Windham

Hooker Hotel pits developer against preservationists

WILLIMANTIC, Conn. (WTNH) - When the yellow building at the corner of Main and Bank was first built in the 19th century by Seth Hooker, it was chic and expansive. But then, the Hooker Hotel took on a whole new persona with the influx of heroin into Willimantic.

Now, there's a battle over whether or not the building should be saved.

"Nobody has been able to do anything with these buildings for the last ten years under private ownership," Pamela Elkow of Carmody Law told members of the state Historic Preservation Council which held a special hearing at Windham Town Hall.

The Hooker Hotel, the Hale building next door, and two other Willimantic properties are part of an $80 million downtown revitalization plan proposed by a private developer represented by Elkow's Stamford law firm.

"What we're really imagining is somewhere around 400 residential units ranging from studios all the way up to three bedrooms," said Richard Garner of GRO Architects out of New York City.

They're not looking for historic preservation money. In fact, they want to demolish those buildings and build new. 

"There's nowhere else in town to do a similar project besides the site of these two very prominent buildings?" asked one council member.

The Historic Preservation Council works with the Office of the state Attorney General to prevent the "unreasonable destruction" of historic properties.

"This is an if you build it they will come proposition. How do you know they will come?" questioned another council member.

Windham's economic development director, James Bellano, said there has been interest from undergrad and graduate students from Eastern Connecticut State University as well as UConn.

"I think from the UConn perspective, Storrs Center is getting a little expensive and they also like the natural historic downtown," said Bellano. 

"There is already a kind of resurgence here," said Garner.

The Historic Preservation Council supports a plan which would rehab Hooker and Hale, but the Elkow says that plan is too costly and too small.

"If a project doesn't make money, nobody is going to build it," said Elkow.

In the end, the council voted to ask the Attorney General to stop the project to preserve the buildings.

Even before the hearing, the developer had planned to take out a demolition permit on Thursday. That way, the state would have to seek an injunction if it continues to oppose the project.


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