The renowned late 19th, early 20th century architect Cass Gilbert gained a lasting reputation with works such as the Woolworth Building and U.S. Supreme Court building. His legacy in Connecticut is no less impressive, including masterpieces such as Hartford’s G. Fox building, Waterbury’s city hall and New Haven’s Union Station.
Connecticut is also the home of one of Gilbert’s last great buildings, one that is possibly his most under-appreciated. That is Seaside in Waterford, where Gilbert achieved a unique marriage of form and function.
His charge in 1931 was to build a sanitarium for children with tuberculosis that would use what was called heliotropic treatment, extensive exposure to sun and fresh air.
Gilbert designed the main hospital building as a great throne, a majestic four-story Tudor Revival structure with large terraces on either side, like arms reaching toward the sea, where youngsters could sit outside for much of the year. Drug treatments for TB made the heliotropic method obsolete by mid-century, but the distinctive building, and three accompanying buildings, remained.
Sadly, the state has let them go to hell over the last 20 years. Officials brought in the same developer three times to redevelop the property, and each time pulled it back from him. The last time, two years ago, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy made the surprise announcement that the 32-acre site would become a state park.
Since then, state workers have spruced up the site and produced a plan to build a 100-room lodge on it.
But it is far from clear whether the state’s intervention will survive legal challenge, or whether the historic Cass Gilbert buildings will be saved.
Seaside spent its last quarter century of service as a regional center for persons with intellectual disabilities, closing in 1996. Then the state began its cumbersome process of disposing of surplus property. A disposition committee met for 18 months. The site was offered to other agencies and to the town, all of whom declined.
In 2000 the state named Mark Steiner of Farmington the preferred developer. Steiner, who developed the Hamilton Heights Place and Duncaster senior living complexes in the Hartford area, offered $2.5 million and planned to turn the property into “active adult” housing.
He committed to preserving the historic buildings and maintaining public access to the shoreline. He got zoning approval in 2004, overcoming a court challenge by some nearby residents.
But the scandals surrounding Gov. John Rowland caused a shakeup in the state Department of Public Works. The new commissioner thought the price was too low, so started the process over again. Though Steiner felt the property was worth more because he had gotten zoning approvals, he upped his offer to $7.1 million, the state accepted, and it looked as if the deal would finally be consummated.
But the Sisyphean stone rolled down the hill again, in 2007. Gov. M. Jodi Rell visited the site, was struck by its beauty, and decided not to sell it. Steiner was stuck again.
By late 2009, with the economy in full swoon, Rell changed her mind and put it back on the market. Steiner upped his bid to $8 million and it was accepted in 2010. He hoped the third time would be the charm. Almost.
It was now a decade after Steiner had first submitted his plans, and some things had changed. The market for age-restricted housing had dried up, in part because the sector had been overbuilt. More importantly, the state had done little to protect the Seaside buildings, and they continued to deteriorate. Steiner wasn’t sure he could save them.
He went to the town and requested zoning changes to remove the age restriction and to allow him to replicate the buildings if he could not preserve them, as was done more than a decade ago at the grand Ocean House in Watch Hill, R.I. The changes were approved, opponents appealed and Steiner prevailed, thought it took a couple of years.
By 2014 he had one more change; he wanted to add a 32-room luxury hotel to go with about 100 upscale condominium units in the $200 million project. He brought in management from the Ocean House to run the Seaside hotel.
Again, Lucy pulled the football just as Charlie Brown was about to kick it. Steiner went to the Waterford Planning and Zoning commission in September of 2014 to get approval for the hotel. The vote was 3-2 in favor. Unfortunately for Steiner, he needed a supermajority, at least 4-1, because a petition had been filed against the project.
Steiner’s lawyers immediately filed an appeal, claiming that one of the “no” voters should have recused himself because he was an adjoining property owner who had previously opposed the project and whose wife had been a party to litigation against it.
But in late September, before the appeal could be heard, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy stepped in, said Steiner had had long enough to get his land use approvals, terminated the contract and announced that the property would become a state park, the first shoreline park to be added to the state park system since the inclusion of Bluff Point in Groton in 1963.
Republicans immediately ascribed a political motive. Malloy was in a tough fight for reelection, and Malloy’s Democratic ally State Rep. Betsy Ritter of Waterford, was in a battle for the 20th District state Senate seat. Here was a chance for positive publicity, or so the theory went.
