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Bedford Square developers file Gunn house demolition permit, but hope to save it

Updated 8:04 am, Friday, April 19, 2013
  • Bedford Square Associates wants to relocate a Queen Anne-style house at 35 Church Lane to the Baldwin parking lot. Photo: Paul Schott / Westport News
    Bedford Square Associates wants to relocate a Queen Anne-style house at 35 Church Lane to the Baldwin parking lot. Photo: Paul Schott

 

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Awaiting the Planning and Zoning Commission review of its site plan to redevelop the downtown Westport Weston Family Y property, Bedford Square Associates has applied to tear down a Queen Anne-style house it owns on an adjacent lot.

But the Westport development group maintains the application is meant to facilitate the house's relocation, not its demolition.

"While the house is not part of our plans for our mixed-use Bedford Square development project, we know it is important to many people in Westport to have it preserved," Bedford Square Associates said Wednesday in a statement. "We are confident that by working together, this historic house can be preserved."

Bedford Square plans to remove the vacant Gunn house -- named after the late Colin "Ben" Gunn, who opened his law practice there in 1954 -- from 35 Church Lane to make way for several new buildings in its mixed-use project. Construction of the new development is slated to start in the fall of 2014.

Bedford Square has offered to donate the structure, built in 1890, to the town and pay for its relocation yards away to a plot in the municipal Baldwin parking lot on Elm Street. The house would take up 17 spaces in the Baldwin lot, according to Bedford Square spokeswoman Karen Johnson.

That proposal has garnered support from a number of town officials, including First Selectman Gordon Joseloff. Proponents of the house's relocation to the Baldwin lot argue that it would preserve one of the town center's most historically significant buildings and help foster use of Elm Street as a transitional corridor between Main Street and nearby residential neighborhoods.

To achieve that goal, Representative Town Meeting members Matthew Mandell and Don Bergmann, both District 1, and Historic District Commission Chairman Francis Henkels are helping to write a request for proposals for a developer to assume ownership and renovate the house. The trio says the refurbished house would be well-suited for independent "mom-and-pop" businesses and possibly for office and residential tenants as well.

Relocating the approximately 3,200-square-foot house to the Baldwin lot would require approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Because the Gunn house is more than 50 years old, the town charter stipulates a 180-day waiting period following the date that the town building official received Bedford Square's application until the structure can be torn down. Bedford Square filed its application April 12.

After the waiting period elapses, and provided that Bedford Square meets building code standards for disconnecting utilities, a demolition permit can be issued. But Building Official Steve Smith pointed out that a demolition permit application does not automatically mean that an owner wants to tear down a structure.

"The idea of the waiting period is to find alternative solutions for saving the building," he said. "It starts the clock and gives them some options. That's really the case here. It's critical if someone is interested in saving the house that they step up and respond to the RFP."

Mandell said he was not surprised that Bedford Square had filed the demolition application.

"It now makes it that much more clear that we have a finite window in which to work to save the house, preserve downtown history and character, recreate the streetscape on Elm street and at the same time bring in a revenue stream for the town," he said.

Bergmann expressed a similar view.

"It's clear that if we don't relocate it, it's going to be demolished," he said. "That's why we're all trying to move it [the RFP] ahead quickly."

pschott@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott