White Elephants Are Never Forgotten

How can towns begin to solve the problem of long-neglected properties?

Capitol
Water has damaged the once-grand Capitol Theater, closed since 1974.

Credit: City of New London

Every community seems to have one: a historic building downtown that sits vacant year after year. These so-called white elephants could be a warehouse, a former department store, or an empty hotel.

The white elephant of New London, Conn., 120 miles northeast of New York City, is the Capitol Theater, built in 1921. A former vaudeville house that drew big-name performers, this neoclassical 2,500-seat theater was famous for its superb acoustics but has been silent for nearly 30 years. Over the years, water leaking through the roof has damaged the building’s interior and structure. And though residents planned in the 1980s to renovate the theater as a performing-arts center and later, in the 1990s, as a visitors center, nothing ever happened. All the while, water began to seep into adjacent buildings as well.

The Capitol Theater’s luck may be about to change. In February, the theater was added to the "Building Opportunities Network" Web site, an online database of abandoned properties. Launched by the Trust’s National Main Street Center in April 2001, the network tries to pair white elephants with interested developers. To encourage more owners to list their buildings on the site, this spring the center offered five free two-day, onsite consultations with an expert. Donovan Rypkema, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant who specializes in the economics of preservation, would help the winners determine how to bring a white elephant back to life.

This spring, the Capitol was selected as the first winner, and Rypkema visited the site in mid-July. First, he made it clear to the community that he didn’t have all the answers; it would be up to them to oversee renovation. "My job is to help them think about how to think about the problem," Rypkema says. 

Capitol
Crumbling Capitol Theater

Credit: City of New London

He toured the crumbling theater, met with citizens and government officials, and presented his conclusions to the stakeholders in the project. The theater is worth saving, he told the group, and the necessary elements for a successful redevelopment exist within the New London community: Since the community considers the building an asset and both citizens and local government are involved, Rypkema said, the project will run smoothly. "To have an expert say that this building is valuable and that the value of rehabilitating will accrue not within the building but within the entire neighborhood is so important," says Penny Parsekian, executive director of the city’s Main Street program.

Rypkema warned the city of the challenges that any redevelopment project may face: the weak national economy, New London’s high vacancy levels, and the city’s low property values. "Even if the market were strong, this would be a tough building," he says.

As a first step, Rypkema recommended forming a team of public and private individuals. "It may seem obvious," says Parsekian, "but what Donovan gave us was so valuable. In the past, we have had the wrong approach, the wrong people at the table. He showed us how to form the right team."

He left New London with a last directive: "Don’t sacrifice the possible in the pursuit of the perfect."

Saginaw's
Saginaw's Kresge-Woolworth block

Rypkema will now move on to the other four buildings: the Trolley Power Station in Boston, Mass., the Great Western Warehouse in Leavenworth, Kan., the Kresge-Woolworth Block in Saginaw, Mich., and the Old Petersburg Hotel in Petersburg, Va.

Other sites in the Building Opportunities Network database have benefited from a listing even without winning professional advice. Main Street’s survey this spring found that 5 to 10 percent of its properties have been developed, or are slated for development, and 14 percent of owners who have listed their white elephants have received some interest from developers, according to Doug Loescher, assistant director of the center.

Although his visit didn’t provide an immediate solution for the development of the Capitol Theater, Rypkema believes it helped New London learn how to form a plan for its empty landmark. "In the end, I think the city government thought it was a worthwhile exercise," he says. Overall, he has found that no matter where white elephants exist, there’s no simple way to renovate them. "The underlying trouble is that it takes a lot of time to put the pieces together."  

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