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Preservationists hope to sway owner to stay demolition of Post Road West houses

Published 12:17 pm, Tuesday, February 11, 2014

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  • Members of the Historic District Commission climb through snow drifts to tour two blighted Post Road West houses Monday that they would like to convince the owner to save from planned demolition. Photo: Jarret Liotta / Westport News contributed
    Members of the Historic District Commission climb through snow drifts to tour two blighted Post Road West houses Monday that they would like to convince the owner to save from planned demolition. Photo: Jarret Liotta

 

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A house divided will not stand, and although that's the fate the owner has in mind for two deteriorating Post Road West houses, Historic District Commission members hope to find an alternative to demolishing the structures.

Commission members on Monday toured two houses recently designated as blighted by the recently established Blight Prevention Board, joined by an architect from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation.

Gregory Farmer, Connecticut circuit rider for the non-profit trust, said the buildings 57 Post Road West at the corner of Cross Street, which was built in approximately 1825, and 63 Post Road West, circa 1850, could be saved and restored, if the owner so chooses.

"There are two good historic structures here," he said, "well-built, poorly treated."

The property owner, Cross Street, LLC, had filed for permits to demolish the buildings, but the HDC last month refused to issue a waiver of the 180-day delay automatically imposed on the demolition of historic buildings in town. Two other structures on the site, however, can be razed as soon as the owner wants, while a fifth building is currently rented by a tenant.

Over many years the Post Road West buildings have deteriorated from neglect, much to the consternation of neighbors who have expressed concern about not only their appearance, as well, as health and safety issues regarding asbestos and lead paint.

Representative Town Meeting member Louis Mall, District 2, who lives nearby and was instrumental in the creation of the Blight Prevention Board, joined the tour Monday.

"If you lived in this neighborhood, wouldn't you want to see it removed?" Mall asked Farmer, who reserved judgment.

Farmer, however, did say that while the cosmetics of each house are lacking -- and poor-quality additions later were added -- the core of each house is, in his estimation, sound and salvageable, contingent on whether the owner wants to do the work.

"The main block is very solidly built and nicely detailed," he said of 57 Post Road West, noting that 63 Post Road West is in better shape.

"We try to look beyond the cosmetic appearance to see if the building is basically sound," he said. "The deterioration of the surfaces is basically very normal."

The buildings have holes in rotting roofs, broken windows and floor boards, peeling paint and general decay.

"The additions were not well-constructed," Farmer added, "and it's no surprise they'd be deteriorating."

Farmer said, however, that he could not issue a report because he would need to know what the plans might be in development for the property's future use.

Stephen Grathwohl, principal with Westport Property Management, LLC, was on hand representing owner Cross Street, LLC, and its principal Russel Bernard. Bernard is the managing principal of Westport Capital Partners, LLC, an investment management company, according to its website, "focused exclusively on opportunistic and distressed real estate investments."

Grathwohl told the blight board last month that, because of downturns in the economy, plans to develop the property have not been formulated.

"You can't justify the cost it would take to fix up either one of these," Grathwohl said. "You could never get your money back ... They're so far gone."

Matthew Mandell, an RTM member from District 1, who also visited the houses, said there is a possibility that the town could strike a deal for incentives to make restoration more attractive to a developer. He cited the Terrain store on Post Road East, where owners were invited to propose a text amendment that enabled them to modify parking requirements in exchange for preserving an old house on the property that also was to be demolished.

"It gives them an advantage to save the historic house," he said.

Asked if restoring the house would satisfy neighbors, Mall said it would "show that the blight ordinance worked," as "nothing's been done for 15 years" to repair the properties. But now, he said, the law is prompting action.

Francis Henkels, the Historic District Commission chairman, said the commission would now determine what sort of proposal or suggestion it might make to Bernard and Cross Street, LLC.

"Our next step is to approach the owner and request a response," he said.