EAST HADDAM – It’s now a barren parking lot surrounded by rusting guardrails and vacant, weathered former municipal buildings.
But when local architect Jeff Riley looks at the site of his planned redevelopment of the downtown village, he sees shops, restaurants and apartments, many housed in a replica of the 1838 mansion of William H. Goodspeed, the banker and entrepreneur who built the namesake Goodspeed Opera House directly across the road in 1876. He sees a town green fronting the mansion and other buildings that will host holiday festivals, farmers’ markets and activities for children, a bike shop that will serve a constant stream of cyclists pedaling through downtown as they tour the area’s scenic roads, a visitor’s center that will offer information and sell tickets to surrounding attractions; and more that Riley is not yet ready to disclose as his plans for the town-owned parcel head toward a public hearing and referendum in the coming months.
“I think people are going to be blown away by our presentation at the public hearing,” said Riley, whose connections to the town and the opera house and Broadway go back to his childhood. “We really want people to understand the project and to feel it so that when they’re voting on it they’re not guessing what it’s going to be like.”
More than a century ago, the mansion, opera house and adjacent Gelston House formed Goodspeed Plaza. A fire that destroyed the mansion in 1903, and the 1913 completion of the East Haddam Swing Bridge that brought automobiles to the area for the first time, spelled the end of the pedestrian plaza.
“It is our goal to replicate the mansion in approximately its original location and recreate a strong semblance of the lost plaza,” said Riley, a founding principal at Centerbrook Architects in Essex who lives here with his wife and fellow architect Mary Wilson in a house they built overlooking the Connecticut River a decade ago.
Terms made public so far show that the town is asking $450,000 for the 2.75-acre parcel. Riley and his investors, named the Centerbridge Group, also would be responsible for an estimated $800,000 in demolition and remediation, including environmental mitigation measures at a former public works garage in the center of the site that will be torn down.
The fate of the other municipal buildings on the property, the former town hall and a Victorian structure known as the River House, is still being negotiated between Riley and various town boards.
The East Haddam Village Revitalization Committee last fall voted unanimously to send Riley’s proposal to the Board of Selectmen for review.
The board is now completing an analysis that includes the value of the property, anticipated costs of construction and site remediation, occupancy projections for retail and residential elements and the tax revenue they may generate.
Once that is complete, the board will schedule a town-wide referendum on whether to approve the sale of the property, Riley’s concept, and the town’s financial share of the improvements to the area.
“It could be in the millions,” First Selectman Rob Smith said. “The citizens of the town still need to have their say. Some people are very enthusiastic and some are less so.”
Still, Smith said: “The value to the town would be significant if it goes through as proposed.”
The COVID-19 pandemic presents a further complication in how to handle a town-wide vote similar to an election.
“We’d love to do something this spring, but when and how that happens is a good question,” Smith said.
Another wrinkle is the planned state overhaul of the swing bridge that abuts the site and is expected to disrupt the area from the spring of 2022 to its completion in 2024.
Riley said he is still figuring out how to dovetail his project with the bridge construction, but anticipates aiming to finish the village renovation around the same time the bridge is done.
Goodspeed Musicals – which owns the opera house, Gelston House and an array of residences and show-production facilities in the village, supports the proposal and may also get some of its properties involved.
“It would be great to have more business activity in close proximity to our theater and other properties,” said Donna Lynn Hilton, Goodspeed’s artistic director. “This will benefit our employees and resident artists, encourage our audience members to come earlier and stay later and attract new visitors to East Haddam who may add to our audience.”
Goodspeed is preparing for a major upgrade of the theater that was put on hold after the pandemic forced cancellation of its shows since last spring.
“We had been working for nearly two years developing plans for a long overdue renovation of the Opera House,” Hilton said, adding that she hopes the darkened stage will come to life again sometime this summer. “When we are able to move the project forward, we will be able to share the details.”
Riley, whose previous projects include the renovation of the Ocean House in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, is unequivocal on the importance of the opera house and its patrons to his project.
“Without the Goodspeed Opera House, nobody’s touching this property,” he said as he walked through the village recently. “The opera house will support the project and the project will support the opera house.”
Another major key to its success, he said, is the projected influx of people staying in apartments and perhaps a boutique hotel.
“That will bring life to the village at night,” Riley said. “When people come out of the theater, we don’t want to have all the lights turned off. We want it to be a place where you hang out for another hour or two.”
For Riley, the venture represents a sort of homecoming on several fronts.
Raised in Greenwich, his family often took in Broadway shows in New York and East Haddam.
Some were produced by his godfather, Al Selden, who spearheaded the purchase and renovation of the Goodspeed Opera House in 1963 after it had become a deteriorating storage building for the state Department of Transportation and was in danger of being demolished.
Weekends were often spent in East Haddam on Al’s Selden Road farm, just a few miles downriver from the village, where he also produced shows at the opera house including the original opening of Man from La Mancha.
Broadway and the Goodspeed legacy will be a central theme to the village project, said Riley, who resigned from the Goodspeed board of directors to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest.
He noted that there are perhaps 30 theaters within a 45-minute drive, from the Bushnell and Hartford Stage to the Shubert and Yale Repertory in New Haven to the Garde and Eugene O’Neill theaters in New London and Waterford.
“Anyone who’s interested in the theater could spend four days here and have a ball,” Riley said.
“It’s not going to be some ersatz Disneyland,” he said. “It will be a place that actually gets used by the residents of East Haddam. That’s part of the charm and the draw is that it’s a real place.”