If it was a political ploy — Malloy dismissed the criticism — it wasn’t going to fly in Waterford. Though there was a determined core of mostly nearby residents who opposed significant development at Seaside, there also was considerable support for Steiner’s project, including among town officials (Malloy won; Ritter lost).
Waterford First Selectman Daniel Steward, a Republican and supporter of the Steiner project, said it would have brought in $2 million-$3 million a year in property tax revenue and retained public access to the shore. He has wrestled with the Seaside issue for all 11 years he has been in office. “It is absolutely a challenge to the town. We’ve been up and down with it, and we certainly haven’t seen a good result,” he said in a telephone interview.
Steiner, frustrated again and again, has filed a $20 million lawsuit against the state, and is awaiting a decision by the Office of the Claims Commissioner, a prerequisite for pursuing a legal action against the state.
He would appear to have a plausible argument. He was found in default of his sales contract for failing “to receive or diligently pursue” land use approvals. But the contract says that if the issuance of permits or approvals has been appealed, he can automatically extend the permitting period. He is also supposed to have 15 days to cure a default, if one is detected.
While the parties wait to see who prevails, the park project has moved smartly ahead.
Do the numbers work?
The park project — which took almost everyone by surprise — was given to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. The department has done yeoman work in cleaning up the scenic property, and among other things has finally installed a decent security fence around the main building. Incredibly, partying teenagers, vandals and ghost hunters have been letting themselves into the building over the years; that it didn’t burn down is probably a tribute to its mostly brick and concrete construction.
The DEEP began a planning process that has produced a “preferred alternative” of a destination park with a 100-room lodge, such as are found at some large national parks, with amenities such as a spa, restaurant and conference center. The department engaged a consultant, PKF Consulting, to determine the viability of the hotel idea.
The firm concluded that the market would support a hotel on the site. What raised eyebrows was the estimate of how much it would cost. The consultant’s report says a $10 million-plus investment by the state will prepare the exterior walls of the two major buildings, the hospital and the nurses residence, for an $8 million investment by a private developer and voila, the project is ready to go for $18.8 million. Another part of the report adds some other work that would push the number up to $21 million.
But as Paul Choiniere of The New London Day reported, a Department of Public Works estimate in 2007 said it would cost $47.75 million to restore and reuse the building. After nine more years of deterioration, the price is less than half of what it was?
DEEP Deputy Commissioner Susan Whalen said she and her colleagues aren’t familiar with the 2007 study, or what assumptions went into it, but are relying on the numbers from the PKS study.
In which case, the market will likely determine the fate of the Seaside buildings. Whalen said the next step will be an environmental impact evaluation, which will take six to nine months. If the site passes muster, the state will seek a private partner to move the project ahead. The response from the development community will affirm the PKS numbers, or not. Steiner said a couple of years ago that estimates by his engineers were in line with the almost $48 million Public Works estimate, which is why he had pretty much decided to replicate the main building, rather than try to repair it.
The hotel idea has not met with universal opposition in Waterford. Whalen said some who spoke at public meetings opposed it, but others “remembered when it was a busy hospital, and thought it would be nice to have a restaurant to walk to.”
Why at all?
The broader criticism of the project, raised by the Yankee Institute and by Republican legislators such as Rep. Melissa Ziobron of East Haddam, is why the state plans to spend $10 million or more when a private developer was going to pay the state $8 million to develop it and keep public access.
Though funds from the Seaside project would come from bonding, cuts in the parks operating budget this summer, causing shorter hours and fewer staff at some parks, don’t help the optics of the project. Another wrinkle is that the $8 million would have gone for housing for persons with intellectual disabilities, a major state need.
Whalen said in essence that the state took the long view: that shoreline property is hard to get because most of it is in private hands, and here was a chance to add a 32-acre site with 1,500 feet of shoreline to the park portfolio for future generations. She said the state plan keeps much more of the site open to the public than Steiner’s plan did.
Late on a mid-July Friday afternoon fewer that a dozen people lolled at the new state park. One or two swam at the small sandy beach, others parked chairs and took in the sun and fresh air. All looked toward the blue water and white sailboats, none at the grand building decaying behind them, a victim of two decades of poor stewardship, bad timing and bad luck.