The demolition of historical buildings in Stonington continues

It's hard to understand how a town like Stonington, which derives so much acclaim for its rich history and its inventory of significant historical buildings, could be so officially oblivious to the destruction of that limited resource.

After all, it is history, and I suppose also aquarium fish and penguins, that drive the Stonington tourism economy.

It's why people visit, shop, eat and stay here.

And yet the town has no laws providing even a delay in the demolition of historical buildings. Even New London, not otherwise known for careful stewardship of its historic downtown, managed recently to mount a public campaign and whistle in the attorney general to stop the demolition of two important buildings on Bank Street.

Official Stonington, on the other hand, barely takes notice at the loss of its historic fabric.

Indeed, the committee planning Boathouse Park on the Mystic River, under the chairmanship of First Selectman Rob Simmons, voted for a plan to tear down two buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, an assault on the town's historic character that, so far, is being blocked by the State Historic Preservation Office.

Last year, a town building official signed a demolition permit for two downtown buildings, one a contributing structure to the historic register district there, at the same time he summarily ended the town's policy of providing a waiting period for demolitions.

The demolition of those two buildings, and another around the corner from them, tore out a chunk of historical downtown Mystic, destroying a 19th century streetscape. The developer is planning to replace the buildings with a parking lot.

Then this week, the town lost to the wrecking ball another big piece of its architectural history: the original 19th century building at the heart of the Pawcatuck mill district on Mechanic Street, the historical soul of that part of town.

Town officials told The Day, when asked this week about the demolition, that no one knew why the mill building was being torn down. A spokesperson for the owner, Phoenix Investors of Milwaukee, Wis., which bought the mill complex in 2018 for $5.3 million, said they were cleaning up the property.

Wouldn't you think the town would be working closely enough with the owner of such a crucial commercial/industrial site that they would have a few answers about why the most historically significant part of the complex is being torn down? Evidently, not in Stonington.

Even the town's economic development commission, back in 2017, knew this important resource might be at risk and invited the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation to help.

The trust hired an architect and developed plans, with the wooden mill building that was destroyed this week at the center of a revised industrial and commercial complex.

"The wooden structure should be designed as the focal point of the property, setting the standard for the historic character of the site and area — a billboard for portraying the image of quality and improvement," the trust architects wrote in their proposal.

Indeed, the historic register nomination for the Mechanic Street Historic District notes the central role the now-demolished wooden mill building played in what has remained a remarkably well-preserved neighborhood, encompassing much of residential Pawcatuck.

"The (district) is significant as an exceptionally cohesive, well-preserved industrial/residential neighborhood composed of small-scale factories and workers' housing .... Due to the limited amount of modern intrusion, the historic, geographic and economic interrelationship between the mills and housing has been preserved," the nomination said.

I realize the town couldn't easily stop the demolition if the owners were determined to do it. But an automatic delay of demolitions, like the one used in New London to protect Bank Street, would at least allow a cooling-off period and time for some conversations to try to get the owners to change their plans.

A delay also would give interested parties time to mobilize a defense. The attorney general could be asked to intervene in court to save a property on the national register, as he did successfully in New London.

But the Stonington demolitions won't stop as long as Town Hall keeps shrugging them off.

I asked Stonington Director of Planning Jason Vincent, after the abrupt demolitions in downtown Mystic, why the town hasn't developed a demolition delay ordinance, like the one New London used so successfully recently.

He said it's not a priority, that his department is too busy.

Funny, the department did find the time and resources not long ago to develop new zoning regulations to allow the commercialization of farms, like the one owned by the first selectman's family.

It seems to me Stonington could spend less resources accommodating developers and more time protecting its historical resources, especially those of Mystic and Pawcatuck, outside the hallowed and much-protected Stonington Borough.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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