Historic District Commission Delays Decision On Gay Street Building

Historic District Commission Delays Decision On Gay Street Building
The Berlin Historic District Commission continued a hearing regarding this mixed-use building proposed for 19 Gay St. Submitted image.

BERLIN– Officials delayed a decision regarding plans for a new building on Gay Street to give the architect time to make changes to the proposal.

The Berlin Historic District Commission (HDC) agreed last week to a continuance regarding the property at 19 Gay St. While architect Jonathan Selway, who is also the project’s developer, presented plans for a new mixed-use structure to replace the old house currently on the site, several board members thought its design was too modern.

“I’m not opposed to modern but it needs to fit in Berlin,” HDC member Laura Stearns said.

In 2021, the HDC approved Selway’s request to demolish the old house currently located at 19 Gay St. He returned to the board last week with plans for the building he wants to erect on the site. He said the three-story, mixed use structure would include commercial and residential space. While his architecture business will occupy half the commercial space, he hopes the other half will be leased as office or potentially art gallery space.

“Our goal with this building is to build a mixed-use structure in the heart of Berlin that provides new exciting housing and business opportunities for this region of the town,” he said. “Our vision for this building is very tied to this district being  a little hub for the arts in town.”

Selway acknowledged that the building was fairly contemporary but said he’d tried to build on the “architectural language” and the patterns that were already established in Berlin. He added that the site wasn’t originally part of the town’s historic district and many of the buildings around it didn’t have historic significance.

“When I look at it I think it’s a really good opportunity for Berlin to create their new history, what the town can look like with new construction,” Selway said. “There’s multiple property owners immediately adjacent to me that are also going to be coming in for new buildings in the somewhat near future and also have different visions.”

He said he’d worked an awning and brick work into the building to tie its design to that of existing buildings. He said he’d also created a tiered setback, pushing the three-story portion of the building back off the street, so passersby wouldn’t notice the building’s height as much. Noting that the property on one side of his lot was a single family home, he said he’d pushed the building up against the side of the property adjacent to the Pop’s Kitchen building.

“We’re trying to respect the fact we’re surrounded by a bunch of houses,” Selway said. “That is also why the building has a bit of a change in language. The front section of the building is very commercial feeling, it’s brick, it’s more authentic to the town. The back section is meant to be more residential.”

Selway submitted letters of support from some of the neighboring properties.

“I know at least two of them that are planning on doing new buildings, would like to do something that’s more relevant today than a building that’s tied strictly to an era of the past,” he said.

He added that he wanted to be a good neighbor.

“We should be building to the setbacks we should be getting the density the town deserves, to increase the tax revenue, to build businesses, to make this the place that people want to live,” he said. “There’s only a few places downtown you can do that and this is a really special place in my mind for that to happen.”

Stearns said she’d been shocked when she unrolled the plans. She feels the building wouldn’t fit in Berlin.

“I just wish that it had some more historic detail rather than being so severe,” she said, adding that it was much larger than other buildings in the area.

HDC member Mary Moore said the building was attractive but agreed it was large.

“What I’m having a real hard time with it is the sheer size of it,” she said.

Commission member Carol Rose said she loved the building.

“I think it’s beautiful,” she said. “I think it will look very nice on the lot.”

Rose said that the town had planned for the revitalization of Gay Street when the street had been paved and sidewalks had been added.

“We all envisioned for that street to be an extension of downtown but more of a feel of arts and entertainment,” she said.

Rose added that several years ago, the HDC had approved a building reminiscent of New York’s Flatiron Building for the lot now known as The Berlin Commons. She said Brett and Megan Hines, owners of that property, were drafting plans for a new building on their site now.

“Whatever kind of rendering they bring to be approved is probably going to have the same flair,” she said. ‘I think as a board we can work with Jonathan to soften whatever the main concerns are… I think we need to open our eyes a little bit to the future.”

HDC member John Holloway said he felt the building looked too modern and said the adjacent mixed-use building blended with the town better.

“I’d like to see it be more consistent with what we already have,” he said.

Brian Robertson, the HDC’s alternate, spoke in support of Selway’s plans.

“I think it’s our task to preserve history but I think it’s also our task not to prevent it from being made,” he said.

Robertson said nearby buildings like the post office and Wainwrights could one day be repurposed into buildings that would be in line with what Selway proposed. He said he’d rather see an authentic building with authentic materials than attempts to recreate the past with things like faux brick and faux transoms.

“I think it’s going to become a landmark if we let him build it,” Robertson said.

Mark Cropper, Selway’s attorney, pointed out that while several board members had concerns with the size of the building, the property was zoned commercial and that town code allowed commercial buildings up to a certain height. Selway’s building is below that height.

“You can build a building as a matter of right a certain height,” he said, adding that it wasn’t fair to developers if they couldn’t depend on the town code. “This commission has no authority to limit the height of buildings when the zoning code says expressly otherwise.”

Ron Cascio, a member of the town’s planning commission who was in attendance at last week’s meeting, praised Selway’s proposed design.

“This is exactly what this town needs,” he said. “Use, size and scale. This is exactly what that street needs. Just because there are older, smaller buildings there doesn’t mean they’re always going to be there.”

HDC members said they were willing to work with Selway on potential changes for the building.

“It’s our duty to protect the historic nature of this community,” Holloway said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. It’s hard for us to sit up here and tell people what we want you to do with your property. It’s really hard. I’d like to see this building have a couple more features consistent with what’s in town.”

The commission agreed to continue the hearing to give Selway time to make changes.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.