A lot of us look at that building, the preservationists said, and see a a character-rich lobby for your hotel.
You’re not building on a blank slate, they told the builder: This building is very important, tracing New Haven’s development as a city. Losing this piece of the fabric of the city would be a loss.
Go into our other hotel lobbies, the preservationists said: They’re nice but no destination. This could be a great opportunity for you. So please don’t knock it down!
They made those arguments to Norwalk-based Spinnaker Real Estate Partners, the owners of the 1948-era late Art Deco or “art moderne” structure at 80 Elm St. near Orange, a vacant former bank building that Spinnaker plans to raze in order to build a new “boutique hotel” in its place.
Preservationists had 90 days by law to make that case before Spinnaker won permission to proceed with the demolition. They made the arguments one last time Wednesday night at the monthly meeting at City Hall of the Historic District Commissioners (HDC).
In the end, the preservationists’ pitch failed to save the building. The 90 days have expired. Spinnaker will now proceed with the demolition. It has the legal right to do it; the 90-day waiting period merely gives the public a chance to try to change its mind.
Spinnaker President Kim Morque said the company may preserve some “fixtures and finishes,” but that’s it.
“What I heard tonight,” said HDC Chair Trina Learned, “was: Economic interests trump it all.”
The building is listed in the city’s Historic Resources Inventory. Spinnaker Real Estate purchased 80 Elm last November and plans to demolish it to make way for a small hotel or apartments on that property and an adjoining lot, one of four investments it’s making in New Haven totaling an estimated quarter-billion dollars in new development.
The 80 Elm plan triggered a 90-day delay, mandated by city ordinance when demolition of a building of significance is in play.
At the HDC’s meeting in May, preservationists and members of the public, several of whom recalled opening among their first bank accounts in the building, urged commissioners to press the developer to consider preserving some elements in an adaptive reuse of the structure.
That gave preservationists a chance to weigh in.
And they did. In a formal letter, the HDC urged the city to speak to the developers with particular attention to preserving, in the structure to come, the two-story atrium or lobby and perhaps some of the facade.
The city convened a meeting with Spinnaker, which some preservationists attended. The result: “We are in the process of retaining a local historic consultant and we’re getting a redesign plan in the coming months,” said Frank Caico, Spinnaker’s director of development, who attended the Wednesday meeting along with group president Morque.
“As part of our design process, we agreed to see if those [the lobby and other elements] could be incorporated,” Caico told the commissioners.
Until the city contacted them, he said, Spinnaker did not realize 80 Elm held such significance.
“We’re trying to be good corporate citizens,” he said.
The Spinnaker representatives, who have a history of successfully doing adaptive reuse projects in Bridgeport and other cities, at first raised the hopes of the commissioners.
“You say ‘development’ not ‘demolition,’’ said Learned. “I’m dense. What are you about to do? Bulldoze?”
“No, we’ve not been waiting until the 91st day to take the building down. But we want to start the process while we develop our plans with our design architect.”
“Thank you for being here,” said George Knight, one of the five commissioners present. “We’re thrilled with this project. [But] does your design architect have experience with adaptive reuse?”
“I believe so,” replied Caico.
“This could be a win-win. You walk into a character-rich lobby and build a hotel on it.”
“It’s a large volume. It’s very challenging. The more likely approach is to retain fixtures and finishes,” Caico said, as opposed to the lobby intact or large elements of the structure.”
“I agree with your sentiments about a great hall,” said Kim Morque. “It’s a good point. But the hotel business is fairly rigid in its business model.”
The commissioners, growing more urgent in their plea, drew out from Caico and Morque that the company is indeed moving full steam ahead with demolition, filing a request for site plan review within the next month or two.
Commissioner Doug Royalty put it baldly: “Do any of your plans call for retaining the building?”
“I wouldn’t be optimistic,” said Caico.
Commissioner Susan Godshall called to Spinnaker’s attention the newly constructed Canal Dock Boat House by Long Wharf. It retains pieces of the original early 20th century Yale boat house that was torn down as part of the extensive Harbor Crossing project; they were stored, and now appear as artifacts in the new building.
She called that a sad substitute for adaptive reuse of a whole building. “It’s not in any way reflective of how they [original buildings] were,” she said.
“We’d rather have a brand new great building than have an apology for something else,” Morque seemed to concur.
Morque told the commissioners that his company has restored a block of historic structures in Bridgeport in 2016 and back in 2012 did a major adaptive re-use of a 1912-era department store in St. Louis.
As they left the chamber, Morque characterized their hour in front of the commissioners as “candid, a good discussion. We hope to be back, but we’ll have to see.”
Back at the head of the chamber, the commissioners remained seated at their oval table and were not smiling.
“They qualify for a demolition,” Learned conceded. “What I heard tonight is economic interests trump all. Our best option is community pressure.”
She said the most likely form that might take is in steps from the New Haven Preservation Trust, who could get the word out.
The Trust’s new preservation services officer, Elizabeth Holt, was in attendance and dutifully taking notes throughout.