State steps in to block Bank Street demolitions

New London — The state has come to the aid of local preservationists and obtained a temporary order that blocks the demolition of two Bank Street buildings owned by business owner William Cornish.

The state Department of Economic and Community Development, represented by the state Attorney General’s Office, obtained a restraining order Wednesday from a New London Superior Court judge. The order comes as a 180-day delay on the demolition request for 130 Bank St. was set to expire.

A court hearing for a request for a temporary injunction against Cornish is scheduled for Sept. 25 in New London Superior Court. For the time being, Cornish was ordered not to “demolish or destroy or dismantle” the buildings at 116 and 130 Bank St.

The DECD will argue the buildings should be classified as protected natural resources under the state’s Environmental Protection Act. Cornish will contend that one building is beyond repair and the other standing in the way of progress.

State intervention comes on the heels of a community-wide campaign by New London Landmarks, which has argued that the losses would permanently alter the character of a downtown historic district that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“This is what we were hoping for. We’re very grateful to the state for taking this up,” New London Landmarks Executive Director Laura Natusch said.

“We’re hoping a judge will recognize these buildings are important resources for downtown New London and are repairable. It would be a shame for demolition to go forward before we have explored every alternative,” she said.

New London Landmarks had taken its case, which included a petition drive, to the state Historic Preservation Council, a volunteer committee within the state DECD. The committee in July recommended the buildings be saved and asked the attorney general’s office to intervene.

Cornish is outraged by what he sees as a campaign aimed at him personally and a hindrance to the overall progress in the downtown area.

“I think it’s un-American. My thought is it’s my own property and I should be able to do whatever I want with it,” Cornish said. “There’s a double standard here. Most of these do-gooders, historians or whatever they call themselves ... most of these people have not even been in to see the condition of this place.”

Cornish applied for the first of two demolition permits on March 6, hoping to take the buildings down and replace them with one larger structure that he said would not only fit in the character of the downtown but also allow him room for enough apartments to make his investment profitable.

He says 130 Bank St., vacant for years, is "just a shell” and simply beyond repair. The adjoining 116 Bank St. building, the former home to an adult video and bookstore that now houses a tattoo shop, would be razed to make way for the larger structure.

“There is no compromise. They want those buildings to stand. I’m saying they are in a condition where they should not stand,” Cornish said.

The city’s Historic District and Design Review Board voted to impose a 180-day delay on the demolitions. The delay is designed to allow Cornish time to consider alternatives. Preservationists have urged a thoughtful and historic rehabilitation of the buildings and offered tips on how to obtain historic renovation tax credits.

The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation worked with Crosskey Architects to design an alternative design to Cornish’s: six apartments upstairs, ground-level retail space and a third building on vacant land between the two structures. Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation historian Brad Shide, in a letter to the Connecticut Historic Preservation Office, said the $1.8 million project would cost Cornish just $120,000 if he obtained a mix of federal and state historic tax credits, a private lender and a grant through the state’s Competitive Housing Assistance for Multifamily Properties, or CHAMP, program.

Cornish’s own preliminary plan would create as many as 17 apartments.

g.smith@theday.com

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