Property owner gives town first dibs to keep Sound View from ‘going back to the bars’
Old Lyme ― The former El Morocco bar, a long-vacant relic of Hartford Avenue’s seedier past, is being pitched to town officials as an opportunity to foster a family-friendly atmosphere in the town’s most public beach area.
The owner of 52 and 56 Hartford Ave. has given the town first dibs on the 0.29-acre bundle – which includes the distinctive stone barroom and the now-empty lot next to it – for $750,000. It’s about a thousand feet up the street from the sand of Sound View Beach.
Bill Randazzo more than a week ago demolished three of the four blighted buildings on the site he bought back in 2013 for $165,000, according to assessor’s records. Two houses and the former O’Connor’s Soda Shop were razed.
This week, Randazzo said the property is full of possibilities if the town has vision enough to see them.
“A parking lot, a park. It could be almost anything,” he said.
Randazzo purchased the property with the intent to put up townhouses back when he was under the impression a sewer system would soon be installed in the beach community. But the sewers never materialized and his plans stalled. He cited the expense of a septic system – combined with height restrictions in zoning regulations that made it difficult to build enough units to turn a profit – as the main reasons the townhouses never went up.
The future of the sewer system, now estimated around $50 million, remains nebulous as the town works to confirm a forgivable loan of up to $17 million from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Documents from the Ledge Light Health District show a sanitarian issued Randazzo a public health order in July to correct a malfunctioning septic system for one of the houses his property. The order was prompted by complaints about sewage on the ground. The order was rescinded on April 27 after the house was demolished.
The public health agency’s supervisor of land use activities, Wendy Brown-Arnold, on Thursday said she is not aware of any contamination on the property.
Randazzo said demolishing the three structures was a better idea than spending $30,000 on a new septic system just so he could spend another $150,000 to tie into the new sewer system when it gets there.
The stone building went up in 1935 and the former soda shop in 1930. They are part of the Sound View Historic District, which was listed on the State Register of Historic Places in 2018.
The district is not part of the National Register of Historic Places, which would grant some legal protection against unreasonable destruction. Deputy state historic preservation officer Jenny Fields Scofield this week said the district was not added to the national register because of objections from some owners.
Being listed on the state register does not prevent owners from making changes to their property, according to Scofield.
The 30s-era O’Connor’s Dance Hall, known in the latter half of the 20th century as Kiddieland, was torn down in 2019.
Kathy Cavasino, Randazzo’s sister and real estate agent, said the former bar is structurally sound but requires extensive cosmetic work. Inside on a wet morning, rain came down through exposed rafters from holes in the roof. The 3,148-square-foot layout was mostly open, with a narrow stone stage built into the back and a stone fireplace on one side. Water pooled in sections of the concrete floor.
The sister and brother suggested options for the building ranging from a community center, to youth center, to workforce training site. Or they could put restrooms and showers there.
Randazzo said he spoke with town officials over the years about commercial options for the property, but nothing seemed feasible to him.
“They made suggestions, but a lot of the suggestions they made were over my budget,” he said. “I’m just a small investor.”
He cited the lack of parking and short summer season as some of the factors that make it impractical and not financially beneficial to run a commercial venture at the site.
He said residents don’t want another bar, and he doesn’t want to run one.
“I don’t want to be in the liquor business,” he said.
‘The booze and the bums’
It’s not the first time the town has entertained the idea of buying property to help clean up a street that has gone through various stages of seediness and decay since at least World War II.
The town in 1995 purchased a 0.1-acre property where the Branmor Hotel used to be for $135,000, according to assessor’s records. Now teams of two can throw balls there on the eponymous Bocce Lane.
The Branmor Hotel’s notoriety extended on multiple occasions to the pages of the New York Times, where it was described as a venue for performers ranging from male go-go dancers to local strip-tease artist Busty Heart.
The purchase of the Branmor occurred around the time officials were considering buying the waterfront Pavilion and Ocean Spray bars. The temperance-minded plan involved replacing the businesses with public toilets, showers and concession offerings to rid the area of what former First Selectman James R. Rice called “the booze and the bums.”
A 1995 referendum vote on the plan to purchase the two bars for $975,000 failed 1,313 to 1,005, according to the Times.
First Selectman Tim Griswold last week told The Day there are “interesting things” the town could do with the property, though he balked at the price tag.
“The El Morocco is not in great shape,” he said. “That would require a bunch of work. So you’re going to be probably a million into it before you open the doors.”
He said it might be a hard sell to taxpayers who are on the hook for a large part of a $57.5 million regional school renovation project and will soon be asked to approve a $5.3 million senior center renovation with Lyme.
Griswold described the Economic Development Commission as an appropriate advisor on the matter.
Economic Development Commission Chairman Cheryl Poirier said her group would defer to the newly formed Shoreline Gateway Committee on this one. The committee was formed last year at the request of the Economic Development Commission.
The committee was charged with establishing a clear vision for the future of the Sound View area and the state road that leads to it. The committee is still in the process of formalizing its mission statement.
Poirier questioned the appetite of taxpayers for such an expense, pointing to the failed referendum back in the 1990s on the purchase of the two bars.
“And that was on the waterfront,” she said.
Martha Shoemaker, a selectwoman and co-chairman of the Shoreline Gateway Committee, said she would like to discuss the proposal with committee members at their May 18 meeting.
She, too, was leery of the cost of the proposal. But she said the group could explore the possibility of state grant funding through programs that promote economic development and the restoration of historic buildings.
Cavasino on Thursday said she won’t market the property to anyone else until she hears what the committee has to say at its meeting.
The real estate agent told the Board of Selectmen on May 1 that she wanted to give officials time to think about whether the proposal could work for the town.
“You’re not going back to the bars,” she said. “People don’t want all those bars. It’s all about family right now.”