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Story By John Murray
A funky old house on Central Avenue in Waterbury has triggered a philosophical debate about history, community good and real estate values. The proposed demolition of a Victorian era multi-family home has also put a newly crafted demolition delay ordinance to the test.
It’s a simple story at first. The Smirna Misionera at 30 Central Avenue in downtown Waterbury is seeking to expand and grow. Smirna is a Spanish speaking church that is looking to demolish a neighboring house it purchased to create a parking lot for its parishioners. The church has been on Central Ave for 24 years.
The hitch in the church’s plans is that the house they are planning to demolish was built during the 1890s in the Queen Anne style and sits inside the Historic Hillside Neighborhood District. And significantly, nearly a hundred Waterbury residents have signed a petition to stop the wrecking ball from flattening the house to make way for a parking lot.
The Victorian house on Central Avenue in downtown Waterbury is scheduled to be demolished unless Waterbury residents can intervene for the good of the community. Photographs of the house by Raechel Guest.
If the house is going to be saved, though, more city residents need to sign the petition and speak out. It will be difficult to nearly impossible to halt the church’s planned expansion if there is not a stronger and louder public response. Waterbury residents have until June to express themselves.
The community debate about tearing down significant buildings in Waterbury started four years ago when the Basilica at the Immaculate Conception demolished the historical Trinity Episcopal Church without giving the community an opportunity to discuss other options. There was a strong community backlash against the demolition of Trinity to create additional parking for parishioners of the Basilca.
The demolition of the Trinity Episcopal Church revealed that the city had no tools in place to protect historic buildings from the wrecking ball..
Although Trinity Church could not be saved, the executive director of the Silas Bronson Library, Raechel Guest, organized a meeting with Brad Schide of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation who strongly advocated for the creation of a “demo delay ordinance” in Waterbury.
Brad Schide of the Connecticut Trust For Historic Preservation.
Schide addressed the first meeting of concerned residents in October 2018 and said Waterbury was the only city in Connecticut that did not have a demo delay ordinance, which he said was “outrageous.”
The group of citizens continued to work with representatives from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation to guide legislation through the Board of Aldermen and create a demolition delay ordinance in Waterbury. This is its first test.
It works like this; anyone interested in safeguarding Waterbury history can sign up to be notified whenever a protected or historic building is scheduled to be torn down. In the aftermath of the Trinity debacle four years ago Raechel Guest helped create the Waterbury Preservation Society and the group is notified of any impending demolitions.
When Smirna Misionera applied for a demolition permit to tear down the Victorian house, the Waterbury Preservation Society was notified and they went and looked at the home. The group debated amongst themselves and with the Connecticut Trust For Historic Preservation to ponder their next move.
Guest said it was not an easy decision.
“This is the trial balloon on this whole thing to see if it works and what sort of response do you get from the public when you raise your hand and say “demo delay?” Guest said.
Raechel Guest is a fierce advocate of Waterbury history and is the executive director of the Silas Bronson Library, and a member of the Waterbury Preservation Society.
After some deliberation Guest said the Waterbury Preservation Society decided to object to the demolition and step through the process.
“Our objection triggered a 90-day delay that gave us time to gauge public interest in the house,” Guest said. “We put out a petition to see if there’s public interest and this is where we’re at now.”
If enough people sign the petition by June the next step would be assisted by Connecticut Trust For Historic Preservation to try to find a solution working with the property owner. If the public response is significant, and the property owner doesn’t want to negotiate, the issue of demolition could go through the court system.
So who determines what level of public interest moves the process to the next step?
“Preservation Connecticut would because they do this all the time,” Guest said. “They would look to see how many people signed the petition and see if it if it looks like there really is enough interest in the house that it would be worth the effort. They’ve done this many times in municipalities all over Connecticut. They have a good feel for whether or not a battle is worth fighting.”
Demolition delay does not stop demolition, but slows down the process to allow for other options to be explored. Why is that important? Consider that a little more than a decade ago the city almost demolished Waterbury City Hall before Waterbury residents voted to bond money for a complete restoration. Now the Cass Gilbert designed building is one of the most beautiful city halls in New England. Waterbury almost committed a colossal blunder.
Waterbury City Hall was designed by famed architech, Cass Gilbert.
The Queen Anne house on Central Ave doesn’t have the community impact of City Hall or Trinity Episcopal Church, but it’s the first property that anyone filed paperwork to enact the demo delay ordinance, and there are thoughts to ponder.
“The concept of owning a historic building is misleading,” Guest said. “You’re not the owner of the building, you’re the caretaker of the building. When you own a historic property, you’re taking care of it for future generations. This house has been around for a very long time and a lot of people would hope it would be around for a long time to come.”
Some might think the demolition delay ordinance is an overreach that is stomping on the rights of the property owner, but Guest insists that a community does have a right to say what happens.
“The process does not dictate what the property owner can or can’t do,” Guest said. “The process allows the community an opportunity to have its voice heard and to negotiate and to try and to find a compromise solution that works for everyone.”
This particular building is important for its architecture, it’s not important in terms of who lived there or other historical impact.
“It’s a really interesting building in that it was a Victorian apartment building, and you don’t see a lot of that. Most of the houses in the Hillside Neighborhood have been converted to apartments, but those were single family residences. This one was built as a multifamily structure. It’s unfortunate that we might lose it because that neighborhood needs apartment houses, and here’s one right right there in this Victorian style.”
A unique aspect of the house is it was designed as multi-family home in the 1890s.
Another factor in the debate is neighborhood identity and real estate value. Guest said if too many houses in the Hillside Historic District and torn down the neighborhood will be destroyed.
“The value of the properties in that neighborhood ties into the historic character of those buildings,” Guest said. “When you start demolishing contributing buildings, and this is a contributing building in a historic district that’s on the National Register, you no longer have a historic district. And that destroys the value of the entire neighborhood. So every single property owner in the entire neighborhood, ultimately is impacted by the removal of this one building.”
Erin Murray. believes the house should be saved. “Waterbury is constantly bashed around Connecticut, and most disturbingly by its own population. One of the few aspects of the city which has retained unwavering admiration and respect is our historic architecture,” Murray said. “The housing shortage and incoming Amazon warehouse will increase the likelihood of these buildings encountering ambitious developers pushing for their demise. Many of these properties are easily demolished due to blight, but 30 Central Avenue is far from disarray.”
Murray acknowledges the city landscape will change in the coming years and believes efforts to protect and preserve historic properties needs to be a central focus of residents and officials.
“The architecture of downtown is central to Waterbury’s identity,” Murray said, “restoring these structures and revitalizing public support for the city’s history would make the city a more attractive location than any new construction could dream.”
If you’re interested in signing the petition, click on the link below.