Revitalizing Downtown: Proposals and projects are in, what and who will be funded?

Watertown Mayor Joseph Butler looks at a slide showcasing a potential parking garage located on Franklin Street.

BY: Craig Fox

Having what he believes is the best vantage point on Public Square, entrepreneur Jody A. Shuler envisions how the $10 million grant that the city of Watertown received last fall could transform downtown.

    Mr. Shuler, who has operated Eyecrave Optics in a storefront in the Woolworth Building for three years, is optimistic about what the grant will do for downtown. But it might be two or three years before its full effect is realized.

    “I have no doubt that we change it,” he said. “It’s going to take some time.”

    Like many of the downtown business owners, especially along Public Square, Mr. Shuler has his own ideas on how the $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative funding should be spent.

    Since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced the grant last October, some 90 ideas emerged from public discussions about the $10 million.

    Mayor Joseph M. Butler insists that other public funding and private financing will leverage that $10 million into $40 million or possibly $50 million. That’s a big investment for downtown, he says.

    Lisa Nagle, principal for Elan Planning, one of the consultants working with local officials on putting together the city’s plan, said the city has an opportunity to make a change that lasts for generations if that kind of investment is made as part of the DRI program.

    “Ten million dollars really does not go that far,” she said.

    The Local Planning Committee – about 20 business and community leaders who will recommend which projects should receive funding – will look at about 30 of those proposals.

    Reconfiguring the traffic patterns around Public Square, a downtown public garage, renovating the old Masonic Temple for a theater/arts center, continued work on the Lincoln Building, adding market-rate housing, creating public art and providing rental assistance for small businesses are just some of the proposals and ideas.

    Some were met with overwhelming support, others caused debate whether they were what residents and merchants want – or downtown needs.

    April L. Johnson, owner of April’s Cake Shop at 20 Public Square, likes downtown’s future, although she doesn’t want the funding to completely change what’s already there. She’s optimistic.

    “It depends on what they do,” she said.

    The grant could lead to “not to just a few great shops, but a lot of great shops,” if funding is distributed to building owners who have plans for renovations and to finding new businesses to fill them, she said.

    She remembers going downtown with her grandparents when she was kid. Her grandmother got her hair done, while she sat with her grandfather on a nearby bench eating an ice cream cone.

    It was the early 1980s and downtown was still bustling. Downtown may never get those days back, but she believes the $10 million grant can be a big help.

    Ms. Johnson was among several downtown business owners who opposed shutting down the south side of Public Square and turning it into a pedestrian mall. The idea was quickly dropped. It won’t be funded through the city’s DRI program.

    Mr. Shuler was on the other side of the Public Square issue. To reach a full impact, Public Square needs “a Main Street urban feel,” instead of motorists entering one end of the square and maneuvering through the busy three lanes as fast as they can.

    At one time, F.W. Woolworth, the Frank A. Empsall Co. Department Store, the Globe department store, J.J. Newberrys, W.T. Grant, the Present Co., Sears and J.C. Penney  were among others that filled commercial spaces.

    The opening of the Salmon Run Mall in 1986 and subsequent growth of outer Arsenal Street changed downtown’s retail landscape.

    But maybe not forever.

    Mr. Shuler doesn’t foresee a grocery store or a big clothing store ever opening downtown. Yet downtown is already in the middle of a rebound, with the $18 million restoration of the Woolworth Building that includes 50 apartments and a string of small businesses opening down the street in the historic Lincoln Building after going through renovations on the first floor.

    “I love downtown,” he said. “I love being downtown.”

    He chose downtown because of its “affordable rent.” If the kind of investment that Mayor Butler talks about happens, downtown can change for years, Mr. Shuler said.

    “The DRI can transform downtown,” he said. “The right businesses will bring people downtown. I really feel good about it.”

    Donald G.M. Coon III, a managing partner in 200 Washington Associates, has proposed a $2 million public garage behind the Key Bank that the local company owns.

    At a cost between $2 million and $2.5 million, the parking deck for between 100 and 150 vehicles would mainly be used by tenants of the buildings the company owns in that section of downtown.

    Additional parking is needed to achieve the optimum potential from the DRI program, he said.

    But he’s just excited about the prospects of bringing more people downtown as the result of new businesses and tenants living in newly-created market-rate apartments. Jobs also would be created, he said.

    Mr. Coon has proposed a $300,000 project to upgrade nine market-rate upper floor apartments in the historic Paddock Arcade. They would have a view of historic Public Square.

    They are among 36 market rate units proposed for downtown as part of the city’s DRI program. Local businessman Stephen J. Bradley wants to create 18 units in a series of buildings he owns on Court Street. The upper floors of a handful of buildings along Public Square also would include new market-rate apartments.

