NEW LONDON — The owner of a building on Green Street that briefly housed a Black-owned lending institution and civic group in the 1920s will use tax credits to renovate the structure into “micro-loft” apartments and a restaurant space.
The State Historic Preservation Office last week approved developer Brian Lyman’s application for Historic Preservation tax credits that offset 30 percent of the projected $1,050,000 project cost. He has also applied to the National Park Service for a federal credit to offset an additional 20 percent of costs.
Lyman said that the second and third stories of the building at 38 Green St. will be converted into 16 apartments. The furnished units will each offer about 250 square feet of living space and will be marketed to recent graduates or younger people moving to New London for work. The lower floor will be developed as restaurant space.
The 30 percent offset includes 25 percent of project costs eligible for state credits and an additional five percent of costs because the downtown project is located in a federally-designated “opportunity zone.”
Each year the state approves $31.7 million in tax credits and can provide as much as $4.5 million in credits to a single project.
Asked about the project, Laura Natusch, executive director of the city’s preservation nonprofit, New London Landmarks, said she hasn’t worked with many developers who are interested in applying for tax credits. She said that some may be hesitant to invest the necessary effort in an application that might not receive funding.
Natusch recommended that developers reach out to the state office early in the planning process to determine whether a project would qualify.
New London Director of Economic and Community Development Felix Reyes explained that the tax credits are typically used more by experienced developers, who have the network and contacts with consultants to work through the process. Reyes said that Lyman had been strategic in securing the incentives for the renovations, which are necessary to bring the building up to current standards.
Lyman said he wasn’t concerned about the process and that the State Historic Preservation Office had been helpful in navigating it. He also said that New London Landmarks had helped to assemble the necessary information for the application.
According to Reyes, the Green St. project is one of several to improve older buildings for mixed use — where smaller businesses will occupy the ground floor, and the upper floors are built into apartments.
Lyman and Reyes both said that the micro-lofts are a good fit for the market and for people who are coming to work in engineering, especially for Electric Boat.
The dormitory feel and lower cost of the apartments appeal to people who are coming out of college and are looking to get situated quickly in New London near to where they work, said Reyes.
“So those apartments that are being built in the city fit that niche that we’re seeing, which allows more of our housing stock to open up, which allows more families to come in so we’re continuing the cycle that supports our school system,” Reyes said.
Reyes said that bringing more people to live on Green St. also helps support the idea of the downtown as a regional center of business. The challenge is to support more density without pockets of wealth and poverty, and without pushing out the people or culture that’s already established.
According to Reyes, that balance will be key for the city and its businesses, especially as they emerge from the COVID-related shutdown.
New London already has established industries, with the hospital, colleges, casino and Electric Boat, Reyes said. The industry drives the housing need, which will drive the small businesses, he explained.
A history of activism
Built in 1924, the “Arthur Building” at 38 Green St. quickly became a center for Black activism in New England.
In 1927, Benjamin Tanner Johnson founded the banking and lending institution, New England People’s Finance Corporation, at a conference he organized on increasing economic opportunities for Black Americans. The organization was meant to serve people who couldn’t get loans from White-owned banks, and Johnson managed it from the Arthur building until 1934.
The Arthur Building was also the home of the New London United Negro Welfare Council, which started during WWI, when Elizabeth Jeter Green organized a group of young women to aid Black soldiers who were traveling through the city on their way to fight in Europe. After the war, “The Canteen,” as the group called itself, helped local residents with rent, food, utility bills and clothing.
A list of the building’s tenants provided by New London Landmarks shows the welfare council as a tenant only in 1927, and the group later used 39 Tilley St. as its headquarters.
The council’s secretary, Sadie Dillon Harrison, and her partner Edwin Henry Hackley, wrote a guide for where Black travelers could find safe places to stay in 300 cities.
Published in 1930, “Hackley and Harrison’s Hotel and Apartment Guide for Colored Travelers” pre-dated the more commonly known “Negro Motorist’s Green Book” by seven years, as a guide for Black people to find shelter while traveling through the segregated United States.
Harrison also served as executive secretary for the finance corporation, working with her half-brother, Johnson. They were both the children of Halle Tanner Johnson, who was the first woman to pass the Alabama state medical examination in 1891.
Tom Schuch, who has been researching hidden and widely unknown pieces of New London history, believes the corporation was somehow connected to the People’s Finance Corporation in St. Louis.
That corporation built a five-story office building that housed Black businesses in the heart of St. Louis’ Mill Creek community, a center of the city’s Black cultural life until the city government razed it in the 1960s in an “urban renewal” effort. Black-owned lenders were essential for Black -owned businesses at a time when few, if any, White-owned banks would give them loans.
“It was at a time when people of color couldn’t get loans for businesses, they couldn’t get loans for cars, they couldn’t get loans for houses,” Schuch said. “So this represented something very, very significant.”
Since its early days as a hub for Black activism in New London, the building has a long, revolving list of tenants, including the Powder Puff Hair Salon that occupied a portion of the building from 1927-1974. More recently, the building housed the Monte Cristo Bookshop, artists’ studios and a gallery, and Cathedral Stained Glass.
Two bands are currently the only tenants, using the building for practice space and storage, Lyman said.