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What are we actually saving on South Main?

Udelman Building, 31-35 South Main Street

Paul Lanning’s laudable write-up of the Norwalk Preservation Trust (NPT) deserves attention. But the NPT themselves deserve a rebuttal, and Norwalkers deserve better than the NPT.

I live literally a few doors down from the buildings NPT wants to “save” (31-35 and 25 South Main Street). But guess what? They’re eyesores. I’ve even toured an apartment in one of them. It was dingy and smelled disgusting. The landlord was clearly trying to flip it while doing as little maintenance as possible.

They’re beyond saving.

I respect the goals of historical preservation. How could I not? I live surrounded by a wonderful built environment that has lasted over a century. The vibrancy that I have come to love in this neighborhood is a result of the resilient manner in which these buildings accommodate both retail and residents, all in one walkable package.

But our methods leave so much wanting.

For starters, if we love these buildings so much, why do we let their landlords leave them to rot and crumble? This is not something that happened overnight, or just in the last five years. It took decades.

Instead, our city encourages landlords to speculate on the next big payday. Why maintain a building when you’re just going to sell it off to someone who will either tear it down or renovate it? Real estate infamously runs on “other people’s money”, after all. We turn a blind eye while these landlords drive their properties into the ground, or leave them vacant for years on end while demanding exorbitant rents that doom any entrepreneur dumb enough to start a business in them.

Historical preservation means active maintenance, not yelling and screaming bloody murder trying to put every single cat back in its bag even though the cat escaped 20 years ago (or often, more!).

Moreover, we focus too much on preserving buildings and not the processes by which those buildings came to be. The processes by which all of our most treasured buildings were built are now mostly illegal, even after this recent relatively-enlightened zoning update. Instead of incremental development, today’s process encourages buying up all the parcels on a whole block and then covering them with an apartment building that wastes most of its ground floor on enormous, ornately decadent lobbies no one uses, luxurious leasing offices, and redundant gyms (by the way, there are 4 different actual gyms in the SoNo Annex on Water Street which would love your business!). All of these things could be put on the second floor, or better yet, served by filling the market with services like gyms and cafes! And yet, even when they bother to build ground-floor retail spaces, they’re either difficult to walk to (Harbourside), perpetually vacant (The Platform), or both (the mall) — the only exception being the SoNo Ironworks, who “got it right” on ground-floor retail.

But again, the bigger picture is that this process is not remotely incremental, and it was “by right”, not requiring months or years of approvals and historical reviews. Notice how none of the buildings on Washington take up the whole block? Their incremental nature is what makes them easier to maintain and easier to repurpose. If a business or two fails, it doesn’t take down half the block with it, or force a change of management. The variety creates a vibrance and competition that is the very foundation of the best of what the free market offers us.

And Washington Street wasn’t built by fusty historical preservationists; it was built by people who were willing to tear up dilapidated old buildings and replace them with gleaming new ones of the same brick and stone that, when well-power-washed, still shines today on a glorious summer evening. Washington Street was built under the eye of a city government that got out of people’s way of improving their own property, and didn’t incentivize or actively midwife wasteful megadeals. Washington Street was built by the very parents and grandparents of many of the people who today want to preserve it. But those ancestors would have been utterly baffled by the fact that we’d rather argue over buildings than maintain them. They’d be ashamed of a generation too afraid to make its own mark on this city, to build this city to its fullest potential. The people who welcomed generations of German, Irish, Italian, and other immigrants would be ashamed of descendants who say things like “we’re too full”.

The new proposed projects help preserve the best of what SoNo has to offer. They’re relatively small footprints — 3 buildings replaced by 2. They will demolish buildings that are at this point so damaged that it’s probably prohibitive to repair them. And what would create competition if not two different hotels next to each other?

As for going forward, we need to stop obsessing about preserving historical buildings whose replacements can make the neighborhood stronger and more resilient, while we ignore the landlords across the street who are actively neglecting buildings they hope to sell to the next block-sized megadeal, and while our city rewards the corrupt speculators who pet their egos with huge, wasteful lobbies and charge our best entrepreneurs extortionate commercial rents.

Let’s reward the entrepreneurs who come up with our most delicious and beloved restaurants. Let’s reward landlords who repair major damage and renovate problem properties so they can be profitable again, and who offer reasonable rents. Let’s reward the thousands of local small contractors who can build incremental improvements and expansions, many of whom just like our ancestors traveled thousands of miles to come build up America.

