by ALLAN APPEL, New Haven Independent | Nov 4, 2019 12:25 pm

A demolition permit was approved Wednesday to raze to the ground a 1948 art moderne building at 80 Elm St.

Although it stands just 50 yards from the historic New Haven Green, it is not within one of the city’s only three historic districts. It, therefore, had no legal protection against its being torn down to make way for a new hotel.

Also on Wednesday, preservationists met to launch a campaign to pass a citywide preservation ordinance aimed at changing the outcome in future cases.

The gathering of 25 preservation-minded people, convened by the Friends of the Dwight Historic District, took place Wednesday evening at the Ives Main Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library.

The aim, according to group leader Olivia Martson, is to begin a campaign that will ultimately convince the Board of Alders that economic development and preservation go hand-in-hand. The hoped-for result is that the legislators will write a preservation ordinance, such as Hartford has had in place since 2006, that will prevent demolition of historic buildings across town without a special review and permit.

As New Haven experiences a building boom, preservationists and city officials are looking for new ways to balance the needs of economic growth with desire to protect the city’s historic architecture.

Even in designated historic districts, where some protections exist, there have been several recent instances of “demolition by neglect.”

New Haven has three historic districts: Wooster Square, established in 1970, Quinnipiac River, established in 1977, and City Point, 2001. .The Historic District Commission (HDC) was appointed to review and act upon applications from property owners in those districts who wish to make exterior architectural changes—or to try to demolish buildings claimed too far gone for repair or adaptive reuse.

At least 30 historically significant buildings, such as 80 Elm, are scattered throughout the city in National Register Historic Districts. They would be protected under the hoped-for legislation, said Martson.

The city has 18 National Historic Districts, such as Howard Avenue and the area around the old Winchester Firearms compounds. But in those areas preservationists and city officials can only negotiate, without any power of law to back them up. Local historic districts differ from National Register Historic Districts in that local districts provide greater protection for the designated properties. Activists want the national districts in New Haven included in the purview of a new ordinance.

Wednesday night featured Brad Schide of Preservation Connecticut (formerly named the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation) and Hartford Preservation Alliance Executive Director Mary Falvey, who explored whether Hartford’s ordinance might be a model for the Elm City.

Click here for their full PowerPoint presentations.

Ask State Permission? Or Just Do It?

The first issue or hurdle was whether to seek enabling legislation first from the state to establish an ordinance, leaving the specific boundaries covered to the city, said Schide.  Legally, it’s better, but it takes time and if buildings are being torn down, preservationists might not want to wait.

That was the case in Hartford, said Falvey. Or as she put it, “We preferred to ask for forgiveness rather than for permission.”

Passed in 2006, Hartford’s ordinance covers all the city’s national historic districts, encompassing more than 5,000 buildings. It deals with feature alterations in roofs, porches, siding, and windows, if seen from the public way.

Separate legislation passed in 2017 provides solar guidelines, she said, so that her group doesn’t have to deal with those issues. “We also don’t do colors and fences,” she added.

Those insights might be useful: The city’s HDC, technically under the guidance of the City Plan Department, does currently review fences, along with solar installations.

“It’s a balancing act,” said Falvey. “You don’t have to go before the commission for every little thing.”

She added that it’s also important to take into account an applicant’s age and years of residence. “We’d rather have maintenance to some extent, than nothing at all.”

City Plan Director Aicha Woods asked how many applications Hartford deals with annually. The answer: 89 in 2018, with just a handful of requests for demolition.

Among Schide’s and Falvey’s major pieces of advice: You can’t save everything. You need the neighborhood with you. Economic growth and change and preservation are partners in the same enterprise. You need flexibility, and, perhaps most importantly, a culture of preservation has to be developed citywide.

It was suggested that a New Haven ordinance extend a demolition stay from 90 to 180 days to allow more negotiations; and also that proposed projects go directly to the HDC, not to City Plan first.

Falvey presents.

“A lot of our projects go to City Plan for a site plan review, and they rubber-stamp this stuff,” she said. Then the developers are off and running, and preservationists have to play catch up, often with results like 80 Elm.

“We need to send it to the HDC first,” Martson added.

New Haven Urban Design League President Anstress Farwell said a broader ordinance with teeth would be “enormously helpful.” The HDC can listen and advise. The HDC had no real authority to command a fact-based discussion with 80 Elm St. developer Spinnaker, Farwell added.

Woods said that that she found the proposal worth discussing further. It’s important to do something, but to do it right, she said.

The next step: To continue the meetings and expand the conversation. Former city Elderly Services Director Pat Wallace, another of the leaders of the Friends of Dwight, said: “The process begins tonight, but there need to be other educational events. We really need a citywide base to get this through to our alders.”