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New life

Grant helps developer revive old Schenectady courthouse

Wednesday, November 28, 2012
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New life


Mike Figureo of Maxim Builders climbs scaffolding to continue painting the façade at 108 Union St. in the historic Stockade District of Schenectady on Wednesday morning.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Mike Figureo of Maxim Builders climbs scaffolding to continue painting the façade at 108 Union St. in the historic Stockade District of Schenectady on Wednesday morning.

— After years of stops and starts, Reza Mahoutchian is a step closer to putting the former Schenectady County Courthouse back to a worthy use.

The grand, pillared structure at 108 Union St. has been vacant for nearly a dozen years. But Mahoutchian, a local engineer, has plans for it to house a health and wellness studio, whole foods and vegetarian eateries, and a teahouse, hair salon and massage parlor.

“This is a magnificent building,” he said. “It’s one of the most prominent old buildings in the county, and it would be a shame to put a service in here that people could not visit. For example, if it was solely apartments or offices it would be closed to the public.”

The 181-year-old, Greek Revival-style building is considered by many in the community to be a significant historical site. Mahoutchian bought the three-building complex near Liberty and Ferry streets in 2005 for $730,000, with plans to convert the back building into student apartments and put a restaurant on the ground floor. But the $2.5 million project would require significant financing, and it would take a few years for him to come up with the early workings of a multiphase plan for the site.

On Wednesday, the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority announced it would provide a $40,000 grant toward the $130,000 cost of upgrading the building’s facade. The same day, Mahoutchian spent time painting the building’s facade facing Union Street before preparing the Liberty Street-facing facade for work.

Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen praised Mahoutchian’s track record of renovating property in downtown Schenectady, including Orenda Yoga, Marotta’s Bar-Risto, The Bier Abbey and Café NOLA, as well as several apartments along lower Union Street.

“Union Street in downtown looks fantastic, and Reza was the craftsman who helped get these historic buildings looking so great,” said Gillen. “Now, he is using his considerable skills on 108 Union St., and the difference is already very visible for the Stockade neighborhood and for downtown.”

Mahoutchian said he has several prospective tenants interested in the site and hopes to market it further at an open house from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Wednesday.

A Facebook page titled “108 Union” shows a picture of the structure. A description notes that after nearly a century as a county courthouse, many decades as the site of the Schenectady Board of Education and several years as offices for an insurance company, the building is now ready for its next incarnation.

A health and wellness space is lacking in Schenectady County, said Mahoutchian, and residents of the Stockade are frequently drawn to nearby counties for the kinds of services the building could now provide.

“People are very interested, of course, in having the building used and taken care of with a use that’s sustainable and compatible with the neighborhood,” said Schenectady Heritage Foundation Chairwoman Gloria Kishton. “When a building is vacant, it’s not being taken care of.”

The site has been in an unusual limbo since the early 1990s, when then-owner Al Lawrence fought the city to have it gerrymandered out of the Stockade Historic District. Lawrence — the once-powerful insurance magnate who died in prison after being convicted of fraud, tax evasion and embezzlement — won his fight with the city and had a building constructed behind the former courthouse that Kishton characterized as “completely inappropriate.”

“It was way too big and out of scale, and it took up all these parking spots,” she said.

Since 108 Union St. was originally grandfathered into the historic district as a commercial site, local zoning laws don’t allow it to go back inside the historic district. Kishton is working to change that, but in the meantime it does sit within an historic overlay district — a more flexible tool for preservation than a historic district.

For the players involved, 108 Union St. is a remarkable, 51,000-square-foot site. Despite the office building tacked on the back, the structure is notable for its 3,600-square-foot courtroom and unusual engineering. Two trusses in the attic allow that room to have no supporting columns obstructing the floor, said Mahoutchian. The basement still houses remnants of an old jail — cast iron gates and old stone cells.

Mahoutchian said that since the overall renovation project would require significant outside financing, he wants to get the ball rolling by finishing the facade work and leasing the front hall space. Once a lease is signed and he begins generating income, he will have something to show to lenders in the hopes of obtaining a loan for the rest of the project.

“This is the type of project that, since it’s so massive for a regular old person, it’s kind of hard to get off the ground unless there is some help from the outside,” he said.

 
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