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Restoration Beats Demolition

Tom Condon

November 01, 2009

Nearly three years ago, Hartford enacted a historic preservation ordinance to maintain the city's disappearing architectural heritage. The gist of this first-in-the-state law is that before owners of properties in local, state or national historic districts can change the exterior of a building or demolish it, the work must be approved by a preservation commission.

To see how well it's worked, let's look at a project that moved ahead just before the law was passed, and one of the first that was covered by the preservation ordinance.

The former involved a handsome, century-old building at the corner of Wethersfield Avenue and Airport Road in Hartford that many knew as the home of Carmichael's Restaurant, and Pippie's Restaurant before that. The building commanded the top of the rise of Airport Road as it reaches the intersection. It was a rectangular brick structure with Italianate details, as are many of the historic buildings on the South End avenues. It felt as if it belonged where it was.

Along came CVS in 2005 with a plan to demolish it for a pharmacy and some smaller stores. Preservationists urged the company to save and reuse the building; an architect with the Hartford Preservation Alliance even drew up a plan of how to do it, as I recall. A company spokesman said it wouldn't work because it would require parking in the rear, where a drive-through was planned.

With nothing to stop it, the chain chain pharmacies are the roadside bombs of good urban design went ahead and demolished the building and built a cookie-cutter suburban strip mall building surrounded by a broad swath of asphalt. It doesn't define the corner or add anything to the aesthetic of the neighborhood. The storefronts adjacent to the pharmacy are empty. It is a travesty.

But then the ordinance came in. Soon thereafter, the owner of a sturdy two-story building at the intersection of Capitol Avenue and Lawrence Street a couple of blocks west of the Capitol came before the historic preservation commission with plans to renovate as a Dunkin' Donuts. The building, also with Italianate details, was built in 1890, according to city records, and is a perfect urban corner building.

The commission worked with owner Eric Barreira and architect David Cox on lighting, awnings and other exterior detail. The building had been home to a tired-looking grocery store with apartments upstairs.

The contractors removed the 1950s storefront and roll-up cage, built an outdoor patio and new exterior stairs to the upstairs, now the office of a bail bond firm. The building looks great. The store, which Barreira hopes to open this week, may be the handsomest Dunkies in the state.

"It shows that a corporate brand can mold into the urban fabric," Cox said. He's right. Chain stores don't have to desecrate city neighborhoods; with the proper encouragement they can do the right thing.

The ordinance is not yet perfect; commission members and staffers say there are some ambiguities and other issues to work out. University of Connecticut law professor Sara Bronin, a former commission vice chairman, has recommended changes that could resolve the legal problems. Commission chairman Greg Secord said some renovators start work before they apply for a building permit the trigger for the ordinance and so "there's still some educational work to be done."

The original ordinance protected about 4,000 buildings. More are being added to the list, which may reach 5,000.

All in all, it's working well. The commission is highly competent. The ordinance is reasonable; applicants don't have to add more than 20 percent to their costs for historic accuracy, and city staffers have information about how to keep costs down. Hundreds of applications have been processed; minor ones by staff planners, major ones one to five a month by the commission.

The city council was uncertain how the ordinance would fly, so put a three-year sunset provision in it. That provision was removed a couple of months ago with no argument. It's now permanent. Historic preservation is good for property values, quality of life, civic pride.

Perhaps one of the best aspects of the law is that it has helped changed the mindset at city hall. City officials historically have been way too acquiescent when it came to the demolition of buildings and the acceptance of mediocre design. Not so anymore; indeed, the city recently rejected a proposed CVS pharmacy for Washington Street over design issues.

"We want good design," said city planner Roger O'Brien.

We do, indeed.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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