Obstacles remain for National Hall conversion
Time is running out on the sale that would turn the high-end Inn at National Hall into an office building.
According to Larry Weisman, an attorney who presented the case for the text amendment that permits the change from an inn to an office building, the contract between the potential purchasers and the owners expires in early February.
"What would happen [if the sale doesn't go through] is that the bank would take over and they'd have a fire sale," said Weisman, who added that it would be possible to renegotiate the contract.
The Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z) has already given its approval for the amendment that affects the Historic Design District, which includes the buildings on the west bank of the Saugatuck River, along Post Road West.
However, the deal between the current owners, Antares Investment Partners, their lenders at TD Bank and Greenfield Partners, a Norwalk-based real estate investment company that wants to use the building as its offices, is far from settled.
An appeal of the P&Z decision has been filed in Bridgeport Superior Court by Paula Savignol, the owner of the only building in the district not currently owned by Antares. Opponents of the changed zoning requirements have also appealed to the Planning and Zoning committee of the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) in order to get the zoning change reversed.
Weisman stated that the modifications the Planning and Zoning Commission made when approving the text amendment were not ideal, but he believes that the sale would likely go through despite the lawsuit, as long as the commission's decision is not overturned by the RTM.
On Monday, the committee worked toward making a written recommendation to the full RTM to overturn the decision, but committee members did not reach a consensus by the meeting's close just past midnight. A continuance was scheduled for this evening.
In order for the P&Z decision to be overturned, 24 out of 36 RTM members must vote in favor of reverting the district back to its original zoning regulations. The full RTM is scheduled to meet at 8 p.m. on Jan. 13 in the Town Hall auditorium.
Don Bergmann was one of 32 residents who signed a petition that requires the committee to review the P&Z decision. He believes that the decision was rushed due to concerns of what might happen if the building isn't sold and the bank is forced to take over.
"We are making this big decision on National Hall because of the fear that somehow it's going to work out badly if we don't go with these people," he said.
Greenfield Partners entered into an agreement with Antares to purchase the National Hall building, and several other surrounding buildings both in and just outside of the district, for approximately $9 million as long as the zoning regulation was changed. Greenfield Partners originally owned the buildings, but sold them in 2006 for approximately $20 million to Antares.
Several retailers in the area expressed concern over the effect an office building would have on the area. They also outlined parking woes, which they feel would be exacerbated by a new office building.
Savignol, who owns the building housing L'Antiquaire, an antique store at 18 Post Road W., presented a timeline to the committee detailing the history of the neighboring buildings. She also presented seven letters: two from previous tenants who wanted to renew their leases and five from potential tenants.
"These were not frivolous inquiries -- all of them are written by shop owners who subsequently opened stores in Westport," she said, later adding, "Year after year whenever we saw the maintenance people enter the vacant shop next door, we would anxiously rush out and ask if they were preparing for a new tenant. To our dismay, we were told repeatedly that no, the owners were keeping it for office space."
In the original zoning regulation, which went into effect in 1987, only 10 percent of the Historic Design District could go toward office space and none was allowed on the ground floor. In the approved amendment, 20 percent of the floor space of all the buildings have to be dedicated to retail.
That 20 percent equates to the ground floor space of all the buildings in the district, not including the National Hall. The L'Antiquaire building is included in the 20 percent of retail space.
The plan to turn National Hall into an office building isn't the first change to the building, which dates back to 1873. Originally, there was a dock where merchants would unload their products and place them in the National Hall. It served a variety of uses since then, and became an inn in 1993. In 2006, there was a proposed change put forth by The Higgins Group to permit real estate offices on the ground floor in the area, but this ultimately failed. A plan to allow condos was passed, but no condos were ever built. The amendment still encourages residential land use.