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Lofty goals: Demand grows for upscale units downtown

Sunday, March 30, 2014
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Jeremy Jordan and Tara Johnson outside their residence at the corner of Barrett and Union Streets in Schenectady on Thursday.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson
Jeremy Jordan and Tara Johnson outside their residence at the corner of Barrett and Union Streets in Schenectady on Thursday.

— It was only about five years ago that building high-end residential space in downtown Schenectady began. In fact, the idea was so new that when the banks tried to determine prices paid for similar units in a similar size, style and location, they couldn’t find any.

“The banks were looking for these comparables to underwrite a deal, back when we were doing the first projects for housing downtown,” said Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority Chairman Ray Gillen. “There hadn’t been any new residential built downtown for a long time, though, so they had to look outside the area.”

Since those first few projects, the demand for residential space downtown has grown at such a pace that developers are now leasing space as fast as they can build it.

The newer spaces, like the Metropolitan Lofts across from Proctors and a three-story complex at Broadway and Hamilton Street, are either full or nearly full. Meanwhile, the developers working on new spaces, including an old window factory in the Stockade and the former Spencer Business School on lower State Street, are planning to lease individual apartment units as they are ready, instead of all at once.

“Our phones are ringing off the hook for residential units all the time,” said Christopher Maddalone, president and CEO of Maddalone & Associates, the developer converting the former Spencer Business School into ground-floor retail with loft-style apartments on the second floor. “So we’ve already started marketing this property, before it’s even complete, and we already have two people from GE wanting to live here and three from a new company moving into town.”

Convenience factor

Downtown living seems to be the wave of the future for a growing population of young adults who are putting off marriage and kids, and consequently, the desire for backyards and suburban life. Cities with well-developed downtowns, such as Saratoga Springs, have been attracting people to live in or at least close to the place where they already work, dine, shop and hang out.

As Schenectady continues to revitalize its downtown, it has finally been able to play catch-up with the New Urbanism trend, luring a mix of millennials and well-paid, high-tech executives to apartments downtown.

For 24-year-old Jeremy Jordan, who works from home for his own company, living downtown with his girlfriend has its benefits. He rarely has to use his car to socialize or run errands. Almost everything he needs is within walking distance.

“Everybody portrays Schenectady as a sketchy area, but it’s really not that bad,” he said. “I like that we have tons of restaurants around here. I like that we can walk everywhere. We like Centre Street Pub and Johnny’s on State Street and Zen is very good. Bombers is great for a quick burrito. At one point, we were going to Marotta’s [Bar-Risto] almost every night.”

This is the third Capital Region downtown setting Jordan has lived, after Albany and Saratoga. These days, he’s living in a three-story townhouse development at the corner of Barrett and Union streets. His after-work activities seem to line up with some people’s perception that downtown Schenectady is almost entirely restaurants, but he added that he also walks to the YMCA in Center City or catches a movie at Bow Tie Cinemas. The only thing he has found Schenectady’s downtown lacking in is retail options.

“Schenectady is definitely lacking shops,” he said. “Any retail that I see is mostly on Jay Street.”

It’s not the first time Gillen has heard such sentiments, and his response is to remind you what downtown Schenectady looked like just a decade ago.

“Downtown development is done in phases,” he said. “People forget that a few years ago when you walked through downtown you had two closed dollar stores and two pizza places on the block. We’re as impatient as anyone to keep the momentum going. But we have a lot of projects in the queue right now, a lot of investors and a tremendous amount of interest in downtown.”

More retail options may not be far off if Schenectady’s revitalization continues as is. Gillen has previously said that once commercial spaces are developed, residential and retail will follow, one after the other. Metroplex has tried to get a leg up on the retail by encouraging developers to build it right into the ground floor of their residential projects. This is also just the way mixed-use development is headed across the country.

Following a forumla

Several new residential developments in the city have followed this formula.

A $3 million development at 245 Broadway opened in November with available retail space on the ground floor and 18 one- and two-bedroom units on the top two floors almost entirely leased out. The apartments feature granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, engineered hardwood flooring, tiled kitchens and baths, washers and dryers in every unit and dedicated off-street parking.

The townhouse development where Jordan lives consists of eight three-story units with attached single-car garages, 1,300 square feet of living space and rent around $1,500 a month. This is just the first phase in a multiphase development that will eventually include 14 more apartments and 3,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor. Maddalone said this phase of the project should kick off in July.

