Jim Kenyon: Northern Stage plan would raze buildings, not raise the curtain

  • Ken Parker, a former Hartford selectman, is seeking approval from the town to tear down the 1880 house and adjacent barn at 160 Gates St., he's owned since 1973 and had his insurance agency for 45 years. The two buildings are part of the White River Junction Historic District. The Planning Board is expected to vote on Parker's demolition application at its Dec. 6 meeting. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Columnist
Published: 11/28/2021 11:39:40 AM
Modified: 11/28/2021 11:39:12 AM

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, describes demolition by neglect as when a “property owner intentionally allows a historic property to suffer severe deterioration, potentially beyond the point of repair.”

Is that what’s happening at 160 Gates St., in downtown White River Junction?

It certainly looks that way.

The two-story house and adjacent barn — the last agricultural building in the downtown — date back to the 1880s. There’s no doubt they need work.

Ken Parker, the property’s owner and a former Hartford selectman, estimates repairing and bringing the structures up to current building codes could cost between $735,000 and $1 million.

With the buildings having “fallen into an acute state of disrepair” to the point that rehabbing them is financially unviable, Parker is seeking town approval to tear them down.

That would be a shame.

The two buildings are considered “contributing structures” to the White River Junction Historic District and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

They “help tell the story of downtown White River Junction,” Laura Trieschmann, the state historic preservation officer, said in an interview.

Some members of the Hartford Planning Commission and the Hartford Design Review Committee are less than thrilled with Parker’s plan. At a Nov. 1 meeting, planning commission members John Heath and Colin Butler even raised the “demo by neglect” issue.

But it appears Hartford officials will have a difficult time sparing the two structures from a wrecking ball. Under the town zoning ordinance, the owner of a historic building has to show only that “rehabilitation of the building, or portion thereof, would cause undue financial hardship.” (The ordinance also allows for the demolition of historic buildings deemed “structurally unsound,” but Parker isn’t making that argument.)

The planning commission is expected to approve Parker’s demolition request at its Dec. 6 meeting.

After Cathy Melocik, of Wilder, heard through the grapevine about the upcoming vote, she took to the Hartford Listserv to let residents know what’s at stake.

“Our history is being chipped away, building by building,” said Melocik, who has lived in Wilder for more than 20 years.

For 45 years, Parker ran his insurance agency out of the apartment house, which started out as a single-family dwelling. Mae Gates, an instrumental figure in the early development of the village’s downtown, owned the house until 1891, according to the Hartford Historical Society’s writings.

The building has been vacant since Parker sold his insurance agency in 2018. A wooden “Parker Agency” sign still swings from a post in the front yard. A gray Cadillac, its license tag having expired in 2006, sits next to the bard.

Parker told the Planning Commission at its Nov. 1 meeting that the house suffered major water damage in March, after the furnace stopped working, causing pipes to freeze and burst. Parker put repairs at between $195,000 and $200,000. Meanwhile, Parker estimated demolition would cost about $40,000.

I wanted to raise the demolition-by-neglect issue with Parker, but he didn’t respond to phone messages. I was also interested in hearing about his business dealings with Northern Stage, the White River Junction professional theater company, that stands to benefit if the demolition is carried out.

How’s that?

Public records indicate that Northern Stage is prepared to buy the property once it’s a vacant lot. If all goes according to plan, Northern Stage would then put up housing for its employees on the site.

Acquiring 160 Gates St. would seem to fit nicely with Northern Stage’s business strategy. In 2015, it moved from the aging Briggs Opera House on South Main Street to new digs at what was once Miller Auto, a car dealership and repair shop, on Gates Street.

The $9 million state-of-the-art theater was a welcome addition to downtown. If only Northern Stage had been content to stop there.

Instead the nonprofit embarked on a real estate buying spree, spending more than $1 million on three downtown properties that had previously served as affordable rental housing. Northern Stage says it needs the apartments for its visiting artists and seasonal staff.

