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Historic Preservation? Economic Development? In Greenwich, Connecticut, They Have It Both Ways

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by REGINA COLE

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Historic Preservation? Economic Development? In Greenwich, Connecticut, They Have It Both Ways

Perched above the Post Road in Greenwich, Connecticut is a row of four grand single-family houses built in the early 20thcentury. Posh and prestigious when new, the houses now overlook a busy commercial strip.

“Today, no one wants a big house directly on the Post Road,” says Marc Johnson of Greenwich’s Stone Harbor Land Company, which specializes in building high-end spec. homes. “Before the town enacted new zoning regulations, these houses would most likely have been torn down and the historic streetscape lost.”

The new zoning regulations enable him and partner Chris Franco to develop the properties into a 22-unit residential community in exchange for preserving the historic exteriors facing the Post Road.

“Incentive-based zoning regulations are designed to give a homeowner ways of saving and using old houses,” says Katie DeLuca, Director of Planning and Zoning for the Town of Greenwich. “In exchange for getting mechanisms they can use to develop the property, they agree to not tear down the historic structures in perpetuity; the deed is restricted.”

This is a novel approach in a tradition that pits developers against historic preservationists in a zero-sum game in which developers often win, pieces of a community’s heritage are lost and bad feelings prevail. DeLuca believes that a more nuanced approach is a winning strategy for the town.

“Regulations used to be inflicted on us. Now, we believe in a more communal process.”

“There were incentives for commercial zones; now we also have them in residential areas,” says Eric Brower, an independent land use consultant and former vice chair of the Greenwich Conservation Commission.

“Without these incentives, owners tore down some historic houses that people now miss.”

“We have a Demolition Delay Request ordinance, but it’s not like the New York City Landmarks Law,” says Peter Malkin,Chairman Emeritus of Empire State Realty Trust and a strong supporter of the Greenwich Historical Society. “In the end, there is no way that demolition can be stopped, and we have lost a number of important historic sites.”

He points to the fact that affluence endangers historic buildings because it creates a healthy environment for development, a particular issue in Greenwich, one of the wealthiest communities in the United States.

“Charleston, South Carolina was bypassed for many years: it’s a good example of how poor places keep their historic architecture.”

Chris Franco, who founded the Greenwich Point Conservancy in 2003 in order to save the historic buildings of Greenwich Point, points to several examples of how the new communal process has saved important pieces of Greenwich history. One is the Harbor House, a former summer hotel converted to six condominium units. Another is the Feake-Ferris House. Built in 1645, it is the oldest surviving house in Greenwich.

“It was slated to be torn down,” Franco says. “But then the buyer was able to built a new house connecting to it in exchange for keeping and restoring the old house.”

On the road to Greenwich Point, the historic Feake-Ferris House and its new addition are beloved examples of a strategy that is win-win for property owners and history lovers alike.