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Don't rush to demolish history

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  • Remy Chevalier
    Don t rush to demolish history Friday, June 4, 2010 http://www.ctpost.com/opinion/article/Don-t-rush-to-demolish-history-511806.php The last thing Bridgeport
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 30, 2010
      The last thing Bridgeport needs is another vacant lot. It could also do without another empty, decaying building.

      Those might be the choices when it comes to the massive GE complex on Boston Avenue. Built 95 years ago to supply armaments for World War I, it once employed tens of thousands of people. In recent decades activity dwindled to nothing.

      Now the question is what to do with 1.5 million square feet in 13 interconnected buildings that may be contaminated beyond salvation.

      Public sentiment is heavily in favor of preservation. GE, though, says the structure is too old-fashioned to attract new businesses, and dismisses the idea of retrofitting it for a more modern use. But given the city's history, the idea of working with GE to redevelop the site once it's vacant should be met with skepticism.

      At a recent public hearing, one speaker said: "It's my firm belief that we will end up with nothing for the next 20 years if these buildings are taken down."

      He was talking about GE, but his words would have applied a generation ago to Steel Point, the still-vacant spit of land in Bridgeport Harbor that used to feature an actual neighborhood, with homes and businesses.

      One thing is certain -- like the historic, long-shuttered theaters downtown, once a structure like the GE plant is gone, it won't be coming back. The challenge is holding onto history as more than a decrepit eyesore.

      There's a movement afoot to stop the process, led by architect Nils Wiesenmuller. He's the founder of the Bridgeport Design Group, and he recently spearheaded a "Renew Bridgeport" workshop that gathered ideas for revitalizing the city. It came up with a lot of nice-sounding but probably impossible notions like solar-powered water taxis and overhead wind turbines on a gleaming Pequonnock River.

      Realistically, none of that is going to happen. But there is, as one expert after another has noted and every politician in the region has asserted, real potential in Bridgeport. The waterfront, the location, the regional wealth -- all that combines to make the city an enticing petri dish for development ideas.

      The challenge remains putting any of it into practice.

      The familiar pattern, at least, has started to change. There's a realization the city won't turn around with one grand project, like Steel Point or the defunct Magic Johnson plan next to Harbor Yard (or Harbor Yard itself, for that matter).

      Today, there is life downtown where there recently was none. The retrofitting projects that put residents and businesses into unused buildings are showing success, and many of these plans are just getting off the ground.

      Which means it's an opportune time to take a long look at the GE plant. The company says it's explored all the options, and that none are "economically viable."

      But Bridgeport shouldn't take GE's word for it. This isn't just any building. Maybe a self-sustaining solar-panel factory, as Wiesenmuller suggested, is unfeasible. Or maybe GE just thinks it's not worth the trouble.

      The potential for Bridgeport's renewal isn't theoretical -- it's real, and it's happening, slowly. A new, 76-acre vacant lot won't help.

      The city's Inland Wetlands and Watercourses Agency put off until later this month a decision on the GE plant. Demolishing history on this scale must be a last resort.

      Hugh S. Bailey is assistant editorial page editor. He can be reached at 203-330-6233 or at hbailey@....

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