The 90-day clock has begun to tick for the demolition of 71 Shelton Ave., a long-vacant 1915 building in the Winchester Repeating Arms Historic District in Newhallville.
That’s because contamination from its life in the early 1960s as a site for the fabrication of nuclear fuel components is too serious for any option other than a take-down and removal including the concrete slab foundation and at least two feet of soil underneath.
The gleaming silver lining for the loss of this historic structure is that as “mitigation” or compensation, the Goffe Street Armory — nearby and with a related historical context but technically not within the historic district — can be researched and then nominated for a place on the National Historic Register.
With that designation, the city-owned armory becomes eligible for a host of preservation grants and tax credit programs that down the road may contribute significantly to preserving it and giving it a new, repurposed life.
That historic trade-off was the at the heart of a conversation that unfolded Wednesday night at the regular meeting of the Historic District Commission in City Hall’s Meeting Room Two.
Roderick Cox, who lives adjacent to the structure on Shelton Avenue, remembers working in the building. His job: Taking bullets from the fabricating machine, placing them in a tray, then in a barrel, for storage and later shipment. Then, repeat.
He has vivid memories of what he did there as a young man, but no sentimental attachment per se for the building itself. The long-vacant corrugated steel structure’s enormous length stretches east toward the Science Park neighborhood — and does a good job, he said, of attracting raccoons.
“Knock it down. It’s [only] a machine shop,” Cox said.
The business facing the commissioners was not to determine if the building should come down. That decision — a tear-down and remediation of the soil beneath—has already been made by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In its previous designation as the Atomic Energy Commission, the agency had issued the original license to do the nuclear work to the Olin Corporation, which used to run the Winchester rifle factory on what is now Science Park.
Before that, the U.S. Department of Energy used the building as a site for nuclear research from the mid-1950s until the early 1970s. When it closed, the radioactive contamination was cleaned up, according to documents provided to the commissioners. The building was then designated for commercial uses.
Some clean-ups followed. The city came into ownership of the building and land, then sold it to the current owner, Schneur Katz of Zsy Development, in 2007. Katz said in an interview Thursday that he originally hoped that he could keep the existing building after some clean-up.
But the NRC reviewed the post-clean up conditions and determined more clean-up is necessary. Given the deterioration of large sections, the residual contamination could not be addressed without taking the whole structure down.
Katz said he hopes to rebuild a commercial building on the site. He has had success preserving the building next door, at 91 Shelton, which is the home to a climbing gymn, offices, and artists’ studios.
The Goffe Swap
The commissioners were in receipt of a letter from Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer Catherine Labadia, who had written to the feds supporting the proposed demolition as long as the arrangement includes a “memorandum of understanding” mitigating the historic loss of 71 Shelton Ave.
The commissioners were being asked to throw in their two cents, as it were, as to which of the proposed mitigatione measures they would like to see as compensation for the loss of 71 Shelton.
Here’s the relevant text from Labadia’s Oct. 4 letter that the commissioners considered:
To compensate for the loss of 71 Shelton Avenue, SHPO (State Historic Preservation Officer) recommends one of the following mitigative measures or consideration of a similar type of activity:
1. Update the existing National Register form for the Winchester Repeating Arms Company Historic District. The update should include a survey of all buildings within the current district boundary (not boundary increase) with an update of contributing structures and themes of significance.
2. Draft a Nomination Form for listing the Goffe Street Armory (290 Goffe Street) on the National Register of Historic Places. This building is currently just outside of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company Historic District and is owned by the City of New Haven. It has a related theme of significance and a nomination would both honor this structure and create opportunities for historic preservation grants and tax credit programs.
How “Sausage” Is Unmade
Deputy Director of City Plan Aicha Woods clarified for the commissioners that they are being asked to comment on these options and/or to attend an end of January meeting with SHPO and the feds to advocate for one or all of the proposed mitigation measures.
Commissioner Susan Godshall noted that the SHPO, before the demolition, is also offering to perform an extensive survey and documentation of the building known as an HABS, or Historic American Buildings Survey.
She called the building is “a long sausage,” on which the HABS could be performed in a half a day.
“They [SHPO] say it’s a contributing building in the Winchester Historic District,” said HDC Chair Trina Learned.
“We can get more out of the mitigation,” countered Godshall.
The balance of the debate was what the HDC should ask for at the late January meeting with the HABS, and which of the two options to support.
New Haven Urban Design League President Anstress Farwell said that in her opinion, “the most benefit to the city is listing the armory on the National Register of Historic Places. It could help the armory get grants.”
The other mitigation — the updating of the buildings in the Winchester Historic District — would also be beneficial in that it would “provide guidance on the future development of the district,” Farwell argued.
The updating of the “forms” of the district consists of extensive research and documentation, a labor-intensive exercise to complement what Farwell described as the “thin” documentation that currently exists for the Winchester district.
In the end the commissioners were excited about trying to advocate for all three benefits.
“These suggestions are an attempt to get value commensurate with the loss” of 71 Shelton, said Commissioner Doug Royalty.
The commissioners voted unanimously to try to obtain the full HABS and back both the options as mitigation. Royalty was appointed to attend the end-of-the-month meeting to negotiate.
After the vote, Woods said that regrettably because of the extent of the radiation contamination at the site, “I can’t defend maintaining the building.”
Like Roderick Cox, she added that “the story of the building is probably as interesting or more so than the building itself.”
Farwell said it would be good to go to the local management teams to update them about the tear-down and clean-up, as the date approaches.
Woods added that the city does not yet know what future plans the current owners, Zsy Development, has for the location.
Woods said local alders, including East Rock/Newhallville Alder Steve Winter, are aware of the situation. If all moves ahead as expected, the tear-down should begin in April, Woods added.