Shuttered Diner Building Set to Be Sold in White River Junction

  • Hartford officials have applied to put the Polka Dot on the National Register of Historic Places. The diner is closed and the building is for sale in White River Junction, Vt., Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, January 06, 2018

White River Junction— The skillet and frying basket may once again be sizzling at the Polka Dot Restaurant, the galley-size diner hard by the railroad tracks in downtown White River Junction that has sat empty for years.

Upper Valley real estate entrepreneur Mike Davidson, who has made a career at redeveloping residential and commercial properties on both sides of the Connecticut River, is nearing a deal to buy the nearly 100-year-old building from longtime owner Mary Shatney.

If finalized, the deal could breathe new life into the vintage 1,088-square-foot diner (kitchen included) dating back to 1925 that had long been a favorite breakfast-to-dinner joint for workmen, railroad hands, factory workers, farmers, Dartmouth College students and area residents looking to quickly fuel up.

Shatney ran The Polka Dot for 54 years, serving up her popular grilled cheese and chicken salad sandwiches and bestselling honeycombed tripe before retiring in 2014 and putting the building up for sale with an asking price of $130,000. But interested buyers have always been skittish about making a bid because the half-acre plot on which the Polka Dot sits is owned by Canadian National Railway, raising concerns about the stability of the lease.

Yet Davidson, who owns several properties in downtown White River Junction that abut the railway, including the building that houses Elixir restaurant and the Engine Room, a music and event space, nonetheless said he was comfortable with acquiring the building but not the land underneath it.

“I am taking a risk buying a building on leased land, but Downtown WRJ is and has always been, worth that risk,” Davidson said in an email. “The RR understandably reserves the right to reclaim their land for future RR use, but have not done so locally for over half a century. Our relationship with them on other properties has been positive and we find they deal in good faith.”

Davidson said “the Polka Dot falls into my ‘passion zone.’ ”

Shatney declined to comment, saying she preferred to wait until the sale is final.

But her daughter, Sherry Greene, who runs Greene’s Oil and Propane in White River Junction, said the family was gratified that Davidson came forward to make an offer and considered it a plus that he has  an existing relationship with the railroad company.

“I would just like to see the Polka Dot open and operating again,” said Greene, who helped her mom by waitressing at the restaurant when she was in high school.

Davidson said he hopes to close on the purchase within the next two weeks, but his property management company, Ledgeworks, has already hung a banner outside the Polka Dot advertising for a tenant.

And by the middle of last week one hopeful had already posted on his Facebook page that the space would be an ideal sit-down location to expand his mobile taco stand.

Eduardo Moran, a 2005 Lebanon High graduate who opened Taco’s Tacos food truck in the Upper Valley over the summer, said he is in talks with Davidson’s company about leasing the building, but nothing has been decided.

“I’m going to look at a copy of the lease agreement and I have to come up with the funds,” Moran said Thursday, after posting about making the diner building a “new home” for Taco’s Tacos on the business’ Facebook page the previous night.

Another restaurant, Trail Breaks Taps + Tacos, opened downtown in the old American Legion building late last year. But if Taco’s Tacos leased the Polka Dot building, the concept would be to focus on breakfast or lunch crowds, Moran wrote on the business’ Facebook page.

“Just keep it nice and simple,” he said. “Nothing is set. Just want a year-round kitchen!”

(By Friday afternoon, Moran’s post received 92 approvals from other Facebook members).

Hotel Coolidge owner David Briggs said that “the Polka Dot property has been a vexing one because of its relationship with railroad.” But, he said, “Davidson can manage that.”

“I have full confidence in Mike’s judgment and ability to take the lesser considered property and do something worthwhile with it,” he added.

But even if Davidson completes the purchase of the building quickly it could be some time before a new tenant — whether a restaurant operator or someone else — occupies the space.

That’s because the building has fallen into disuse since it closed and therefore is no longer “grandfathered” for permits, according to Lori Hirshfield, director of planning and development for the town of Hartford.

The Polka Dot “existed as a restaurant prior to us having regulations and as long as it was in continuous use it didn’t lose that status,” Hirshfield said. “Fire code, state building code, zoning regulations (Davidson) is going to have go all through that.”

But she said Davidson “has a long history in the community” of redeveloping properties and a “full understanding” of what will be required to bring the building up to code. “Mike has taken on projects like this before. It’s not unusual for him.”

Added Jo-Ann Ellis, zoning administrator of the town, “We love to see someone in (the Polka Dot) and Mike has done a nice job rehabbing buildings. It’s a win.”

And although the Polka Dot has been part of White River Junction’s history for nearly a century, the town recently began taking steps to make it official.

Last year Hartford submitted an application to Vermont’s Division for Historic Preservation to change the classification of the Polka Dot Restaurant building from “non contributing resource” to “contributing resource” status within the White River Junction Historic District. The district includes buildings and sites within downtown White River Junction that have been designated as historically or architecturally significant and included in the federal government’s National Register of Historic Places.

But the building’s exterior appearance must be current for a minimum of at least 50 years before it is eligible for its status to be changed to “contributing,” and the Polka Dot building did not qualify the last time the town sought an update because of some exterior renovation that had been done in the 1960s.

Now that the five-decade threshold has been met, Hartford is seeking to update its status along with other buildings in the district.

Devin Colman, architectural historian for Vermont who coordinates nominations of properties for the state to the National Register of Historic Places, said Hartford’s application to upgrade the status of the Polka Dot Restaurant building will go before the state’s review board in April and “assuming they approve it I will then send it off to the National Park Service (which oversees the Register) and it should be a done deal by early summer, mid-June sometime.”

Despite popular perception, however, inclusion in the registry is mostly an honorific and does not guarantee a property protection from being razed or developed for another purpose.

Rather, both Colman and Hirshfield agreed, “contributing resource” status affects how the building might be treated in any planning considerations.

“Even though there is no regulatory hook, the town can use it to inform what may be appropriate with the building when planning any development,” Colman said.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.