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City steps in to beautify Bank Street eyesore

New London — The city has stepped in to take on rehabilitation work at a lingering eyesore on Bank Street, part of its ongoing effort to rid the downtown of blight.

To the casual observer, the vacant building at 130 Bank St. owned by William Cornish looks as if some major renovations have taken place.

Closer inspection reveals corrugated plastic “faux” windows covering plywood and black masking paint coating the inside of the glass storefront windows and door.

The city, using $6,400 in state grant funds, used the building for what it is calling a pilot site they hope will inspire other empty building owners to adhere to the new stricter storefront and plywood-related ordinances.

Enforcement of a new storefront ordinance prohibiting sloppy storefronts was expected to start on May 1, though the city still is in the process of hiring a new blight officer.

A so-called plywood ordinance that requires building owners to install new glass or an “acceptable alternative,” such as the weatherproof faux windows, on openings at vacant structures starts Aug 7. Cornish’s 130 Bank St. building would be in violation of that ordinance, since it requires all opening to be closed off from the elements. The building still has missing windows at the rear, which are open to the elements.

Dozens of notices distributed to business owners about blight violations earlier this year has inspired a flurry of façade review applications to the Planning and Zoning Commission. Façade reviews approved earlier this month by the commission include planned improvements at 123, 86, 9, 11 and 15 Bank St.

Felix Reyes, the director of the city's Office of Development and Planning, said the work on Cornish’s building was evidence of the partnerships the city is attempting to create with business owners in its effort to clean up the downtown.

“Why is Bill being rewarded? He’s not. We didn’t do this for Bill Cornish. We did this for the surrounding businesses — for Bank Street,” Reyes said. “This is the city stepping in and saying we care about the businesses in the downtown and we can’t let this go on for another year.”

Cornish has had the building on the market since last year, when the city and historically minded activists joined the effort to take Cornish to court and successfully blocked his attempts to demolish 130 Bank St. and the adjacent building at 116 Bank St. Both were deemed to be of historical value to the downtown historic district, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Cornish gave permission for the work recent to be done and said he’s been trying to keep up with the new city rules on building appearances, completing work on the facade at 219 Bank St. and planning work on the side of that same building in advance of the plywood ordinance.

Cornish was cited last year for peeling paint at 130 Bank St. and responded by painting the building — to the dismay of the surrounding business owners. The city received several complaints.

“We can’t go after him for a bad paint job,” Reyes said. “Our hands were tied.”

Neighbor Ric Waterhouse, owner of Waterhouse Salon at 136 Bank St., who is often at odds with Cornish over the condition of Cornish’s building, was tempered in his response to the city’s work.

“I do agree it looks better. I don’t think anybody would disagree with that,” Waterhouse said.

In addition to Cornish’s building, the city has painted the exterior of the vacant former Bulkeley House Saloon across the street at 111 Bank St., which also was cited for peeling paint. The city placed a lien on that property for the cost of the painting.

Yehuda Amar, who has either completed or is in the process of completing renovations at several Bank Street buildings, said Cornish’s building “looks nice” and said he appreciated the efforts of the city.

In general, he said, it’s a bit unfair that some developers put in the time and money on their buildings while others simply don’t. Amar is presently tackling major renovations at 123 Bank St., the former New London Antiques Center and at the building housing the former Ernie’s Café, at 53-55 Bank St.

“There should be a little bit of effort,” Amar said. “You don’t have to go crazy. Just make it look nice. People walking downtown don’t want to see buildings falling down.”

Eric Hamburg, who owns and is working to renovate a stretch of buildings along Bank Street, recently gained city approval to convert and join the upper floors of 9 and 11 Bank St. into six residential apartments, with the first floor remaining commercial.

He also was approved for facade renovations for both of those buildings and 15 Bank St., where he intends to remove and replace existing storefronts and install fabric retractable awnings, clean and repoint the masonry and replace windows with wood-clad double-hung windows, according to his application. These and other aspects of the work are being done to match historical photos of the buildings.

Hamburg additionally has secured permits to remove the plywood from windows and the storefront of the Capitol Theater building, though his plans there are unclear. He could not be reached for comment for this story.

Reyes said Economic Development Director Peter Lent additionally is working with some business owners on store signs that could be improved and storefronts that need sprucing up.

Reyes said the city offers revolving loans, a sign grant program and other incentives to business owners.

Funding for improvements at 130 Bank St. came from programs through the Connecticut Department of Housing that date back to the 1990s, when funding was used for rehab and sale of a series of affordable-housing projects on Mountain Avenue.

g.smith@theday.com

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