New London spurns its downtown angel

I should say up front, once again, that New London is dead wrong to abandon its own buildings for rented City Hall space.

When Mayor Michael Passero was asked recently how many other Connecticut municipalities have done the same thing, he said they are going to look into that.

I thought you were supposed to do research before making a decision of great consequence, but I guess not in New London.

I also am puzzled why the city is negotiating to move city offices out of downtown, dealing with a developer that is chronically late paying taxes and has sued the city over the amount of taxes due on the Shaw's Cove building it wants to rent for City Hall offices.

The same developer, Julian Enterprises, which is locked in a battle with the town of Fairfield over the way it ran a landfill there, is also the subject of a police investigation into the dumping of toxic waste there.

Executives of Encon Heating & AC, a major state HVAC contractor which is foreclosing on a $198,000 mechanic's lien on the very same Julian building the City Council has agreed to negotiate a lease for, told me this week that all the custom HVAC units designed for the complex are in storage and not installed, because Julian hasn't paid them.

If I could find my way to accept the notion that the city would be better off abandoning buildings it already owns, to sign up for paying some $20 million in rent over the next couple of decades, I would suggest that it at least be downtown, where city officials should be alarmed at how much viable commercial office space remains empty.

And I would reissue the request for proposals, since one of the major downtown landlords, who controls some 118,00 square feet of office space in two historical State Street buildings, lives in New York City and didn't read about the city's search for new offices until it was too late.

To his great credit, George Waterman, who owns Harris Place and the Manwaring Building, to the east and west of City Hall on State Street, says he would like to have the city consider his buildings, but he is most alarmed at the prospect of city workers being moved from downtown.

"What on earth are they doing going out of downtown?" Waterman said. "It doesn't have to be my building, but it should be here."

He cited the now empty Citizens Bank building on Eugene O'Neill Drive and the remodeled second and third floors of the U.S. Post Office as other good choices.

Still, Waterman would like to rent to the city, and he gave me a tour of his two large buildings, which he has remodeled substantially since buying them in the 1980s, spending, he says, $10 million in all. The 1918 Manwaring Building is essentially a modern office complex.

Waterman, who studied art history at Harvard, is an art collector who has served on boards for Harvard, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Whitney Museum of American Art and The Museum of Modern Art. His vast collection of art books, some 80,000 pieces, is housed in parts of the New London buildings.

Waterman is not only one of the major building owners downtown, but he probably has invested as much money here as — or maybe even more than — anyone else in the last few decades, taking on the hard work of transforming these money-hungry architectural landmarks.

He fell in love with New London's majestic downtown some 35 years ago, on his way to and from a home on Fishers Island, and put his money where his heart is. And he is still at it, working on plans to build some 16 apartments into Harris Place.

Waterman has bucked the tide of downtown abandonment all these years and kept the lights on, a downtown angel.

Now even the city is planning to pick up stakes and leave.

There is no reason why the city could not issue a new request for proposals — make it just for downtown — and mail it to every taxpaying commercial building within walking distance of City Hall.

They could also do the repairs needed for the buildings they own, pocket $15 million and keep city workers and the heart of government where it belongs, in the historic downtown.

Or they can keep negotiating with a litigious developer who was sued by another Connecticut municipality for $3 million and is the subject of a police investigation.

The same developer has donated generously to the mayor's re-election campaign.

This is New London, teetering again between unseemliness and incompetence.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com 

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