STAMFORD – The historic Yale & Towne factory, which was converted to apartments in 2010 and now is sinking and shifting on its century-old wooden pilings, appears to be headed for demolition.
Questions about the fate of The Lofts at Yale & Towne, the signature structure of the Harbor Point development project on the South End, have loomed since city preservationists told the owners in June 2022 to try to save it.
Now the office of Mayor Caroline Simmons says Chief Building Official Shawn Reed has deemed the building unsafe and the owner is taking steps to tear it down.
“The city’s chief building official issued an unsafe structure notice on May 2, 2023, prohibiting access to the building, after ownership provided them with an engineering report from DeSimone Consulting Engineers certifying that the building is structurally unsafe,” the mayor’s special assistant, Lauren Meyer, said in an email. “Ownership is currently pursuing a demolition permit for the building.”
Neither Meyer nor Reed responded to a request for a copy of the unsafe structure notice Friday, and no demolition permit could be found.
That may be because Stamford has a 180-day demolition delay ordinance designed to offer owners and citizens who wish to save historic buildings a chance to negotiate an alternative to demolition.
If The Lofts owner, Gaia Real Estate of New York, decided to demolish it when Reed issued the unsafe structure notice in May, the 180-day delay would end in November.
CT Examiner tried to contact Mor Regensburger, a vice president of project management for Gaia who appeared last year before the Stamford Historic Preservation Advisory Commission seeking a special bonus that would allow the company to earn more income from a rebuilt Lofts by expanding the number of apartments from 225 to about 300.
A woman who answered the phone at Regensburger’s extension Friday refused to identify herself. “I cannot help you,” the woman said.
Make it look like it was
Regensburger and other Gaia representatives presented two designs to the preservation commission, one in February 2022 and another in June 2022. To get the bonus, Gaia must come up with a design that resembles the original 1900 structure as closely as possible.
Commissioners rejected both designs, saying the Yale & Towne building is so historically significant that they first wanted proof that demolition is the only option.
On Friday, Historic Preservation Advisory Commission Chair David Woods said he wasn’t aware of the chief building official’s unsafe structure notice and has not been notified about a possible demolition, which would alert the commission to request the 180-day delay.
“As far as I knew, the city was in the process of doing its own engineering report,” Woods said. “We were concerned about how much we could trust a report from the owner, and so was the Zoning Board, which decided that the city should have its own report done and charge the owner. But I never saw a report. I heard it had stalled because the city and the owner didn’t reach an agreement about it.”
Woods said he didn’t know whether any commission effort to save the building now is moot because the chief building official has deemed the structure unsafe. It’s an unusual situation best addressed by state preservationists, Woods said.
Christopher Wigren, deputy director of Preservation Connecticut, a nonprofit group established by the state legislature to preserve historic places, said Friday that most municipal demolition delays have an exclusion.
“If the building official determines there to be an immediate hazard, then the delay period is overridden,” Wigren said. “Public safety is the primary concern.”
A building official’s unsafe-structure finding can be challenged, but only to a degree, Wigren said.
“You can try to get another engineer in, but the authority of building officials is pretty broad,” he said.
Structures in the public trust
Todd Levine, historian with the State Historic Preservation Office, said it’s a question for the state attorney general’s office.
SHPO’s process for saving historic structures begins with “a community outcry,” which in a city the size of Stamford would mean a petition with hundreds of signatures, or dozens and dozens of letters, Levine said.
“If that happens, SHPO does a neutral investigation,” he said. “We gather information from both sides – the community and the person who wants to do the demolition, usually the owner – and we bring it before our council. They then can vote on whether to take the matter to the attention of the attorney general.”
If the attorney general, now William Tong of Stamford, accepts the case, he can impose a temporary injunction to stop demolition while the state examines alternatives, including a lawsuit.
“It’s because historic buildings are in the public trust,” Levine said.
SHPO, a division of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, supported The Lofts conversion from factory to housing, Levine said.
The work was done by Building and Land Technology, developer of the Harbor Point project in Stamford’s South End. SHPO provided $5,932,696 in rehabilitation tax credits for the Lofts project, Levine said. There may have been other funding from the state as well, he said.
Owners ‘get their way’
In 2016 BLT sold The Lofts and four other Harbor Point buildings to Gaia. In 2018, Gaia – acting on complaints from Lofts tenants about cracked walls and beams, buckling floors, and bent door and window frames – hired structural and geotechnical engineers to figure out what was going on.
Engineers found that the 100-year-old timber pilings that support the building were rotting because the underground water table had significantly dropped, exposing the wood to oxygen. They reported that the groundwater level dropped because, during construction, BLT installed an impermeable liner to contain contaminated soil. But the liner also blocked rainwater from percolating through the ground and replenishing the water table.
In February of last year, Meyer said an engineering firm hired by Gaia had determined that the building was structurally stable.
In April of last year, Regensburger told the Stamford Historic Preservation Advisory Commission that Gaia’s original plan was to shore up the foundation, but further investigation showed that the building was already far too unstable.
In November of last year, Gaia filed a massive lawsuit in state Superior Court in Stamford, naming BLT and its multiple affiliates and engineering and architectural contractors. Gaia claims BLT prevented its surveyor from viewing certain substructures before the purchase; that BLT did not test the capacity of the wood pilings; and that BLT withheld records of soil tests.
Gaia also names the city, charging that the building department failed to inspect or test the foundation, among other claims.
The Yale & Towne Lock Works building, as part of the South End Historic District, has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1986. Yale & Towne was among the manufacturers that reshaped the city, transforming its economy from agriculture to industry. At one time, the factory employed one-quarter of the city’s population.
Redevelopment of the waterfront South End, which was always Stamford’s economic engine, has not honored its past, Wigren said.
“A huge historic section of south Stamford is being chopped away, piece by piece,” Wigren said. “One of the biggest pieces is Yale & Towne.”
Woods said groups such as the Stamford Historic Preservation Advisory Commission too often have too few teeth.
“It would be a travesty for the city to lose such a significant and wonderful building, but there may be little or nothing we can do about it,” Woods said. “In the end, owners can file demolition permits and get their way.”