In 2018, Northern Stage purchased the old Twin State Typewriter building, which has five upstairs apartments. Last year, it acquired a house with six apartments on Gates Street, just a few doors down from the theater. In April, it purchased a two-story apartment house — once a single-family dwelling — on the same street.

Now it’s the “option holder” on 160 Gates. The town assessed the property at $264,700 this year, but I didn’t come across any public documents that indicate how much Northern Stage has agreed to pay.

With the backing of its deep-pocketed supporters, Northern Stage can afford to play the Upper Valley real estate game. But it’s come at a price to fixed-income and working-class residents.

In April, I wrote about a 60-year-old kitchen worker, a retired Dartmouth College maintenance worker and an older disabled woman who were pushed out of the affordable apartments they’d lived in for years to make room for Northern Stage employees.

And now the plot thickens.

Parker submitted his application for a demolition permit at 160 Gates on Sept. 10. Public records, however, indicate Northern Stage entered the picture much earlier.

In June 2019 — more than two years before Parker formalized his intentions — Northern Stage approached the state District 3 Environmental Commission, which covers Hartford, about a housing project it was considering for Gates Street.

Eric Bunge, Northern Stage’s special projects manager, asked for what is known as a “jurisdictional opinion” under Act 250, the state’s land use and development law.

Northern Stage wanted to know if the potential project required an Act 250 permit.

What did Northern Stage have in mind?

Linda Matteson, the District 3 environmental commission coordinator, wrote that Northern Stage was proposing to “demolish or convert existing buildings located at 160 and 178 Gates Street into staff housing with up to 39 units.” (The house at 178 Gates was the one that Northern Stage purchased in April.)

Matteson ruled that Northern Stage would need an Act 250 permit, noting the proposed project was for 10 or more units and had no “affordable housing” component.

Apparently that was enough for Northern Stage to scale back its grandiose plans. At the planning commission meeting, Bunge said Northern Stage wants to build nine apartments at 160 Gates.

But it’s contingent on Parker getting his demolition permit. And Northern Stage is doing its best to make sure the town goes along. To bolster Parker’s case, it brought in Bread Loaf Corp., a Middlebury, Vt., construction and design company. (Bread Loaf built Northern Stage’s new theater and also renovated Hartford’s municipal building.)

In a Nov. 10 letter to town officials, James Pulver, Bread Loaf’s vice president of architecture, wrote that the house at 160 Gates is in “very poor condition and requires extensive selective demolition and rehabilitation to make it usable.”

Bread Loaf estimates that rehabbing the existing structures would cost $990,00 more than building nine new apartments on the property.

“Based on Northern Stage Company’s working relationship with (Bread Loaf), we understand there is no reasonable return without demolition of the buildings,” Pulver wrote.

Last week, I asked Irene Green, Northern Stage’s managing director, about her organization’s plans for 160 Gates.

Northern Stage is “exploring what’s possible” with Parker and the town, she wrote back. “Like many employers and residents in the Upper Valley, Northern Stage is dealing with the lack of workforce housing in our region,” she added. “We continue to look for options to address the local housing shortage and its impact on our programs and services as well as our community.”

I’m not sure bulldozing a historic house is the way to go, or for Northern Stage to promote its image as a community-minded neighbor.

What happens if Parker and Northern Stage don’t get their way?

Since Parker hasn’t put the property of the market — giving Northern Stage first dibs — it’s hard to say. In a best-case scenario, potential buyers who support rehabbing the house could step forward. Grant money for preserving historic buildings might also be available.

Even if the planning commission vote goes as expected, the fight isn’t necessarily over. Anyone who participates in the proceeding has 30 days to appeal the decision to the Vermont Environmental Court.

There’s also a chance that Act 250 could still come into play, Trieschmann, the state historic preservation officer, told me. An argument could be made that the state environmental district ruling sought by Northern Stage in 2019 also covers the demolition of the historic property, she said.

That could put a crimp in what Parker and Northern Stage have negotiated. It would serve them right for neglecting history.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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