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Battle Over Historic Structure

MassMutual Building Conflict Continues

By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN, Courant Staff Writer

April 29, 2008

Not much except routine permits stands between The Hartford and its plans to demolish all but the oldest portion of the former MassMutual building on Asylum Hill.

But there is still a flicker of opposition that won't be snuffed out: those who want to see a greater part, or even all the historic building in Hartford preserved.City Councilman Larry Deutsch said the giant insurance company shouldn't have been allowed to apply for a demolition permit April 14 without first appearing at a hearing before the city's historic preservation commission. The hearing, he said, is required because the Garden Street property, which The Hartford may redevelop for office space or stores and apartments, has been listed on the state's Register Of Historic Places.

Deutsch's contention is backed up by a legal opinion obtained by the Hartford Preservation Alliance and sent to the city's corporation counsel.

City officials, however, see the situation differently. They say The Hartford began the application process in January by filing an "intent to demolish" notice well before the property was listed on the state register. The property was listed March 5.

Therefore, city attorneys say, the requirement for a hearing before applying for the permit does not apply, said Mark McGovern, director of development.

On the surface, the dispute may seem to be just about procedure. But the issue isn't only about this one building, which has its defenders and detractors, but also about upholding a process to save old buildings and consider other uses for them.

The process is crucial, preservationists say, because over the years the city has allowed so many historic structures to fall under the wrecking ball.

The demolition permit could be issued as soon as May 5. Work could begin in mid-summer after The Hartford completes the purchase of the property for an as-yet-undisclosed price.

The MassMutual complex wasn't on the register in December when The Hartford, which employs 7,000 in the city, said it had an agreement to buy the property and tentative plans to demolish it. The preservation alliance responded quickly by commissioning a $5,000 study to fast-track a register listing.

In a letter to the city's attorney that accompanied the legal opinion, alliance President Todd Doyle expressed concern about the implications for similar situations in the future.

Doyle said it is the alliance's belief that any building on the state register "must, in all cases, be submitted to the historic preservation commission before a demolition permit can be applied for and granted."

Peter B. Cooper, a New Haven lawyer who prepared the legal opinion for the alliance, said the two filings intent to demolish and the demolition permit are separate and distinct.

Those distinctions, he said, are clear in the ordinance: "No person may file an application for a permit to demolish any building or part thereof visible from a public street or way without having first submitted a notice of intent to apply for such permit."

"The notice of intent and the demolition permit are clearly identified in the section as different and distinct items requiring different and distinct filing," Cooper, an expert in urban studies and preservation issues, wrote in the opinion.

On Friday, the neighborhood revitalization zone for Asylum Hill also urged The Hartford to consider saving more than the original 1926 building, which expanded from 40,000 square feet to 250,000 square feet as its original occupant, Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Co., prospered.

The neighborhood organization said the wings added in the 1940s and 1950s should be preserved, at least until firm plans for the site are known.

"The reason we want to keep that building is because of its architectural value," said Bernie Michel, chairman of the revitalization zone. "And for most people, the center and structures to both sides is what we think of as that building."

Michel said a hearing before the historic preservation commission, which can approve or reject demolition, could be helpful, but the neighborhood group, the alliance and The Hartford also have to discuss the options again.

Deutsch said he is concerned about the demolition because no other alternatives have been publicly presented.

"We've seen nothing in way of feasibility studies," Deutsch said.

Two weeks ago, The Hartford said it would save the original structure distinctive for its Georgian Revival facade and was exploring how it might fit into redevelopment plans for the 16-acre site that could include office space and, perhaps, a mix of stores and apartments.

Joshua King, a spokesman for The Hartford, said the insurer's view hasn't changed.

"We think the outcome benefits the city, the neighborhood and our company. This is a win-win-win for all concerned. We plan to close on the property in June, assuming we can exercise flexibility over the site. The alternative would have it join the area's surplus of unoccupied, unproductive and unsold property."

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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