The $1.3 million Spencer Business School conversion at 200 State St., also a Maddalone project, will have first-floor retail. The second floor — which features 11 apartments ranging in size from 650 square feet to 1,200 square feet, each with hardwood floors, walk-in Roman showers and granite countertops — will be ready for tenants to move in by Tuesday, with the retail space ready by June 1.

Another trend in downtown residential development is the shift toward lower State Street, which makes sense given Metroplex’s current focus there. Once the Erie Boulevard project is complete, the walkability between downtown, lower State and the historic Stockade neighborhood should drastically improve, Gillen said.

The lower State Street neighborhood doesn’t yet have the revitalized feel that the city’s Proctors block does, but the hope is it will soon. So says Saverio Minucci, one of two developers planning to renovate MVP’s former headquarters at 111 Liberty St. into 30 upscale apartments with a ground-floor fitness center. Overall, $3.6 million will go into transforming the long-vacant, 31,000-square-foot building.

“Metroplex has said it wants to spruce up that end of Schenectady, and I think it’s really going to be a hot spot with the college there and the Stockade right next door with all of its old charm,” Minucci said. “We’re not pioneers down there. There are projects going on.”

Nearby in the Stockade, an attorney-builder-contractor team is almost finished with a $2 million transformation of a deteriorating window factory at 301 Green St. into a mix of one- and two-bedroom apartment units. One of the developers on this project, Paul Sciocchetti, was responsible for one of the very first downtown residential projects — the lofts above Aperitivo next to Proctors.

Both projects are similar, with granite countertops and Energy Star-rated appliances, but the Stockade project should be more affordable than the State Street lofts, Sciocchetti said.

One of the reasons developers aren’t just building cheap downtown housing is because that kind of housing is already abundant in the city, even in some areas of downtown along Jay Street, he said. Upscale downtown apartments are a unique offering in the city. Of course, they also run for a lot more than your average Schenectady housing, not only because of their better location but also because of the space and amenities.

“There’s no other space like what I’m doing at Green Street,” Sciocchetti said. “There’s plenty of space in Schenectady if you’re looking for a flat in a two-family home. There are thousands of places like that. This is something different and it’s more attractive to transient workers coming into the area, the engineers and the high-tech workers.”

The Green Street apartments with have exposed brick and plenty of natural lighting that pours in through a center high-bay section of the building. The apartments range from 900-square-foot one-bedroom units to 1,400-square-foot two-bedroom units. The floors will have radiant heat. The ceilings will have refinished, exposed beams. Each apartment has at least one walk-in closet. The entire development will feature on-site parking for residents, a security system and storage units.

Minucci, who used to live in the Stockade after moving upstate from Long Island, characterized these new kinds of tenants as people in their mid-20s to early 40s, young executives with disposable income.

“These spaces aren’t for everybody,” he said. “They’re for people who want an upscale place to live without the hassle of cutting grass and doing yard work. They want to be able to walk downtown to go out to dinner with their husband or wife. You’re starting to see this in cities everywhere, in Birmingham and in Texas and now in Schenectady.”

 
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comments

March 30, 2014
12:25 p.m.
davidgiacalone says...

The most important missing retail element in downtown Schenectady continues to be a supermarket, which would truly allow all kinds of people seeking "luxury" intown living to know they would not have to drive to take care of the basic chore of grocery shopping. That is especially true of non-driving elders or to older drivers in general, who often do not want to drive after dark (which comes very early in the winter) nor when the roads are wet or slippery. Taking a bus to a supermarket is a very poor substitute, as anyone can tell you who has tried to do get more than a bag of groceries home on a bus.
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With so many grocery chains coming into this County, Mr. Gillen should be trying harder to convince one to serve downtown Schenectady. And, of course, Mr. Golub might consider doing so as a major contribution to the wellbeing of the City. Even people with "disposable income" rightfully balk at trying to do significant grocery shopping at a convenience store, with their high markups and very limited offerings.
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Finally, as someone who was among the young professionals helping to gentrify portions of Washington, D.C. more than 30 years ago, I am surprised that the Maddalones put up at Barrett and Union St. what they consider to be luxury apartments attractive to a more discerning tenant, but gave it such a lackluster (actually, cheap looking) façade. It is also disappointing, but not surprising, that the Planning Commission let them place a large, homely, blank wall facing that important corner of Union Street. Bowing to every demand of every developer is not how a City demonstrates that it is has good taste and is planning to serve the high end of the rental and condo market downtown for the long run.

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