    Mr. Coon is also requesting DRI funding to spruce up the Paddock Arcade – the longest used indoor mall in the country – for a $475,000 proposed project. The work would include adding an elevator and restoring the glass ceiling that has 96 separate pieces.

    More places to live and shop, and more people coming to the central business district to spend money would be good for downtown, Mr. Coon said. He sees it as “a quality of life” issue.

    Overall, the DRI and the projects that are eventually selected for funding “will strengthen downtown,” he said.

    But the DRI program won’t only help local businesses and where people live.

    Kathleen Mereand, an artist and manager of the North Country Arts Council’s Arts on the Square gallery, 52-54 Public Square, remembered when downtown lost a lot of historic buildings during urban renewal in the 1960s.

    Instead of demolitions, the DRI program will lead to a downtown renaissance, she believes. The DRI program could have as much of an impact as urban renewal, but in a positive way.

    “We destroyed much of downtown,” she said. “Maybe we can put it back.”

    The old Masonic Temple at 242 Washington St. is one of those historic landmarks that could become a major beneficiary of the DRI program.

    Not too many years ago the imposing downtown structure with a crumbling exterior appeared to be facing the wrecking ball. It sat idle for a few years and needed someone to come in and save it.

    Augusta Withington and Robert J. Campany, who co-own Fourth Coast Inc., a renewable energy company in Clayton, did just that. They paid off back taxes and purchased the building for $32,439 in 2013.

    They’ve submitted an application for the $9.4 million project that would feature turning the second-floor grand meeting room into an arts center.

    The restoration project would include making the second floor more accessible. An elevator would be added. Interior painting and plaster repairs would be completed. A new heating and air conditioning would be installed. A kitchen in the basement would be renovated as a restaurant and for use for catering for the second-floor theater.

    The owners already have invested about $600,000 to fix the roof and a $500,000 NY Restore grant will be used to restore the exterior of the 107-year-old neoclassical-styled building.

    When the $10 million grant was announced last fall, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo applauded the idea and told the crowd he’d like to be the first one to appear on stage once the restoration is finished.

    “We’re looking for projects that are transformational. The Masonic Temple would be transformational,” Mayor Butler said. “If it was done right, it could be a home run.”

    The DRI program also could be a big boost to the arts community and a renovated Masonic Temple could play a big role in that happening, said Jordan B. Walker, executive director of the Jefferson County Historical Society.

    The arts council, the Sci-Tech Museum of New York and the Jefferson County Historical Society are calling for an arts/cultural district to be established downtown.

    With the committee working on the DRI process, Ms. Walker insists that now is the time to form an arts district downtown.

    As she sees it, the district would celebrate culture, history, local art, music and educational resources.

    “It could be an instigator in drawing interest in the arts in downtown Watertown,” she said.

    The arts council, the Sci-Tech Museum and the historical society would work together to share resources, coordinate events, and promote and market each other, she explained.

    The proposed arts center/theater in the old Masonic Temple could be the focal point of those efforts, she said. The three organizations could display art work and exhibits in the Washington Street building, which, in turn, would draw attention to the arts, those organizations and their activities, she said. The district also could draw more individual artists downtown.

    The Sci-Tech Museum has submitted a $281,000 DRI application for new exhibits and the historical society applied for $506,000 for improvements to the Washington Street museum.

    Although the city was awarded $10 million, state officials urged the planning committee to select projects totaling in the $12 million to $15 million range in case some proposals drop out and do not proceed.

    Back in October, the state-selected consultants organized “public engagement” sessions to spur discussions and ideas. In December, 90 ideas emerged and the consultants concluded that about 50 were more viable because they had “project sponsors,” property owners or developers, associated with them.

    In January, 31 projects were still being looked at. Consultants left some projects off the table, saying that they should still be considered as “priority projects,” but could obtain funding from other state agencies, Ms. Nagle said.

    Out of the 31 remaining projects, 22 new development or rehabilitation projects are estimated to cost $18.9 million, six public improvement projects would cost $3.7 million and three branding/marketing and revolving loan/grant funding projects would total $1.05 million.

    With a total of $23.65 million in potential projects, the Local Planning Committee has its work cut out before selecting which ones are funded.

    The planning committee will pick the final list of projects on March 1 before the state gives final approval on which proposals end up included in the city’s DRI program.

    But Mill Street business owner Carl E. Farone, who has run Mr. Sub for 47 years, isn’t convinced that the DRI program will have much of an impact.

    He recalled how the city treated business owners like himself during the $7 million Public Square reconstruction enhancement project, finished in 2008.

    “They’re going to do what they want to do,” he said.

Work on the DRI projects should begin by the end of this year.