Can Stonington remove National Register buildings for Boathouse Park?

Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons has been floating an idea for removing the two buildings on the National Register of Historic Places that stand on the site of the planned Boathouse Park, suggesting they be sold for $1 to someone who would take them away.

This strikes me as a grossly naïve proposed solution to an issue the town has apparently been stubbornly ignoring as it fine tunes a plan for a new boathouse building at the park that would replace the historical buildings, a prospect the state could certainly veto.

Indeed, the buildings at 123a and 123b Greenmanville Ave., the site of the proposed park, are contributing structures in the Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District, approved in 2007 by the U.S. Department of the Interior. One, built in the late 19th century, was the mill blacksmith shop.

That gives them legal protection under the Connecticut Environmental Policy Act, and because state money is being used on the project, a review by the State Historic Preservation Office must take place to determine whether it is possible to reuse the buildings instead of demolishing them or whether some limited alterations could prevent demolition.

Once the historic preservation office completes its review, the case goes to the state Office of Policy and Management for a final decision on whether and in what form the project can proceed.

A conversation I started with Simmons on the topic Tuesday didn't get far.

When I suggested that relocating the buildings somewhere else would not respect their status as contributing to the mill district, the first selectman told me that when he and his wife, Heidi, lived in China they saw the Chinese move historic buildings all the time. Why can't we do it here, he suggested.

When I said that Connecticut law protects historical buildings as environmental resources, he cut me off and said: "That's my comment. Print it."

So there you have it, it's what they do in China.

Todd Levine, architectural historian with the state preservation office, after I asked last week about the Rossie Mill district buildings, said he reached out to remind Stonington officials they still need to file the paperwork to begin the historical review of them.

He said they were first notified in August 2017 that they needed to file paperwork to begin the review.

I couldn't get Levine to offer much in the way of predictions about the eventual fate of the buildings, but I did get a sense that plans to move them are not going to be easily approved.

"The goal would be to find a way to meet the needs of the community while saving these historic buildings," he said. "They are contributing resources to the district, and to remove them would be an adverse effect, whether you save the buildings or not."

That would seem to be a no to the China plan.

I am puzzled that things have come this far, with the public assembled at hearings to comment on a modern new building, already disliked by many, when no new building might even be possible.

How much has already been spent on designs for the site and the new building, money that may have been squandered?

Another looming problem with the park plans is that the site is polluted with coal ash from the mill. No one knows at this point how extensive the pollution is or what a cleanup will entail, according to a spokesperson for the state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection.

The town has so far drawn down $40,000 from $200,000 in grant funds from the Department of Economic and Community Development for an environmental assessment of the site. Presumably, more grant money could be sought for a cleanup, however much that might cost.

Using the existing buildings seems immensely practical.

If fact, Stonington High School rowers are already using the old blacksmith building to store rowing shells. It seems like a perfect reuse of the industrial building, which, with some restoration, could be a handsome showpiece at a gateway into town.

Surely architects could find a way to reuse the residential building on the property for the community events envisioned as park uses. There is a broad tradition of this, and to see a good example of it you need to look no further than the successful transformation of Coogan Farm, just a short distance away on Greenmanville Avenue.

I couldn't reach the architects for the controversial modern boathouse building, Anmahian Winton Architects of Cambridge, Mass.

Chad Frost of Kent + Frost Landscape Architecture of Mystic, which has done site planning for the boathouse project, told me they didn't try to save the existing buildings because they couldn't accommodate the uses planned.

He offered a version of the China plan for moving them.

"They do not fit the purpose for what is needed there," he said. "We can find a way to selectively remove and celebrate the buildings."

I find it troubling that official Stonington is so blind to the significant historic resources of the town, features that ultimately drive tourism and economic development.

Just last month, the owners of the Whaler's Inn in Mystic demolished part of a residential street on the national register with the help of town officials. A town building official, with the stroke of a pen, eliminated a town policy requiring a waiting period before demolition, on the same day he signed the demolition warrant for the buildings located on a site contemplated for a parking lot.

The Rossie Velvet Mill Historic District highlights a village of Mystic and the town's history, one that celebrates Stonington's significant textile industry, which brought so much prosperity and so many immigrants here from Germany and Italy in the late 19th century, as shipping waned.

Why tear down a significant part of that history to erect a building that a lot of people already don't like?

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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