National Hall sought for corporate offices
Published 1:04 am, Wednesday, November 18, 2009
A small town like Westport doesn't really have a skyline, but National Hall is one building that dominates the downtown view. Built in 1873, the building is protected as a historic property, so the view will probably never change.
The interior of the building is a different story.
Citing a failed attempt at creating the National Hall and surrounding buildings into a viable retail market, a developer is hoping for a change in zoning laws that would enable the historic brick building on the east side of the Saugatuck to be converted into its corporate headquarters.
Buildings in the Historic Design District can only have 10 percent of the total floor area dedicated to business offices, with none permitted on the ground floor.
Larry Weisman, an attorney representing Greenfield Partners, which has entered into a contract to purchase the property pursuant to the zoning change, has submitted a proposed text amendment that would make it so 10 percent of the total space has to be retail with no floor restrictions.
"It's one thing to have a planning goal and it's another to have market forces at work," he said at an Oct. 1 presentation to the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z). "The market always wins and no matter how good your plans are and how salutary your goals are, if you ignore the market realities you're not going to succeed at achieving your goals."
Greenfield Partners, which once owned the buildings, will be repurchasing them from Antares Real Estate, pursuant to the zoning change. Antares purchased the buildings in 2006 for $19.85 million.
Some retail space will be used, and Weisman said that his client intends to create large public spaces and a restaurant with a view of the river just outside the Historic Design District. The National Hall, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, currently houses the upscale Inn at National Hall, which opened in 1993.
The application notes a 75 percent vacancy rate in the district's buildings.
Many retailers have failed at the spot, according to Weisman, and some would only pay deeply discounted rents. He said that the last two restaurants in the building have failed and condominiums in the building would also not work because there's no market for such a thing.
Weisman had a number of people ranging in fields from the restaurant industry to real estate speak about the infeasibility of the site due to difficult access, poor signage and the inability to change the buildings due to its historic designation
"The regulation, as it now stands, is unworkable because there are no practical, marketable uses for the upper floor of the Post Road building and you need to look at that carefully," said Weisman.
One of the people who spoke in support of the zoning change was Patrick Smith, a principal and executive vice president SRS Real Estate Partners. According to the company's Web site, SRS Real Estate is the "largest national retail real estate company in the USA."
Smith talked about the downturn in the retail industry and the effect it has had on landlords. He also spoke of the potential of the National Hall building and its surroundings. According to Smith, the divide between the west side of the bridge and its distance from what is traditionally known as "downtown" results in a difficult retail environment.
"It's a terrific location," he said. "No argument, but it really is disconnected from downtown by a natural boundary, which is the river, and even though we're only 300 yards away, that natural boundary exists and you're not getting the foot traffic ... that you think, at least on paper."
At the Nov. 12 P&Z work session, the members tried balancing the proposed retail floor space change with office space. There was talk of a restaurant being counted as double the retail floor space and having the retail space upped from 10 to 15 percent.
The main obstacle proved to be the building on 18 Post Road W., which houses L'Antiquaire and is owned by the Savignol family. That building is not included in the proposed sale to Greenfield Partners, and the commission had difficulty in coming up with a way that it would not be included in the amendment change.
"I think we should deny [the proposed amendment] and say somebody has to come back with a better idea," said commission member David Press. "We're sitting here and we're scratching our heads and we don't know if this will help or make things worse."
P&Z Chairman Ron Corwin said that thought occurred to him since they were struggling to come up with a way that could pass legal tests. Still, he said, they should wait until meeting on Dec. 3.
"What we gain by not saying no now, we give ... an opportunity for [P&Z] director Larry Bradley to work with ... the town attorney and see what the boundaries are that we can operate [under]," said Corwin. "We can always say no two weeks from now."
Commission member Catherine Walsh was most vocal about her concerns with the development.
"This whole thing still bothers me. I don't buy into so many things that were presented," she said. "Again, I think there's something we're not being told. ... There's a lack of transparency within that whole area."