Uncertainty over National Hall site leaves part of downtown Westport in limbo
Winston Churchill once used the phrase, "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" to describe the Soviets. However, in 2010 the phrase might be apropos regarding the fate of the National Hall building, a historic landmark, built in 1873, that sits along the Saugatuck River in downtown Westport.
Town officials -- from First Selectman Gordon Joseloff to Town Clerk Patricia Strauss to Planning & Zoning Director Laurence Bradley -- have not been given any word on plans for the site, which was home to a bed-and-breakfast inn that earned the coveted AAA four-diamond award numerous times. There are no such ratings anymore. The inn is vacant, and the first floor, which once housed various restaurants and, more recently, a bank, is also devoid of activity.
The inn was fashioned after Europe's elite manor houses and no room was alike. However, it closed in early March after Antares Investment Partners, like so many businesses in this economy, experienced financial troubles. Since that time, South Norwalk-based Greenfield Partners, which had owned the building some time ago, regained ownership.
"It wasn't a purchase. It was a foreclosure," said Strauss. "A certificate of foreclosure came through the office, which means there was no money exchanged, but the owner of the mortgage is now the owner of the property." The Anglo Irish Bank, which held the mortgage for the properties, subsequently transferred the mortgage to M.U.N. Capital, LLC.
According to the Secretary of the State's website, ownership of the property has since been split between five limitied liability companies (LLCs). The listed principal of each LLC is M.U.N., which has the same business address as Greenfield Partners' South Norwalk office. In addition, all of the warranty deeds from M.U.N. to all of the "NatHall" LLCs were signed by Barry P. Marcus as a member of the LLCs. Marcus is a senior vice president of M.U.N. as well as a senior vice president of Greenfield Partners.
A call placed to Greenfield Partners' office Monday was transferred to Mark Coe, who noted that his company, Coe Management, is the property manager of National Hall. However, Coe declined to provide details regarding the future use of the site.
"When it's time I will," he said.
The Italianate structure was built in 1873 and was first used as storage for cargo unloaded by boats at the nearby dock. Some time later, it served as a state police barracks. The ground floor, separate from the hotel space, housed several restaurants over the years, but none proved to have staying power. In fact, the last business to occupy the ground floor space was Washington Mutual Bank, which Bradley said primarily dealt in mortgages.
Early this year, the Representative Town Meeting overturned the Planning and Zoning Commission's approval of an amendment permitting office space on the first floor. The request for the change was filed by Greenfield Partners, which was seeking to purchase the building from Antares.
Bradley said the P&Z approved the change of use, indicating that it was good for the town and in conformance with the Town Plan, which calls for, among other things, a vibrant and active downtown.
"Obviously the RTM felt differently," he said.
"I think an active property is better than an inactive property," Bradley said. He added it's hard to say what might be a better use of the site -- retail, bank or office use -- but any one of those three would appear better than a vacancy. As the P&Z reviewed the change of use request last fall, a lot of discussion centered on several commissioners' desire to get a restaurant in the space.
"What is needed on that first floor is retail to create the foot traffic for the rest of the area," he said. "I would love to see the west side of the Saugatuck made more vibrant, more mom and pop, with a more artsy character of its own."
He added that, "I don't want to see the inn destroyed. I think a hotel can remain there if there are people who want to run it."
Bradley said the commission "would be very receptive" to a restaurant on the site, noting such a use would attract people on evenings and weekends, which an office would not.
But Coe isn't letting on what's in the works for the first floor, or the rest of the building for that matter.
Bradley said the Town Plan's guidelines call for buildings to be utilized, occupied and to "contribute to the character of the neighborhood."
Paula Savignol, who runs L'Antiguaire, an antiques store in the National Hall complex, did not want to speak on the record about what she would like to see done with the National Hall building. However, it's clear she wants to see some change.
"It looks like a ghost town around here right now," she said.
Savignol wasn't the only one who chose not to discuss National Hall's future. Joseloff also refused comment.