Momentum continues for the downtown Watertown development boom

Christopher Marshall of Augliano Painting in Clayton preps the front of the Lincoln Building on Thursday on Public Square. Photo by Justin Sorensen, Watertown Daily Times.

Christopher Marshall of Augliano Painting in Clayton preps the front of the Lincoln Building on Thursday on Public Square. Photo by Justin Sorensen, Watertown Daily Times.

WATERTOWN — Downtown is welcoming another round of a development boom, this time with a series of smaller projects that are dotting the city’s central business district.

It’s coming on the heels of the $17 million restoration of the Woolworth Building and a $65 million to $70 million redevelopment of the old Mercy Hospital site that will turn it into 160 to 200 apartments and about 40,000 square feet of commercial space.

Renovations to a former Mexican restaurant on Public Square and the opening of an optician’s office in the restored Woolworth Building are two of the latest projects underway. A local landlord also recently acquired a former music store at 75 Public Square through a city public auction for $2,709 and intends to renovate it.

Work began last week on restoring the facade of the building at 63-65 Public Square that most recently housed Tico’s Mex Mex Grill. A construction crew also started work Thursday to make an optician the first commercial tenant of the Woolworth Building.

The three projects continue the downtown renaissance that has occurred in recent years, said Kenneth A. Mix, the city’s planning and community development coordinator.

“I think it’s a continuing effort,” Mr. Mix said. “It’s adding to the momentum.”

Owner Vonette T. Monteith said she hopes to get the former Mexican restaurant space ready for occupancy by early fall and then will start looking for a tenant. It could end up as either another restaurant or retail space, she said.

Ms. Monteith, who lives in Kentucky and will retire from the military in two weeks, was in town Wednesday to take a look at her project’s status.

Between a $137,000 loan from the Watertown Local Development Corp. and about $15,000 of her own money, the project includes a major upgrade of the kitchen that’s already finished, some cosmetic work in the dining room, replacement of a basement floor and restoration of the facade to the original brick look.

Champion Construction, which renovated the upstairs apartments in the building about 10 years ago for her, is again the general contractor for the project.

Donald W. Rutherford, CEO of the Watertown Local Development Corp., also known as the Watertown Trust, took a tour of the building Wednesday with Ms. Monteith to discuss the planned renovations.

“It’s coming along,” he said.

Ms. Monteith, who owns a home on Ten Eyck Street, intends to return to Watertown in about five weeks to get a progress report on the work. She’s looking for a tenant who would put together a business plan through the Watertown Small Business Development Center at Jefferson Community College.

The building’s facade was falling apart for some time, and there were some unspecified interior problems. Before it was Tico’s, the building housed Sol Latino and Casa de Flor. For several years, it was Kegler’s Lounge and Restaurant.

Meanwhile, work is just starting around the corner in the Woolworth Building. Optician Jody A. Shuler hopes to open EyeCrave Optics in a storefront in the historic downtown landmark around Sept. 1. The business also will employ an optometrist.

In May, the Watertown Trust approved a $47,039 loan for Mr. Shuler, who plans to open the optometry business in the storefront next to the building’s rental office that faces Washington Street.

The business will feature European and independent manufacturers of eyewear. He intends to offer such brand names as Theo and Feb31st with other “unique” eyewear, adding that he knows both fashion and optical lenses.

Mr. Shuler, who has worked at Pearle Vision and Meade Optical and has more than 25 years’ experience in the field, decided he wanted to open his own business.

“We’re excited with everything going on with downtown,” he said.

The project began this week with installing interior walls to the 1,200 square feet of space. Mr. Shuler said he hopes he can get into the storefront a week early so he can set up equipment before the opening.

Erich H. Seber, co-developer of the Woolworth Building, said he’s been talking with potential tenants for the other ground-floor space, but does not have anything lined up yet. All 50 upper-floor apartments in the Woolworth Building are occupied.

Before the $17 million project was completed, the building sat vacant for several years. The project was funded by private investment, the housing tax credits, a $2.5 million Restore NY grant and other state funding.

Adam Brown, who has renovated a handful of multifamily residential buildings in Watertown under A. Brown Properties, is working with Neighbors of Watertown Inc. on restoring the former Wind and Wire music store on Public Square. Funding would cover facade improvements and repairs to the building’s roof and water and sewer infrastructure systems.

“I think it’s a solid building with a lot of potential in the downtown business area,” he said.

Space on the Public Square side and in the basement facing the J.B. Wise parking lot would probably be filled with retail businesses, while the upper floors could be for professional offices.

Mr. Brown bought the building, vacant for several years, from the city in June through a back tax sale.


By Craig Fox, Times Staff Writer