New London seeks injunction against downtown business owner
New London — The sign propped inside the storefront window of the historic Cronin Building at 78 State St. announces “Coming Soon — Hopefully. Irreplaceable Artifacts.”
It’s been more than a decade since antiques collector and dealer Evan Blum purchased the long-vacant building and started moving his architectural treasures inside with a promise of something unique: a shop that would attract people from far and wide to the downtown.
While he is praised for his reclamation work and expertise elsewhere, his promise of a downtown New London destination has led to frustration for downtown business owners and city officials alike.
The doors of his State Street shop have never opened to the public and the city’s zoning enforcement officer last month filed a civil suit in New London Superior Court in an attempt to force Blum, doing business as New London Phoenix Realty, into action.
Complaints of a dingy storefront and unshoveled sidewalk aside, the city claims Blum is violating zoning regulations by illegally storing items he sells at his other retail locations. Storage facilities are not permitted in the central business district.
Blum owns both the Demolition Depot / Irreplaceable Artifacts in New York City and Middletown, shops filled with unique and salvaged items from building that were being demolished or renovated. He also owns a sprawling warehouse in Ivoryton and recently purchased a former industrial complex in Norwich.
In a recent phone interview, Blum said the city is the reason he has never able to get a retail establishment, or any other project, off of the ground. Along with being overtaxed and struggling to “keep the wolves away,” he said he has faced nothing but obstacles during his initial attempts at restoration of the building.
“I understand they’re frustrated. I’m frustrated, too, with the way I’ve been treated down there,” Blum said. “I had to navigate my way through a mine field. Most places I go, they roll out the red carpet. Not there.”
Blum’s trials and tribulations with the city are well documented, though officials said they are of his own doing.
Blum ran into trouble even before he purchased the building in 2005. In 2004, when he held an option on the building, the building department ordered him to stop work because he did not have the proper permits and had set up bunk beds for his workers. The city’s health director also confirmed the presence of asbestos in the material being removed without a permit.
The building was condemned in 2006 when building officials raised concerns about the floors being able to support the weight of the architectural salvage material Blum had been moving in. Six years earlier, in 2000, Blum had faced criminal charges related to the partial collapse of a showroom in Manhattan. According to an account in the New York Times, the building contained cast-iron fireplaces, Victorian bathtubs, original porcelain New York street signs and Tiffany windows, among other items worth millions.
In downtown New London, the items visible through doorways and windows of Cronin Building include dozens of doors stacked in rows, a fireplace mantel, stone gargoyle, park bench, mirror and desk.
Building Official Kirk Kripas said the Cronin Building, like any other downtown building, is subject to existing state and local regulations and codes for safety reasons. While documents show Blum has complied with many of the city’s demands to rectify code violations, Kripas said any attempt to open the building to the public would trigger an inspection from his office and the city fire marshal’s office. The structural integrity of the building still could be an issue, depending on Blum’s proposed use.
The events leading up to the city’s court action against Blum started with a prodding from the city’s zoning enforcement officer earlier this year. A March letter to Blum asks for voluntary compliance with zoning regulations. It was follow by notices of violation and with a cease-and-desist order in May.
In a March letter to Zoning Enforcement Officer Michelle Johnson Scovish, Blum claims the building sustained “several hundred thousand dollars worth of damage,” and he still has no water service there, the apparent result of a past incident in which the basement was flooded. Blum claims the flooding occurred during sidewalk work several years ago and that halted any interest from investors who were proposing a boutique hotel at the site.
“If you can get this situation remedied, I would immediately move forward to transform 78 State Street into an attractive, working retail property,” Blum wrote.
City officials said they are unaware of any requests from Blum related to a damaged basement or of plans for a hotel. Blum said the water department and contractor have failed to accept liability.
In a letter in June, Blum said he was in the process of finalizing another location to move his antiques but never furnished a timeline.
In July, Blum became the new owner of the former Atlantic Packaging complex in the Greenville section of Norwich that he purchased for $521,000. He apparently had started moving items there when the Norwich city planner sent a July 20 letter warning him that storage was not allowed without verified use of the building.
“Please be advised that moving any items into the Norwich buildings in response to New London’s order is not only ill-advised, but would be considered illegal storage and warehousing use prompting enforcement action,” Norwich City Planner Deanna Rhodes wrote.
New London officials in August, still waiting for some action by Blum, filed for an injunction preventing him from using the building as a storage facility. The suit also seeks compensation for attorney’s fees and penalties that by state statute could rise to $100 per day. A court date has not yet been scheduled.
Blum, in a recent interview, said he expected everything to be resolved in short order, as he plans to move his antiques elsewhere. He didn’t not say where.
“If they decide to come around, I’ll fix up the building,” Blum said. “They just have to be nice to me and cooperate instead of fighting me.”
Richard Caruso, owner of the nearby Caruso Piano Gallery, said he has no expectations Blum will ever do what he claims.
“When he first opened, I was tremendously optimistic. His whole idea was to come into the city and be the queen bee of the antiques business. That was the story he told,” Caruso said. “But the guy has never done any of the things he’s said he was going to do. At this point in time, I’ve abandoned all hope in him.”
Caruso said the city is as much to blame for not being more diligent in its efforts to press the issue.
“That’s what your local government is supposed to do, especially if you’re trying to enhance the downtown,” Caruso said.