Historic preservation plan advances in New London

In the world of historic preservation, I have long thought of New London as a reckless parent, driving around town with an unbelted toddler wandering in the back seat, a disaster waiting to happen.

Even in its darkest days, when street prostitution was an economic engine and a lot of State Street was a largely empty pedestrian mall, New London always has retained the bones of the wealthy seaport it once was.

Despite the destruction of urban renewal, much of the downtown's fine architectural bones remain. Maybe that's because the reckless parent never got up on the highway or over the speed limit, and the toddler didn't fall.

These days, as the city starts to accelerate with new development, the danger in the back seat grows, and sooner or later some horrible renovation or remaking of the historic streetscape will take a big bite out of the charming character of a downtown that is probably the city's greatest asset.

I am glad to report that help seems to be on the way. It could be our toddler will be belted in soon, and some preservation safeguards may be put in place.

Talks are underway for a city ordinance that would give the existing Historic District Commission more authority to review renovations to significant buildings in the downtown historic district, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

I should say up front that New London already has a much better track record as of late with preservation than a much wealthier community, Stonington, just one town away. Stonington has no demolition delay ordinance, no organization dedicated to preservation like New London Landmarks, and a first selectman who seems happy to fast-track demolitions of historical buildings.

I must compliment Mayor Michael Passero of New London, on the other hand, for participating in talks to create a regulatory framework in his city to ensure the most significant buildings are protected.

The planning for a preservation ordinance was revealed recently by Laura Natusch, executive director of Landmarks, during an Editorial Board meeting at The Day.

A demolition ordinance, made possible by state statute, would be similar to ones created in Hartford, New Britain and Milford. A new state law in 2013 enabled municipalities to create the preservation ordinances.

The talks organized by Landmarks have included the mayor and a representative of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, which has developed model preservation ordinances for municipalities to consider.

The system would replicate some aspects of a historic district like the one that has long been in place on the Groton side of Mystic.

In New London, the boundary of the area included might be the same as the downtown district on the national register. Specific details of how the ordinance might work still are being discussed, but similar ones have called for the preservation commission to review applications for renovations to buildings for historic appropriateness. The commission could enforce established design standards.

Some city building owners might balk at the notion of another level of compliance in the building permit process.

But, as with all zoning and building code law, the intent is to create a building environment that ensures that renovations to your property are not going to detract from a neighbor's.

The result should make the downtown a safer environment in which to invest, with assurances that the existing streetscapes, which make the neighborhood appealing in the first place, will be broadly preserved.

After all, some of the most expensive real estate in New England, from Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard to historic neighborhoods in cities like Cambridge, Mass., and the East Side of Providence, are in places that carefully curate and protect the historic fabric.

I can't think of anything as simple as enacting preservation standards that would instantly make New London a more stable and promising place in which to invest, a place with its architectural charms and history forever protected, the toddler belted in.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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