After Years, 2 Eyesore Owners Pledge Progress
by Melissa Bailey | Apr 19, 2012 11:39 am
New doors are en route to the boarded-up former Chuck’s Luncheonette, whose owner says he plans to reopen a diner five years after a debilitating fire. And the eight-year-old scaffolding on the house next to the little Hooker School may come down ... before winter.
Owners of two blighted properties gave those updates as they pledged to move forward with long-delayed rehab plans at 338 Whalley Ave. and 188 Canner St.
John Vuoso (pictured), head of the board of the Whalley Avenue Special Services District, has been working to help beautify the Whalley Avenue corridor with new facades and flower beds. Meanwhile, one of his own properties sticks out as a boarded-up shell of a building on an otherwise well-occupied street.
The building is Chuck’s Luncheonette, the famous diner known as a popular neighborhood hangout and a spot where politicians made deals over plates of eggs, homefries and pastrami sandwiches. Chuck Alpert founded the joint as Chuck’s Lunchette in 1954 and continued to operate it through the mid-1990s, according to Vuoso. The diner then passed through three more owners before suffering a fire in June of 2007.
The final tenant “abandoned ship” after the fire, leaving Vuoso to take over the building in 2009, he said. Vuoso tried to sell the building to a bank, but the deal fell through.
Vuoso said he sank $274,000 of his own money—no loans—into repairing the building. That meant knocking down two upper stories and creating one, flat building. He said the construction came to a halt when the most recent tenant took him to court over a slip and fall case. The judge instructed him not to proceed with repairs during the court case, Vuoso said.
“Don’t do anything,” the judge instructed him, he said.
The case was finally settled in October, he said, allowing him to move forward.
In an interview at his Whalley Avenue auto shop, Vuoso announced plans to move forward on the building. He said he had ordered new doors, but the delivery got delayed by four weeks, which meant he had to send back new siding he had ordered because he wasn’t ready for it.
He said he plans to receive the new doors this week and install them next week.
Construction should last eight months, he said.
Vuoso said he plans to reopen Chuck’s as a diner, possibly under the same name, depending on what his lawyer advises him. He envisions a diner that’s “not expensive,” where “people in the community can go.”
The menu would be American greasy spoon fare—“almost the same” as before.
Vuoso said he plans to engage neighbors by running contests, such as who can bake the best cake.
He acknowledged the repairs have been a long time coming.
“I know it needs it,” he said. “Hopefully that helps the corner” to have a landlord on-site, running the restaurant, he said.
Vuoso also owns the adjacent vacant building, the former Newt’s Café at 345 Whalley. He said he plans to knock down that building, though he has had an offer from a restauranteur who wants to revive it.
8 Years Of Scaffolding
Over in East Rock, John Cusick said the recession has thwarted his rehab of a rundown duplex at 188 Canner St. The house sits right next to the K-2 Worthington Hooker School, on a street of nicely preened gardens and high-priced multi-family homes often rented to members of the Yale community.
The house bears a stark contrast to its surroundings. The porch is held up by two sets of supports. A stained-glass window is covered in plastic. And most notably, red scaffolding covers two sides of the house and part of its facade. Two of the four apartments sit vacant.
The scaffolding has been there since 2004, Cusick said in a phone interview Monday. Several neighbors said they thought it had been there for much longer—15 or 20 years.
One regular on the block called the house a “disaster.”
“It doesn’t do nothing for the neighborhood, that’s for sure,” said the man, who gave his name only as Mike.
In a phone interview, Cusick said he has made an effort to rehab the property, but “we don’t have deep pockets, and it’s a big project.” He said the progress has depended on how well his construction business is doing.
He recounted what he couched as a good-faith effort to renovate a neglected home with care and “attention to detail.”
“We started the renovations the day we moved in in ‘89,” he recalled. That was internal work, he said. He and his wife and two kids lived in the house as they worked on it. At first, they owned only half of the duplex. Then in the mid-‘90s the other half of the home went into foreclosure, and he united the two properties into one.
The 1900 home had seen years of neglect, said Cusick, who works as a construction contractor. For 50 years before he bought it, he said, it had been fixed up through piecemeal work. For example, the roof has four or five layers of shingles—all of which will need to be stripped off and replaced, he said.
Cusick said he was amid “full-blown” renovations when the Hooker School next door launched its own rehab effort.
That effort sparked a conflict: Construction crews blasted the Hooker facade, sending white dust onto Cusick’s home, which he tested and concluded contained lead. He and his wife and young daughters, then 2 and 5, had to “flee,” he said. They moved out and rented their former home on Canner.
The Hooker $12.9 million renovations finished first, in 2007.
The spiffy rehabbed brick now stands in contrast to the scaffolding next door.
Some progress is visible on Cusick’s home. The chimneys have been completely deconstructed and rebuilt, he said. And the siding on the front and two sides of the house has been stripped and refinished.