Saving three buildings will only keep them around until someone else finally succeeds in tearing them down. Saving Norwalk from this vicious cycle of speculation and neglect will preserve and grow Washington Street for generations to come.

David Muccigrosso

Comments

6 responses to “What are we actually saving on South Main?”

  1. Lee Levey

    SONO is arguably Norwalk’s best-known area. If you were to ask an out-of-towner about what they remember most about Norwalk, chances are they would say “SONO”. It is a significant part of our identity as a city. The soul of the city if you will. If we allow the historic district to be further eroded by new development, we will soon lose that soul.

    The significance of SONO is not about one or two grand buildings, it is about a collection of historic buildings that is more than the sum of its parts. The National Register of Historic Places nomination for the South Main and Washington Street Historic District states, “The primary significance of this portion of South Norwalk is that it is an extensive and cohesive collection of late 19th and early 20th century commercial buildings. Although there are several buildings which have architectural merit by themselves, the district as a whole is important because it preserves without intrusions a typical turn of the century urban streetscape…few places can match this district in the number of contiguous old buildings nor in the overall atmosphere created by the density of buildings, the variety of architectural styles and the ornate facades”. Two buildings that contribute to this “overall atmosphere” have already been demolished for the existing hotel built by TR SONO Partners, LLC. If this trend continues the historic district will slowly be eroded until there is nothing remaining.

    David Muccigrosso has a twisted sense of historic preservation. He equates poor stewardship and maintenance of historic buildings with the need to demolish them. He rightly puts the blame on the owners of these buildings. He states that 31-35 south Main Street, the Udelman Building, is an eyesore and that the owner should bear the responsibility for that. The owner is TR SONO Partners, LLC, the same company that now claims that it is beyond saving (which it is not) and must be demolished for their new hotel. They want to be rewarded for their lack of maintenance over the years and their failure to find tenants. They do not own the McMahon Building at 25 south Main Street but are the contract purchasers of it. It is hardly an “eyesore” and its owner has done a much better job of maintenance and marketing.

    Mr. Muccigrosso mentions that the buildings in the South Main and Washington Street Historic District were not built by “fusty historic preservationists” (his term). Instead, the two buildings in question were built by a hard-working Russian-Jewish immigrant, Louis Udelman, and an equally hard-working first generation Irish-American William H (Bill) McMahon, father of one of the most famous Norwalkers, Senator Brian McMahon. They were important members of the community, and these buildings are their gift to us and important parts of the story of Norwalk.

    The buildings in question can be rehabilitated in the same way most of Washington Street was saved in the 1980’s. If we were to accept the writer’s point of view that these building are not worthy, or beyond rehabilitation, there would be no Washington Street as we know it today. Our predecessors knew better, and that is why people think “SONO” when you mention Norwalk. In a recent study, Crosskey Architects, one of the most prominent historic rehabilitation firms in Connecticut, determined that the upper floors of both buildings would be suitable for approximately 20 or more apartments. This rehabilitation work could be partly financed by grants from the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency and Economic and Community Development. These grants could be combined with State and Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits, which can yield as much as 40% of the required equity for this type of project.

    Like the SONO community, then-Mayor Bill Collins, the Norwalk Preservation Trust and many other did in the 1980’s, we need to step up again to protect that which defines our past as a community and as a city, to insure that SONO remains one of Norwalk’s unique historic treasures.

    What are we actually saving on South Main Street? Part of Norwalk’s soul.

    Contact the Norwalk Preservation Trust for more information on how you can help save the these buildings at http://www.norwalkpreservation.org.

    Lee Levey
    President
    Norwalk Preservation Trust

  2. Jud Aley

    Thank you Mr. Levy for your rational response to Mr. Muccigrosso

  3. Thomas Rich

    Regarding 25 and 35 South Main Street
    F. D. Rich affiliate TR SONO Partners, LLC, applicant for proposed 100 room hotel, acquired 31-35 S. Main St. in 2008 as part of a portfolio that included a 10-12 and 14-16 S. Main St., and a significant portion of Washington Street properties between Main and Water Streets. At the time of acquisition, 31-35, now slated for an approved demolition, was already in such disrepair that we had to replace storefronts, and windows to get the building in a position where it could be leased. The furniture store tenant that was there prior to our purchase, promptly moved out after closing. As to the historic elements and overall facade condition, they were compromised long before we took ownership of that 100-year-old building. During ownership, despite our efforts to lease it, that property sat largely vacant. Apadana Rugs & Carpets was there for a while paying a very low rent but, in general, no one ever wanted to occupy the building, including its second-floor office space. Connecticut’s State Historic Preservation Office has already turned down appeals to save the building. As to 25 S. Main St., our historic preservation consultant, Michael Devonshire from Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, has concluded, “The loss of the historical integrity of the building façade is lamentable, and thus restoration is not possible, only reconstruction, of historic features. With the exception of the original extant cornice, nothing of historical value remains on the façade.”

