Norwich City Council votes to demolish Reid & Hughes
Norwich – Tearing down the 1880 Reid & Hughes Building would be short-sighted, uneconomical and a sign of poor government oversight and action, more than a dozen speakers told the City Council Monday during a public hearing on a proposed ordinance to spend $800,000 to demolish the building.
But the support of the 16 speakers failed to sway the council, which voted 5-2 in favor of spending $800,000 to tear down the building, rather than an estimated $300,000 to shore up the building and “buy time” for an interested developer to obtain financing.
After the meeting, city Historian Dale Plummer, also president of the Norwich Heritage Trust, which strongly advocated saving the building, said the group would consider what options might be available to appeal the council's vote.
The Heritage Trust 15 years ago led the effort to save the Wauregan Hotel from demolition through an appeal to the state Office of Historic Preservation. Plummer recalled that at the time, there was only one vote on the then-11-member City Council to save the Wauregan. The demolition plan was overturned, and the Wauregan received a $20 million overhaul.
Aldermen in favor of demolishing the former department store argued that the building has decayed beyond salvation, and the city has tried unsuccessfully several times over the past 23 years to secure a developer. Alderwoman Stacy Gould countered the public sentiment that tearing down the building would leave a gaping hole in the ground. Instead, Gould said, it could be “a blank canvas” for development.
Alderman William Nash, who voted against the ordinance along with council President Pro Tempore Peter Nystrom, expressed skepticism that anything could be built on the small lot that would be created. Nystrom added that spending the $300,000 to shore up the building would be less of a risk to city taxpayers than demolishing the building in the hopes of finding a future tax-paying development for the property.
Betsy Crum, executive director of the Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development, the developer who proposed renovating the decaying building into 20 apartments, said her organization has developed buildings in worse condition than the Reid & Hughes. Crum told the council Monday she already has received interest from the Veterans' Administration to reserve half the apartments for veterans in need of housing.
Historic preservation advocates, downtown business owners and former Mayor Arthur Lathrop all pleaded with the council to give the Reid & Hughes one last chance at redevelopment. Lathrop said the Reid & Hughes, with its ornate facade, is “an integral part of the compact collection” of historic downtown buildings. He also recalled sentiment expressed years ago that the city should replace City Hall with a smaller, concrete building that would be easier to maintain.
“Preserving the Reid & Hughes is smart economically,” said resident Susan Masse, a member of the Norwich Heritage Trust. Masse said the availability of federal and state historic tax credits would be the only way to entice developers to come to downtown. Those credits couldn't be used on new construction.
Architect William Crosskey, who designed the project for the Women's Institute, provided the council with economic estimates saying residents in downtown apartments spend $20,000 to $39,000 per year in the local economy, and a viable building would provide $800,000 per year in “economic benefit” to the city.