Local groups join in case against Bank Street demolitions

The building at 130 Bank St., at left, is one of two historical buildings in downtown New London that property owner Bill Cornish is seeking to demolish. (David Collins/The Day)
The building at 130 Bank St., at left, is one of two historical buildings in downtown New London that property owner Bill Cornish is seeking to demolish. (David Collins/The Day)

New London — Three New London historical organizations have joined with a national group to help bolster the state’s case for an injunction against the proposed demolition of two historic Bank Street buildings.

New London Landmarks, New London Main Street, New London Maritime Society and the National Trust for Historic Preservation were collectively granted the opportunity to present an argument before Judge Joseph Koletsky, who is presiding over an ongoing court case targeting building owner Bill Cornish. The state is seeking to block Cornish’s proposed demolition of his buildings at 116 and 130 Bank St.

The groups, represented by attorney Matthew Berger, filed an application for a so-called amicus brief, which allows participation in the case by way of an oral argument or post-trial brief. Berger said the goal is to provide the court with relevant information outside what is being addressed in the hearing, which already has spanned three days and is scheduled to continue at the end of March in New London Superior Court.

The case against Cornish was brought by the state Department of Economic and Community Development, later joined by the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation. Cornish had applied for demolition permits from the city last year but initially was delayed by the city and later halted by the state’s action.

Cornish has pitched the idea of razing the buildings, located on adjoining downtown properties, to make way for a larger structure similar in looks to another he owns on State Street. He argues that the long vacant 130 Bank St. building is beyond restoration and structurally unsound, except for perhaps the foundation. The 116 Bank St. building is the former site of an adult video and magazine shop that since has been renovated and now is home to a tattoo parlor. Cornish has listed them for sale and has argued that the historical groups are impeding his progress to create much-needed housing downtown.

The state, represented by the attorney general’s office, has argued the two buildings are protected from “unreasonable destruction” under the Connecticut Environmental Protection Act. The buildings are deemed contributing structures to a downtown historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It also argues there are feasible alternatives to the demolition and unsuccessfully has tried to nudge Cornish to accept alternatives to total demolition.

Laura Natusch, the executive director of New London Landmarks, said it was an easy task to enlist the three local organizations in opposition to the proposed demolition, since all three recognize the importance of the character of downtown. The Maritime Society operates the Custom House Maritime Museum at 150 Bank St., which also is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Natusch testified on behalf of the state in court last week.

“If you think of a historic district as a mouth and the historic buildings within that district as its teeth, well, a mouth can't suffer too many extractions before it loses functionality. And when we see a mouth with missing teeth, very few of us say, ‘But the remaining teeth are so beautiful.’ Our eyes go to the gaps, and those gaps diminish the value of everything that remains. That's how it is with historic districts, too,” Natusch said.

“The buildings that line Bank Street are the embodiment of our maritime heritage, and if we lose too many of them, we become the Whaling City in name alone,” she said.

Elizabeth Merritt, deputy general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said that organization has a long-standing interest in the interpretation and enforcement of the state Environmental Protection Act and traditionally weighed in as a “friend of the court” in these cases.

“From a national perspective, Connecticut’s law is a really important and one we watch closely and feel the enforcement is extremely important,” Merritt said.

She said the state’s law was modeled after a federal transportation law regarding the impacts of transportation projects on historic and cultural resources.

Cornish is represented by attorney David Sherwood, the co-author of a book on the Connecticut Environmental Protection Act, who could not be reached for comment.

Cornish said he has listened to alternatives presented to him, as shown by the fact he has listed the properties for sale. He said he also is open to the idea of salvaging portions of the buildings to include in the new building, not because they are historic, he said, “but it’s a waste to throw stuff away.”

He said there has been little interest shown by potential buyers. He suggested that the same historical preservation-minded people trying to block his development should take it upon themselves to raise the money and purchase the buildings.

g.smith@theday.com

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