By Dan Atkinson
Over the last few decades, the Debonair Beach Motel at 296 Beach St., has slowly deteriorated from being a popular destination for upper-class residents to stay and enjoy quality food and live music, into an abandoned and dilapidated property. The motel, which was constructed in 1959, also housed a restaurant and a resort for homosexuals in its lifetime.
The Debonair lost its final residents in 2014 after it was foreclosed upon. It is heavily populated by overgrowth, rodents, wild animals such as skunks and possums, filled with trash and covered in graffiti, and has no heat. The motel’s blighted state has hindered the city’s goal of revitalizing the neighborhood and making its beachfront an appealing destination for both residents and out-of-town visitors.
Despite being bought by the New Haven-based development company SimLev Holdings, LLC for $1 million in August 2021, a variety of complications has prevented it from performing any construction or demolition on the Debonair since. However, recent developments have given the owners and government officials a glimmer of hope that SimLev can soon begin carrying out their original business plan for the motel.
Homeowners on California and Beach Streets are very fed up with how the deterioration of the Debonair has negatively impacted the quality of life in the neighborhood and their properties, as well as the safety of multiple pets who have been bitten by rodents and or repeatedly sprayed by skunks. While they have found a dedicated ally in first-term City Councilwoman Meli Garthwait (Republican), they have still struggled to get city officials to address the conditions of the motel and possible steps that could be taken to demolish the property and construct a new motel or business in its place. Two of these homeowners discussed their frustration with the property’s state.
“I’ve lived here for roughly 40 years. When we first moved here, the Debonair was gorgeous and we would go there for meals,” said a California Street resident who wished to remain anonymous. “These owners are doing nothing about the condition of the property and the animals living there. I had to call the city a couple of times about bushes that were coming over the fence into my yard and discoloring it, and I am nervous about letting my dog out in the backyard alone because I don’t know if it’s safe.”
The woman discussed how the Debonair’s terrible condition has ruined the value of living in a beachfront property.
“The state of the Debonair is degrading to my house and I’m nervous about what else could come out of the property if it is demolished. I should have a great view of the water, but the motel blocks everything.”
Nick Barbetto, who has lived at 26 California Street for 17 years, echoed his neighbor’s words.
“My dog got attacked by a possum, I have mice in my house for the first time ever and I’m seeing the animals get into my yard at night and then wake up with garbage strown all over my yard,” Barbetto said. “I’ve spoken at City Council meetings and wrote a letter to the owners about the need to demolish the motel and remove the animals. The Debonair needs to go.”
Meli Garthwait, who represents West Haven’s 2nd district that Beach Street and the surrounding neighborhood is in, was quickly informed by many residents of how swiftly the Debonair had fallen apart after being elected. Garthwait has dedicated herself to determining the best future for the property during her term in conjunction with fellow City Council members and officials.
She eventually took the position that the Debonair Motel was blighted and a health hazard, is affecting the quality of life of residents, and should be demolished as soon as possible. During her term, Garthwait slowly but surely got multiple council members and city officials to adopt similar positions. Garthwait again expressed the need for the city to demolish the Debonair at a City Council meeting on Sept. 25. Garthwait discussed her concerns about the property with the Voice.
“After taking office, I began contacting the blight officer about the condition of the Debonair. I immediately received complaints from residents about animals from the motel entering their property and biting pets and have reported all this information to the city,” she said. “Just this past week, I talked to residents living behind the motel and everyone is having mice and rats entering their houses. Because the owners are not maintaining the property, there are just terrible health and safety problems for all property owners. I believe the motel must come down because it can’t be saved.”
Garthwait has said at meetings that West Haven should first bait and trap any animals that are on the property and either dispose of or relocate them depending on city laws before demolishing the Debonair. The councilwoman has high hopes that the entire City Council will get completely behind this effort, along with administrators.
“Property owners in my neighborhood need to know city leaders’ care. We haven’t been a very good steward of the neighborhood by taking care of residents and protecting what they own,” Garthwait emphasized. “It’s so unfair for my constituents to have their pets attacked and live on the edge like that. The issues with the Debonair should have been taken care of a long time ago, but it’s just been allowed to fester because no one wants to do the hard work to solve them. “
Garthwait’s discussions and efforts behind the scenes to determine the future of the property finally began to pay off in the last week of September. City administrators told her Sept. 27 that a meeting was scheduled for the next Oct. 4 with the SimLev Holdings ownership group, and that Assistant City Planner Cathy Coniff and Building and Zoning Official Mike Fisher would be there. This was the first time Garthwait was able to secure an in-person meeting with the leaders at SimLev. At the meeting, the three city officials got a much better understanding of the difficulties SimLev had faced with cleaning up the property and motel construction after buying the Debonair.
Garthwait said that Sim Levenhartz, the property’s primary owner, was present at the meeting along with two colleagues, one of whom works for Haven Ventures. The company told her it has been unable to do any construction because of new zoning guidelines the city adopted after the Debonair was purchased. These guidelines caused a significant delay in construction because it forced the owners to change their initial construction plans. They have lost $15,000 each month since buying the motel while not earning any money.
Garthwait and her colleagues also learned at the meeting that SimLev Holdings was unable to carry out any demolition of the Debonair because of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) setback guidelines. These prevent property development companies from performing any demolition prior to starting a permit process with the city government in which the property is located. If SimLev ignored these guidelines and demolished any of the Debonair, it would lose buildable property. Because of this, the owners want to use the current footprint of the Debonair to renovate it.
At the meeting, the city government and Meli gained a much better understanding of what the owners ultimately want to construct at the Debonair if they can begin work on the project. Levenhartz and his team want the property, which currently is three stories, to become a privately owned boutique motel that houses 15 rooms per floor and features a swimming pool on the third floor, a small restaurant and possibly a rooftop bar on a fourth floor.
SimLev will attempt to get a special permit or variance from the city for all the construction work they plan to do. This will come up for approval at the Planning & Zoning Commission meeting on Oct. 24. SimLev will submit drawings of the proposed building and the rooftop bar will also be subject to approval then.
At the conclusion of the meeting, the owners signed a six-month contract with the city that agreed to them working with a pest removal company to remove mice and rats from the motel property and the removal of vegetation from the back of the motel. The owners also agreed to fill in and/or cover the existing pool. Finally, they agreed to submit construction drawings of the Debonair before the end of the year. Throughout the meeting, Garthwait said Levenhartz and his team emphasized that they want to get moving on motel construction as soon as possible.
“It was a productive meeting even if the demolition I hoped for won’t immediately take place,” Garthwait said. “I think plans for the property are going in the right direction. I am going to keep on the issue and make sure I’m consistently communicating with the owners and their plans are moving forward. I have heard from a few residents who are happy that there’s finally some communication between the city and motel owners and we’re going to be working hard with the developers.”
If the Debonair’s owners can build a boutique motel, Garthwait believes it will provide Beach Street with another business that is sorely needed.
“If a new hotel joins the new brewery and restaurant and the city’s reconstructed bird sanctuary, I think we will have a beautiful shoreline area for people to come visit. Instead of visitors staying in neighborhood B&B’s or a chain motel, they could go to a nice boutique motel. The City Council must make sure that residents are informed properly about what’s going in the neighborhood and that both projects don’t stall.”
While Barbetto is skeptical that SimLev can rebuild the Debonair into a nice motel, he acknowledged that it could have a positive economic impact.
“I wouldn’t want the motel to be more than three stories because a bigger one might disturb myself and neighbors and our view of the water. However, I think it would help the neighborhood financially. I would get behind the project if it is a decent property.”