EDITORIAL: Time is running out, pursue public-private plan to save Seaside

The Day, New London, Conn.
·4 min read

Feb. 23—The Seaside facility in Waterford is truly historic. It was originally developed in the 1930s as a sanatorium for young tuberculosis victims, incorporating in its design the latest belief, later discounted, that plenty of fresh air and sunshine could serve as a cure. It was the first of its kind.

And it wasn't just any architect coming up with a design that provided plenty of air and sunshine, it was Cass Gilbert, one of the foremost architects of the early 20th century, whose other designs include the New York Life and the Woolworth buildings in Manhattan, the latter for 17 years the world's tallest, and the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Seaside would later provide for the institutional treatment of people with developmental disabilities — as the Seaside Regional Center for the Mentally Retarded — marking a chapter in that model of care. It closed in 1996.

In disuse for decades, the state has, as with so many of its other properties, allowed it to slowly decay, the chances of restoration growing dimmer with each passing year.

Yet we remain convinced that a path forward can be found to save Seaside while retaining public access to the rocky waterfront for fishing, picnicking and other passive recreational uses. Once again Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, whose 20th District includes the property, has introduced legislation which, if passed, could be used as the vehicle to plan for the future of Seaside.

It calls on the Department of Economic and Community Development "to develop and issue a request for proposals to develop or dispose of the former Seaside Sanatorium facility...and to preserve the adjacent area for a park with public access."

With that latitude, the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont could seek proposals to in some manner preserve and reuse the sanitorium building, with its landmark steeple, and the nurses' residence. Proposals, we suspect, could range from preserving all or most of the structures for reuse as an inn or condos, to substantial rebuilds that preserve or recapture historically significant architectural features.

Officially, the property is now Seaside State Park, so designated after former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in 2014 abruptly terminated a prior development proposal. Malloy acted after the local zoning commission rejected development plans, a decision tainted by an apparent conflict of interest by a commission member. Years later, Malloy's rash action leaves open the possibility of litigation, complicating matters.

While the location is naturally beautiful, there have been no enhancements to this so-called park, and Formica rightly notes the deteriorating buildings are a safety risk.

A solution that makes most parties happy is still possible.

Neighbors don't want a busy park or high-volume development to spring up. A passive recreational use of the shoreline, along with a residential or inn-like use of the existing buildings, would fit the bill.

Town leaders would like to see tax revenue generated and that will happen if the buildings are privately developed and owned. Meanwhile, an existing statute requires that any proceeds from the sale of the property, or a portion of it, must be spent on housing opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities.

The group Friends of Seaside State Park want to maintain the architecturally significant buildings, complimented by paths, gardens and passive shoreline recreation. Done right, these goals can be achieved through a public-private agreement.

The public could gain by having access to the water, enjoyment of a park, and a chance to appreciate the restored architecture and the history it points to.

Some might say this was tried and failed. Not really. A prior request for proposals overly restricted bidders to doing things the state's way, meaning converting the sanatorium into a 63-room luxury lodge, with Connecticut retaining ownership as landlord. The request for proposals received two offers, neither judged as having met the criteria set by the state.

Developers must be given the chance to offer their own creative solutions.

Twenty-five years after the last use of Seaside ended, it is time to preserve its history by setting a course for its future.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.