The first design, presented in April, was not historic enough.
Neither was the second design, presented Monday night.
History is such a factor with The Lofts at Yale & Towne – a century-old lock factory converted into a luxury apartment building that’s now sinking – that zoning officials want the owner to prove it can’t be saved.
“We are going to have to be convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt,” Zoning Board member Rosanne McManus said during a meeting with Redniss & Mead, a Stamford land-use firm representing the owner, Gaia Real Estate of New York.
Zoning Board Chairman David Stein told Ray Mazzeo, senior planner with Redniss & Mead, he wants Gaia to hire an independent engineer chosen by the city “to look at what’s been done and assure us that demolition is the only option.”
Mazzeo said it was Gaia’s intent to salvage The Lofts as soon as it discovered problems about two years after purchasing it from developer Building and Land Technology in 2016. Tenants were reporting that windows weren’t opening, walls were cracking, countertops were separating from cabinet bases, and other problems, Mazzeo said.
Gaia found that the 100-year-old timber pilings that support the building began to rot after the underground water table dropped and the wood was exposed to oxygen, Mazzeo said. The crumbling supports are causing the building to sink and tilt and move, he said.
Gaia hired teams of engineers who put together a plan to drill new pilings around the original supports, he said.
Gaia “worked with the Building Department and got the permits to do the work,” Mazzeo said. “In 2021, before starting the work, they did another monitor survey. It showed that the building had continued to move, and the effects of the settlement were expanding to a greater area.”
That “was alarming,” Mazzeo said. “They were ready to pull the trigger on the work when they found out that the issues had expanded beyond the original scope.”
Gaia hired structural and geotechnical engineers and got second opinions, and all came to the same conclusion – drilling new supports would create significant vibration that would further degrade the building, Mazzeo said.
“That led ownership to face the realization that they may not be able to preserve this building, and they have to plan for the future if the building has to come down,” Mazzeo said.
All the tenants have been vacated from the six-story, 800-foot-long structure on Henry Street, where windows are popped out, door jams are not square, and bricks are out of alignment.
Gaia is seeking a historic designation that would allow a replacement building with more than the existing 225 units. BLT finished constructing The Lofts in 2010 as part of its massive South End redevelopment, Harbor Point.
The Lofts was BLT’s cardinal – and only historic – building in Harbor Point.
Gaia representatives who appeared before the Stamford Historic Preservation Advisory Commission in April said the company needs to recoup losses from the Lofts, particularly since its insurance carrier provides no coverage for a building that is sinking because of failed pilings.
Gaia is seeking a “critical reconstruction” designation under the city’s historic preservation regulations. It allows certain bonuses, such as more housing units, if the new building has enough period details.
Mazzeo said the bonuses would allow up to 295 units in a historically appropriate building, though some zoning board members questioned the number. If Gaia sticks to the existing 225 units, it can construct a new building without regard to history.
But for Gaia to reap the greatest revenue from a replacement building, it must pay attention to historic detail.
The company struck out with its first design, which was too stylized and contemporary for the Historic Preservation Advisory Commission. In that schematic, Gaia architects would add a story by lowering existing ceiling heights by about a foot on each floor. The building in that case would not appear much taller from the outside.
Zoning Board members Monday liked that idea better than the drawing they were presented, which added three stories to the center portion of the exterior. Like the preservation commission, the Zoning Board sent Gaia back to the drawing board.
“I think we’re pretty clear on our issues. It’s not pretty,” McManus said of the latest design. “It doesn’t look historic – not with the extra three floors on top.”
Mazzeo said Gaia’s architect will incorporate the Zoning Board’s opinions into another design it will bring before the historic preservation commission in about two weeks.
In the meantime, the company will find out what expert the city would like to hire to conduct a peer review of Gaia’s findings about demolishing The Lofts, said Rick Redniss, principal planner at Redniss & Mead.
“Time is a factor. This has to move at a reasonable pace,” Redniss said. “It’s going to be really tough to try to make this right, and all indications are it’s going to get worse, not better.”
This story has been corrected. In the original version a quote by Rosanne McManus was attributed in error to Joanna Gwozdziowski