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Save Seaside

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published April 27. 2014 4:00AM

I will admit to being a bit of a romantic when it comes to old buildings.

And of course we all know romanticism can quickly overwhelm common sense when it comes to a lot of things, especially a daunting task of historic renovation.

On the other end of the spectrum is the perspective of a developer with a profit motive, who probably would be glad for permission to tear down landmark buildings if that is the least expensive way to develop a property.

So when I tour the handsome Cass Gilbert centerpiece of the former Seaside sanitarium campus in Waterford, I see only the great potential for reuse of this historic property, designed by the architect of many great American icons.

I admit the prejudice of my romanticism.

On the other hand, the developer to whom the state has agreed to sell the property wants to tear it down.

That is equally prejudiced, choosing a less expensive course of demolition over preservation.

There are lots of problems with the sales contract to which the state is stubbornly clinging, not the least of which is that the developer, who is fighting the foreclosure of his own home, which is encumbered with state and federal tax liens, appears not to have the wherewithal to develop the property.

But if the developer finds an investor or partner and finally begins to move along the process of seeking town approvals for developing Seaside, it would behoove the town to look very closely at the issue of demolishing the buildings.

The sales contract price is $8 million, a number that hasn't changed even as the real estate market has improved. It's a bargain for 34 spectacular waterfront acres, and anyone who pays that little for this site also should be expected to accomplish some significant historic renovation in developing the property for new commercial uses, and to provide public access.

Providing access and preserving the buildings is embedded into the specific zoning for the Seaside property, and so the town's zoning authority should have the final say on these important issues.

A historic preservation office within the state Department of Economic Development already has concluded, based on an engineering report commissioned by the developer, that it would be all right to tear down the buildings.

I asked several weeks ago for a copy of that report, but the state has refused to provide it.

Daniel Forrest of the historic preservation office - maybe it should be the historic demolition office - said last week that he hasn't been able to get Freedom of Information permission through the Department of Economic Development to release it.

Maybe state Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, now a state Senate candidate, could do something to make this agency comply with the law and release the document on which the state is making important decisions about these state-owned buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

Ritter has not done much else to ensure the preservation of these buildings in her hometown in the all the years she has served in the General Assembly.

The engineering report is tainted by the fact that it was commissioned and paid for by someone who wants to tear down the buildings. But it is a look at one side of the issue and a starting point for preservationists who may want to make their own arguments to the town for saving these buildings.

Or maybe the engineering arguments for demolition are overwhelming. If only the state would let us see them.

The romantic in me, after touring some of the buildings last week, can report they seem totally salvageable.

Some of the more modern additions to the main building, with their flat roofs and unsightly windows, probably should be torn down. The interior, with rotting plaster and peeling paint, is a mess.

But the original slate roof appears to be intact. The walls and floors appear solid and straight. Even a lot of the old windows are still in place and doing their work of keeping the weather out.

There are spectacular views from almost every window. It has enormous potential for reuse.

As for the superintendent's house, a magnificent mansion near the seawall, with its slate roof, copper gutters and chestnut paneling throughout, the romantic in me could clean it up and move right in.

It's hard to fathom how anyone could say it needs to be torn down.

Someone might pay the better part of $8 million just for the mansion.

I was encouraged to read an op-ed article piece from the commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services, which controls Seaside, in which he said the state's "patience is not limitless" with the current developer.

Let's hope that leads to a sharp deadline in the very near future, so that the developer can concentrate on fighting the foreclosure of his home and relinquishing the tax liens.

And then the state can find some worthy new buyers who can bring some fresh enthusiasm, and money, and begin the work of profitably saving this Connecticut treasure.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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