    The Rich Company has been in business for over a century and is proud of our record in historic preservation when it is truly merited. In Stamford, our efforts led to the acquisition and preservation of the Atlantic Street Station Post Office. The same goes for the 1600-seat Palace Theatre. We found the buyer for the then Rich owned Avon Theatre who restored the building with wide community support, turning it into the cultural gem that it is today. Over a 1/4 of a century, I personally restored and preserved Marion Castle which was designed by Hunt and Hunt and completed in 1914 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1980, my first real estate project after graduating from Boston University was the restoration of an 1880’s dilapidated former room house at 23 Pinckney Street on Boston’s Beacon Hill. I went on to purchase the Thomas Lamb designed Paramount Theatre on that city’s Washington Street so that it could be incorporated into our Commonwealth Center project which was later developed as the Ritz Carlton Hotel and Towers. That building was ultimately restored by Emerson College as a 550-seat theater, a Performance Development Center, a 125-seat black box theater, a 170-seat film screening room, eight rehearsal studios and a sound stage for film production classes. The point is when something is worth saving, we’re up to the challenge. On the contrary, when it’s really not worth saving, we all need to be realistic about the pluses and minuses.

    How is it that iconic SONO isn’t the buzzing and vibrant place that everyone has worked and hoped it would become for so long? Why is there so much tenant turnover in this neighborhood with businesses opening and closing in a continuously repeated cycle? I can tell you, it’s not due to over development but under development. Simply investing in and preserving these historic properties, is not enough. The best strategy for historic preservation is to prioritize and save what’s truly meaningful and significant and replace the unimportant, obsolete, nonfunctional, and financially nonviable properties. Developments like the Residence Inn, Harbourside SoNo, SONO Pearl, The Platform, 19 Day, and Ironworks, just to name a view, not only increased the tax base but bring desperately needed patrons to the neighborhood…so that it can be saved. That is why we have almost 50 letters of support for this project, including from John Barricelli, the owner of Sono Baking Company, who wrote, “Our business on Hanford Place has doubled since Tom’s [Harbourside] complex opened.” Those words, without a doubt, prove that thoughtfully designed and strategically placed new developments are the only hope for the survival of South Norwalk’s historic district.

    Prior to the development of the Residence Inn, the existing building on that site that was part of this historic district generated $25,000 a year in property taxes. The Residence Inn has paid a whopping $752,000 in property taxes since its completion in 2019. Since opening, the hotel has paid CT room sales occupancy tax totaling $2,199,732.

    When redeveloped, 25 and 31-35 South Main Street is projected to bring in $443,644 a year in property taxes vs. $56,849 which the properties are paying today. The CT room sales occupancy tax is projected to be $785,417 a year. In addition to these significant financial benefits, the new hotel is expected to provide approximately 30 permanent jobs to local residents.

    On all fronts, this project, is a win-win for the City of Norwalk, the neighborhood, and for historic preservation because it helps the traditional historic retail areas treat are worth saving gain the critical economic support where these business are housed.

    Thank you. Thomas L. Rich

  4. Tim Claydon

    Whilst I can agree with a lot of what Mr. Levey writes, other than “20 or more apartments”, I fail to see any detailed proposals for full usage of the buildings. The city is blighted with unused ground floor space – new and old – that is never going to be used for its original purpose of retail, dining or other services. Until as a community we can addresss this glut – and prevent more from being built – we are having the wrong argument.

  5. David Muccigrosso

    Thank you for the support, Thomas! It’s nice to know that the facts are on our side.

    As I outlined in my letter, I’m personally leery of many of the projects that get approved around here, even despite their benefits, but please know I have no reservations on yours. It’s a clear win, and I wish other developers around here were as responsible as you.

  6. Thomas Rich

    David, thank you very much for your thoughtful comments. Much appreciated. All the best, Tom

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