest the preponderance of appealing old and new businesses and other attractions constitute what other cities might promote as a genuine district.

Dare I suggest there is a lot going on in SoBa, for South on Bank?

OK, it's not SoHo or Dumbo or NoHo. But this isn't New York City. And I would propose that SoBa, in perspective, is as hip, interesting and of similar merit, in scale, as much larger destination neighborhoods in bigger cities.

First, there is tradition, starting with a quality museum, the Custom House Maritime Museum, housed in a magnificent 1833 granite landmark on Bank Street. An engaging maritime art gallery, the Gallery at Firehouse Square, occupies an historic fire station.

Some other long-established businesses, Studio 33 Art & Frame Gallery and Waterhouse Salon, occupy some of the most stately architecture on the block.  Some restaurants and bars in the neighborhood have established clientele.

New businesses have pushed the freshness of the offerings.

There is Hot on Bank, a yoga studio that is literally very hot, a steaming environment for exercise. And then there's Fresh Men Spa Lounge, an intriguing spa for men, with pedicures, manicures and massage in a cool new space that features a lot of cushy and comfortable black leather.

Also new on the same block is the Credabel Coral Gallery. How many hip little cities do you know with coral galleries?

The latest food establishment in SoBa is a transplant from State Street. The Right Path Organic Café occupies a much larger space on Bank, with plenty of table and counter seating. The industrial décor, with exposed brick and pipe rails, is well suited for its health-oriented menu featuring healthy juices, veggie bowls and specialty drinks.

One godfather of SoBa is developer Yehuda Amar, who first began work on two buildings that house several of the new businesses back in 2015. In addition to the welcome commerce in the storefronts, Amar has added new residents to the neighborhood with the renovation of the many upstairs apartments.

Amar, who has been working in the city through the administrations of two mayors, remains the agent of the most dynamic change on Bank Street, with another building on northern Bank nearing completion and a big one on central Bank on the rehabilitation drawing boards.

He talks big and follows through.

There is more promise on the northern end of Bank, as well as some fine, established businesses. But more Cornish blight and some endless demolition work and semi-permanent sidewalk scaffolding, with no actual building work in sight, also seems to have escaped any enforcement action by "no stick" Passero.

The success of SoBa, where most of the empty storefronts seem to be brought to us by a leader of the city's redevelopment agency, is a sign of the great potential that awaits the rest of downtown New London.

If you haven't already checked out the changes, plan a visit to browse, eat, shop, relax or maybe even sweat through some new yoga poses.

This is the opinion of David Collins

d.collins@theday.com

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