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Lost history, Seaside's sad saga

Published April 08. 2014 4:00AM

Unfortunately, it appears one of our primary motivations for supporting a long-standing and long-troubled proposal for redeveloping the Seaside Regional Property in Waterford - preservation of its historic structures - is off the table.

"Rehabilitation of the existing buildings is no longer feasible and prudent," the State Historic Preservation Office has concluded. In reaching that decision, the office points to a severe deterioration of the buildings that has left them structurally unsafe.

Those buildings - particularly the H-shaped main building with its landmark conical tower - are testaments to our history and how we cared for one another. The state built the property in the early 1930s as a tuberculosis sanatorium.

Well-regarded architect Cass Gilbert incorporated in his design the mindset of the time. His building would not be blandly functional, but architecturally interesting and inspiring. The mental attitude of the patients, along with rest and sea air, was seen as instrumental in mitigating the affliction of the lungs.

Later the building and others on the 32-acre campus housed adults and children with mental retardation - now more appropriately labeled the developmentally disabled - before being abandoned when society moved past the era of institutional care.

Sometimes preservationists label a building historic when it is simply old. The buildings at Seaside, particularly the main structure, were truly historic.

Blame for the looting and deterioration rests with the state. As was the case at the Norwich Hospital property in Preston and Norwich, the state abandoned Seaside with no strategy to secure and maintain the buildings and property for future reuse.

Since the late 1990s, Farmington developer Mark Steiner has pursued his proposal to redevelop the Seaside buildings as condominiums. We have supported this project because it would save the buildings and include a 4.5-acre public park, assuring public access to the shoreline.

To a significant extent, the developer's inability to move forward stems from the state's failure to pursue a consistent policy. At various points the state has supported the plan, failed to provide the necessary administrative backing to steer it through the approval process, abandoned it in favor of leaving it as open space, then returned to the redevelopment idea.

Under the Malloy administration, the Department of Administrative Services, responsible for handling any future sale of the building, has tried to work with Mr. Steiner. But the developer has opted for a low profile, failing to return this newspaper's calls. It is unclear exactly what he has in mind now.

Last year Mr. Steiner was pushing for creation of a special taxing district for Seaside, anticipating taxes collected from future condo owners would help provide the revenue stream necessary to obtain construction financing. Lacking support at the state or town level, Mr. Steiner withdrew the proposal.

Having convinced the state preservation office that the buildings cannot be saved - the most costly aspect of the project - perhaps Mr. Steiner can get the numbers to work without his proposed tax district. But at the very least, Mr. Steiner or any future developer with similar plans should be required to incorporate architectural elements of the former sanatorium into new construction.

Given his persistence and the state's lack of cooperation in the past, state authorities should give Mr. Steiner a reasonable opportunity to finally move his project forward. However, Waterford First Selectman Dan Steward has it right when he says that the process cannot be open-ended. At some point, deadlines must be set and progress demonstrated.

If the current preferred developer cannot demonstrate the ability to do the job, the state should entertain other development proposals, with the stipulation they must include public access to the shoreline.

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