Historic District Commission: Proposed Redevelopment of Former Red Cross Property Not Appropriate


51 Main St. in New Canaan on May 25, 2022. Credit: Michael Dinan

Members of the appointed body that oversees New Canaan’s Historic District—roughly, 21 properties around and near God’s Acre—said last week that plans to redevelop the former Red Cross building property are not in line with the town’s guidelines for the area.

Preliminary north elevation for 51 Main St. Specs by Easton-based CAH Architecture and Design LLC

Plans filed in May at 51 Main St. call for the ca. 1889 structure—long associated with its former owner, the Red Cross (developer Arnold Karp purchased it five years ago through a limited liability company)—to be moved closer to the road while building a multi-family residential structure with 20 apartments behind it, six of which would be rent-restricted as part of an 8-30g affordable housing application.

The Historic District Commission during its Oct. 25 meeting, held at Town Hall and via videoconference, voted 3-0 with one recusal in favor of the following motion from Secretary Carl Rothbart: 

“It is critically important to preserve all of the properties in the District intact. Based on our guidelines, the presentations by the applicant to Planning & Zoning and testimony by several expert witnesses to the P&Z Commission on the Aug. 23 meeting, it is the determination of the Historic District Commission that proposed changes to the building at 51 Main St. would not be appropriate within the Historic District guidelines and would significantly alter the structure and be irrevocably detrimental to the fabric of the Historic District and our town and should not be approved or allowed to go forward as currently proposed.”

P&Z had taken up the application mid-summer. At the Commission’s July 26 meeting, attorney Tim Hollister representing the applicant said that about 70% of the existing building will be preserved and moved forward on the lot. A traffic engineer said the current 12-foot-wide driveway would be widened to 22 feet, and that state transportation officials when consulted on the proposal said the existing traffic light will not need to be altered to serve the driveway because sight lines are good and there’s no accident history there. 

Preliminary east and west elevations for 51 Main St. Specs by Easton-based CAH Architecture and Design LLC

Under the town’s Historic District Regulations, “No building or structure shall be erected or altered within the historic district until after an application for a ‘Certificate of Appropriateness’ as to exterior architectural features has been submitted to the Historic District Commission and approved by the [Historic District] Commission.”

P&Z commissioners during the July 26 meeting asked whether the applicant had applied yet for the Certificate of Appropriateness (no) and voiced concerns about the size of the proposed building and emergency vehicle access. 

At a subsequent meeting, on Aug. 23, P&Z members said the Historic District should weigh in now because after the public hearing is closed, the appointed body will not be able to (Hollister disagreed, saying that would amount to a pre-judgment of the future Certificate of Appropriateness application). Others weighing in included the town’s life safety peer reviewer who called for a wider driveway and bigger setbacks than what’s contained in the proposal, a lawyer representing neighbors who said the project is not consistent with a continuously updated document that guides planning in New Canaan and would create a safety hazard for pedestrians, and a historic preservationist who said moving the building would be the same as demolishing it.

Historic District Commission Chair Tom Nissley said that P&Z was asking them “how changes to one building in the Historic District could impact the character of the Historic District as a whole.”

Rothbart noted that the Historic District was created in 1963 and that the 21 properties in it “represents less than 1% of the built environment in New Canaan, which shows how critically imp these buildings are.”

“The purpose and value of the Historic District is to preserve our cultural and historical resources,” he said, adding that number “51 Main Street, otherwise identified as ‘the Red Cross building,’ is a key resource in the District both because of its location as a gateway to the District and God’s Acre, and for the quality and intactness of its architectural features and fabric.”

Nissley, Rothbart and Commissioner Art Berry voted in favor of the motion. Vice Chair Marty Skrelunas recused himself. Commissioners Dick Rose, Todd Lampert and Janet Lindstrom were absent.

Lawyer Peter Gelderman from the town attorney’s firm of Berchem Moses PC, after joining the meeting late, said that  in an ideal world the resolution of the Commission would not necessarily make any references to the appropriateness of the specific changes, because this applicant is going to come before you at some point in time for a Certificate of Appropriateness.”

“You may have this application in front of you again for a Certificate of Appropriateness, at which point there will be an applicant making a presentation,” Gelderman said. He asked that the Commission “not make any findings with respect to the actual design and cosntruction of the building at this point in time, but simply that, as you found, the structure of this magnitude and size is inconsistent with the Historic District as it exists.”

Nissley said the Commission would add Gelderman’s comments as a footnote in the meeting minutes. 

P&Z did not discuss the application at 51 Main St. during its September meeting. Its next meeting is scheduled for Nov. 15. 

In addition to the application at 51 Main, P&Z has two other 8-30g affordable applications before it. The Commission is preparing to deny an application for a 102-unit structure at Weed and Elm Streets. An application for 93 units on Hill Street below Brushy Ridge also is before P&Z.

3 thoughts on “Historic District Commission: Proposed Redevelopment of Former Red Cross Property Not Appropriate

  1. It would be nice if some of these considerations, opinions, attitudes were applied to the 1913 Library issue. Even though the Library is outside of this “Historic District,” one would think the parameters re what is best for the Town of New Canaan are quite similar?

    • What you’re calling “these considerations, opinions, attitudes” were in fact applied to what you’re calling “the 1913 Library issue.” And the New Canaan Planning & Zoning Commission, whose members are appointed by the elected Board of Selectmen, voted in favor of the preservation plan that New Canaan Library is pursuing. I’m not sure why you are putting “Historic District” in quotes—it’s an actual place, not an idea (here’s the map). You’ll notice that with the exception of a couple of properties built in the 1960s (like the white brick condos) and a Park Street house built in 1998, most of the buildings in the Historic District predate the legacy library building by 50, 100, even 150 years. What’s more, this town was founded around the Congregational Church and, by extension, God’s Acre—not Morse Court. I approved your comment so that I could respond to it. Starting now, we’ll approve comments related to this actual article, not awkwardly shoe-horned whinging about “the 1913 Library issue.” Thank you for submitting your comment. Enjoy the rest of your day in North Carolina.

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