Published January 13. 2013 4:00AM
New London - A reuse assessment of three downtown buildings recommends ways that residential units could be added to the upper floors and retail space could be expanded on the ground level.
But accomplishing that would take money - most likely millions - and cooperation from the owners of neighboring buildings.
A summary of the "Model Adaptive Reuse Assessment," which was funded with a state grant, will be presented Wednesday at a forum aimed at bringing together the various groups that are working on improving the city.
"We have a million dollars worth of recommendations for New London and people think there's nothing going on,'' New London Landmarks executive director Sandra Chalk said. "The planning process is hugely important."
Ideas that will be discussed Wednesday include a makeover for the municipal parking along Eugene O'Neill Drive; an update on the housing project in Fort Trumbull; a proposal for an art project by the Hygienic Art; and the downtown buildings study.
The report looked at 34-46 State St., where East Bank Gift Shop is located; 11 Bank St., which is Klingerman Travel; and 15-23 Bank, the former Marcus clothing store. Ideas include the creation of a public atrium or arcade between the three downtown buildings, an idea Chalk called "revolutionary.''
For Sam Rubenstein, who owns the Lawrence Hall Building at 15-23 Bank St., home to Marcus for more than 90 years until it closed last May, anything is possible if you have the money.
Rubenstein likes the idea of residential housing on the upper two floors and retail on the first floor, as suggested by the study. But, he added, all the plans for his three-story building need a large financial investment to make them work.
"It can be whatever money wants it to be,'' Rubenstein said as he led a tour through the vacant building, where the now empty shelves and clothing racks were filled with jeans, sweatshirts, work boots and sneakers during his store's heyday. "With the right amount of money, you can accomplish anything.''
The remnants of a duck pin bowling alley remain on the third floor. The upper floors, which were used for storage after Simpson Bowling Alley closed in the 1970s, have expansive views of the Thames River. Rubenstein said they would make grand living spaces.
"Hopefully, whatever the plans are, they will bear fruit,'' he said. "But I've been here long enough to know, when I see construction crews, then I know something is happening."
Katie Scanlon, a designer with Barun Basu Associates, which worked on the reuse assessment that included structural and marketing analyses of the three buildings, will present the firm's preliminary findings at Wednesday's forum.
One of the biggest problems with buildings in an urban area is the lack of a second egress on the upper floors, she said. Also, the long narrow buildings with frontage on Bank Street offer too much space for a single business.
"The buildings are landlocked with each other. In order to make the downtown alive again and to be able to have places for people to live, we need to provide more access and light,'' Scanlon said.
The architects came up with the idea of creating public access ways between the buildings. They could be open air or covered, and would open up the backs of the buildings for more retail and provide a second access for the upper floors.
Under current codes, residences on the upper floors would need two egresses. Most only have one. One upper floor apartment has a second access that leads to a closed alley. A pathway to a parking lot off Golden Street passes beneath the stage of the former Capital Theater, at 35 Bank St., Scanlon said.
"The message here is, it's a big project, but if building owners worked together, there are solutions,'' she said. "There are options. ... There are many agreements that can be set up legally to make it worth the investment for the building owners."
The reuse study was funded with a $50,000 grant the city obtained from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.
City Planner Harry Smith said part of the study was meant to identify the costs associated with developing the buildings and to see whether there are funding sources to offset those costs.
The final report is expected to be presented to the City Council in the next few months, he said.
"The whole city leadership in general will decide how to move forward,'' he said. "We're already looking forward to identifying how to fund the gaps."