Unfortunately, workers accessing the chimneys upset the delicate shingles on the roof, he said.
The shingles, the last of which were installed in 1965, began to “self-destruct,” Cusick said.
Cusick said the main obstacle came in the 2008 recession, which hit his construction business hard. “Our volume dropped over 60 percent for almost two years straight,” he said.
Cusick said his business has since rebounded and he is making plans to move forward on the project. He said he’s been getting quotes from contractors to redo the roof and cornices.
“If all goes well, that will be happening during the summer while school is out of session,” Cusick said.
“We’re making every attempt to do another significant chunk of work” on the house, he said. He said he aims to have the exterior done—and take the scaffolding down—before winter.
To those neighbors who have said they wish to see the scaffolding gone, Cusick replied, “me, too.”
The back of the house remains in the most disrepair. The view from Willow Street yards reveals bare plyboard and a patchy roof.
Neighbor Lisa Homann, who was overseeing a springtime raking effort in her yard Monday morning, called the slow progress “sad.”
“I’m worried it becomes worse and worse every winter,” she said.
But she and her husband Oliver said they have no ill will towards Cusick, whom they called a friend.
“It would be nice to have the place in better shape,” Oliver Homann said, “but we’ve never had problems with them.”
Other neighbors have complained to their local lawmaker.
East Rock Alderman Justin Elicker said in response to complaints from neighbors, he looked into the case.
The response from the city was: “As long as they show some progress on construction, they can basically keep constructing ‘for eternity,’” Elicker said.
Chief Building Inspector Andy Rizzo confirmed that account. The previous owner took out two permits in 1989 to remove asbestos and restore the “clapboard” siding on the house, as well as to divide the internal space into four apartments.
Building permits remain active unless the work does not start within six months, or is abandoned for any six-month period, according to state code, Rizzo said.
“It’s hard to prove,” Rizzo said, “short of going by there two to three times a day for 180 days—and on weekends—to see if anyone’s up there on the scaffolding.”
“If he wants to keep scaffolding on his property, I don’t think there’s any issue that I can enforce,” Rizzo said.
Rizzo said he has received complaints over the years that 188 Canner is an eyesore, but “I haven’t found any reason to invalidate [the permit] due to state code.” He said he has “no proof that they have suspended the work of restoring the clapboards for more than 180 days straight.”
“As long as it’s safe, and he wants to get up there every 179th day,” and sand down one clapboard, “he has that right.”
Elicker called the situation unfortunate.
“A situation like that is a landlord being disrespectful to the neighbors. Nobody likes to see a house with scaffolding on it year after year.”
Post a Comment
Even as someone who’s not an immediate neighbor of these properties, I’m very pleased. However, I think everyone should reserve judgment about the delays. In a city in which property taxes can catapult to a heavy percentage of *pre-tax* income—as is true of any regressive tax—and during a time in which household incomes plummeted, it’s time to give the benefit of the doubt to the owners of nearly *any* distressed property. (Rentals generating income are something else—as are responsibilities to tenants.) In the case of the Canner Street house, the construction/expansion of the Hooker school seemed to take place with no regard for the quality of life next door at all. That house IMO has declined in value because of its neighbor.
Melissa, thank you for the article. I agree with you one hundred percent and I, too, hate the way my property looks. Please know that I am working toward getting it done. Hopefully all the glitches are over now and I can move ahead as planned. When completed, I hope to have a great little place of which the community can be proud. I will continue to work toward beautifying the Whalley Avenue corridor. Thanks to all the residents and business owners for their patience and understanding of this matter.
posted by: sandrabishop on April 19, 2012 8:34pm
Saying that the house at 188 Canner has declined in value due to the Hooker School renovation is simply not accurate. That house was a problem BEFORE the Hooker School renovation even started. Early in the process of investigating sites for the new Hooker School, one plan was to raze that house (and others), which was already an eyesore, including the scaffolding, and build the new school as an addition to the old school. Neighbors, objected to this plan and it was rejected.
sandrabishop knows much more of the details of the Canner St. neighborhood than I do, and I defer to that. However, isn’t it predominantly a residential neighborhood? Doesn’t the funding needed for the city (and Hooker) come primarily from property tax on owner-occupied and rental dwellings? No wonder the neighbors objected to demolition of several houses—besides making a permanent difference to the look and very being of the neighborhood, it reduces the tax base. Now (judging from the photos) I see a house with a huge wall looming over it, and an adjoining property apparently built out as far as possible. (In New Haven schools aren’t “neighborly”—they’re becoming semi-industrial complexes.) In an area like Canner St. that commands high rents it might not matter, but I don’t see it as a plus for anyone thinking of buying or selling the house, and especially for anyone looking for a private dwelling. Nonetheless, how likely is it that this permanent change was acknowledged in the valuation of the property?