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Jim Kenyon: Northern Stage remains a background actor in plan to raze White River Junction building

Valley News Columnist
Published: 12/8/2021 8:09:38 AM
Modified: 12/8/2021 8:09:11 AM

Ordinarily, it would seem out of character for a professional theater company to shun the spotlight.
   But the last thing Northern Stage wants at the moment is to draw more attention to its behind-the-curtain dealings that are helping pave the way for the demolition of two historic structures in downtown White River Junction.

On Monday, three Northern Stage representatives kept mum in the back of the room while the Hartford Planning Commission debated the fate of the 1880s house and adjacent barn — the downtown’s last agricultural building.

Irene Green, Northern Stage’s managing director, Eric Bunge, the nonprofit’s special projects manager, and governing board member Joe Major, who also serves on the Hartford Selectboard, seemed content to sit back and watch the drama unfold.

Preservationists consider the buildings at 160 Gates St., to be “contributing structures” to the White River Junction Historic District. They’re listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Demolishing them “puts another gap in the teeth of the historic district,” planning commission member Colin Butler said.

Northern Stage must have figured there was no sense in subjecting itself to those sorts of slings and arrows when Ken Parker, the property’s owner, was available.

Cathy Melocik, of Wilder, who used the Hartford Listserv to alert residents last month to what Parker and Northern Stage had in mind, brought up “demolition by neglect” at Monday’s meeting.

Allowing the house to fall into an acute state of disrepair, as Parker has described its current condition, almost seems “pre-meditated,” Melocik said.

The furnace in the vacant house malfunctioned in March. Several days had passed before he stopped by to check on the property, Parker told me. In the meantime, water pipes had frozen and burst, causing nearly $200,000 in damage.

The cost of repairing and bringing the structures up to current building codes would cost between $735,000 and $1 million, Parker estimated.

In the end, Parker and Northern Stage got what they came for Monday. The planning commission voted, 5-2, to grant Parker’s request.

Parker, a former Hartford Selectboard member, ran his insurance company out of the house for 45 years. It’s been vacant since Parker sold his business in 2018.

Public documents that recently came to light indicate Northern Stage’s interest in buying the property goes back to at least 2019. But only if the historic buildings were gone.

Northern Stage and Parker kept their plans secret for as long as they could.

For good reason.

Northern Stage is looking to build apartments for its theater workers on the potential vacant lot. After transforming a former car dealership on Gates Street into a $9 million theater in 2015, Northern Stage has spent more than $1 million on three downtown buildings that it now uses for workforce housing.

“If we are able to build housing units in the future, it would allow us to release units that we are currently renting in White River Junction, making more apartments available to others in our community,” Green responded via email on Tuesday.

That’s commendable. But the problem I have with Northern Stage is its lack of transparency. It’s had more than two years to let the community in on its intentions. Instead it kept quiet, and Parker apparently went along, agreeing not to put the property on the market.

“Without putting it up for sale in an incredibly hot real estate market makes no sense,” said Susanne Walker Abetti, a member of the Hartford Historic Preservation Commission, who spoke Monday against the demolition.

Why the secrecy?

If it became public knowledge that the property was for sale, someone else — perhaps with an interest in preserving the buildings — could have given Northern Stage a run for its money, literally.

In September, Parker applied for a demolition permit. Under Hartford’s zoning ordinance, a permit must be granted if the owner of a historic structure can show that “rehabilitation of the building, or portion thereof, would cause undue financial hardship.”

To bolster his case, Parker reminded commission members that Northern Stage had brought in Bread Loaf Corp., a Middlebury, Vt., construction and design company, to conduct a “fairly exhaustive analysis” of the property.

Bread Loaf, which built Northern Stage’s new theater and headquarters, concluded there’s “no reasonable return without demolition of the buildings.”

Northern Stage’s not-so-subtle attempt to influence the planning commission’s thinking wasn’t lost on Melocik. “It seems like an enormous conflict of interest” on Northern Stage’s part, she told the commission.

Before casting a “regrettably, yes” vote, Butler said the case “sets a precedent for other property owners to let their properties run down” and then claim an undue financial hardship to pass zoning muster.

Two members — John Heath and Robin Adair Logan — voted against issuing the permit, stating that Parker hadn’t proved his hardship claim.

After the vote, Parker told me that he’s “delighted it’s over. Nobody knows the financial straits I was in.”

The town has assessed the property at $264,700. Green declined to say how much it’s agreed to pay or what the space will look eventually look like.

“We have not shared plans because we have no plans yet to share,” she wrote.

It could be a while before the sale is finalized. There’s a 30-day window for an outside party to appeal the planning commission’s decision. Considering the way Hartford’s zoning ordinance is written, I’d say the chances of an appeal even being filed are slim.

Northern Stage will likely get its way, but its “image has taken a beating,” Walker Abetti told me.

This is one Northern Stage show where the early reviews leave much to be desired.

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




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