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Glens Falls: Northern Exposure

New Urbanist spirit, Saratoga’s priceyness open Glens Falls as attractive place to settle again

Sunday, March 9, 2008
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Peter and Suzanne Hoffman stand on the rooftop of one of their properties in downtown Glens Falls in view of the new traffic circle. Peter Hoffman says the rotary is one example of how Glens Falls is on the path to a bright future. "It's brought me and other developers to the table who are recognizing it's like an early Saratoga."
Peter and Suzanne Hoffman stand on the rooftop of one of their properties in downtown Glens Falls in view of the new traffic circle. Peter Hoffman says the rotary is one example of how Glens Falls is on the path to a bright future. "It's brought me and other developers to the table who are recognizing it's like an early Saratoga."

Work. Live. Play. Eat.

Four short words. One big movement: New Urbanism.

The movement isn’t exactly new, having started in the 1980s, but it is new to this city of 13,000, where the real estate landscape, thanks to some New Urbanist mojo, is humming with investment.

It may seem an unlikely time to be talking about a building boom, but that’s what’s happening, thanks in part to the New Urbanist credo of live where you work and work where you live.

In downtown Glens Falls, developers are pouring millions into new high-end condominiums and refurbished apartments. In the city’s various bucolic neighborhoods, homes are selling relatively well because, real estate agents say, they’re reasonably priced. And new jobs are coming into town by the hundreds.

The draw?

City life, and at a good price.

The Saratoga effect

“Like what happened in Saratoga, they’re coming back to the cities,” developer Peter Hoffman said of suburbanites.

Hoffman is one of several Saratoga County developers, builders and Realtors who’ve moved 15 miles up the Northway to turn their attention to Glens Falls. So far, Hoffman has invested $8 million to $10 million in residential and commercial properties in Glens Falls and its immediate vicinity.

Glens Falls, Hoffman says, is on the precipice of a major revival. He credits the massive investment downtown, both public and private, in projects such as the $18 million library expansion, a major hospital expansion and a streetscape face-lift on the main street.

The city is buzzing with new businesses, new jobs and new workers, many of whom are looking for places to live — be it apartment, condo or single-family house, Hoffman said.

“They’re kind of getting into the urbanesque feeling,” said Hoffman, who previously focused his development efforts in southern Saratoga County.

Hoffman and others say Glens Falls has the same raw potential that Saratoga Springs had before its housing boom in the 1990s and this decade. A big part of that is the stock of well-built existing homes just ripe for renewal, they say.

“Basically, this is sort of a snapshot of what Saratoga was 25 years ago,” said Bob Gammon, a builder in Saratoga Springs since 1985. “The downtown was cleaning up. Housing was still affordable.”

Gammon turned his attention to Glens Falls a few years ago when he realized that many buyers were being priced out of the Saratoga Springs area.

“I still think this area offers a lot in the way of amenities . . . without the priceyness we’ve seen in Saratoga,” said Gammon, owner of Gammon Construction.

Gammon is building a six-house development near the city’s stately Crandall Park. The houses, modeled after an old-time Saratoga carriage house, are in the $275,000- to low $300,000-range, but they’d list for much more in Saratoga County. He has sold two so far, and a third will start going up next week.

“The market for that type of construction is here,” he said.

Patti Gray Whann is a real estate agent who moved to Glens Falls from Saratoga about five years ago. She says her new hometown started experiencing a boom a few years ago because her old hometown’s housing market had become too hot.

“Regular folks were saying, ‘I’d love to live downtown, but I can’t afford to,’ so they had to start looking around,” said Gray Whann, who recently started her own real estate firm, Glens Falls Area Realty.

“We were the overflow market — in between Saratoga and Lake George,” Gray Whann said. “It didn’t take a rocket scientist to say, ‘Wow, 15 miles north, same house . . . $100,000 cheaper.’ ”

Gray Whann says she has worked with numerous homebuyers from downstate — not New York City necessarily, but Westchester County, Long Island, Connecticut and northern New Jersey. They seem to be attracted to Glens Falls, which sits at the southeastern edge of the Adirondacks, for nostalgic reasons.

“These are folks who vacationed in the Adirondacks as a child,” Gray Whann said.

A new day

New Urbanism is an American design movement that came on the scene in 1980s, largely as a backlash to suburban sprawl. The tenets of the movement call for urban redevelopment with a diverse mix of housing, jobs, shops and the arts. Walkability is paramount.

In the new Glens Falls, New Urbanism is in.

“Glens Falls is on a roll,” said Bruce Levinsky, a Saratoga Springs developer and the man behind the biggest single residential project in Glens Falls right now, a $30 million condo project downtown.

Levinsky, owner of Saratoga-based Merlin Development, is converting an old mill into a six-story condo project with 52 units. It’s one block from the main drag through town, and across the street from the recently expanded Glens Falls Hospital.

Prices range from $285,000 to $900,000. Six units are under contract already; the first occupants will move in this fall.

The condo project also will include 40,000 square feet of office and commercial space, including a 6,000-square-foot restaurant on the ground floor. A 250-car garage will be attached.

Levinsky said he decided to pursue the condo project and several other high-profile sites in Glens Falls for many reasons, including the hospital expansion, the library expansion and a “pro-development” political climate in the community.

“The time was right,” said Levinsky, who has clashed with some Saratoga officials over various development-related issues. “This all really started within the last couple years.”

“I’ve been working in Saratoga for 30 years and keeping my eye on the possible development in Glens Falls,” Levinsky said. “The economics are so much more attractive as far as getting more value for your money than in neighboring Saratoga.”

Good housing stock

Levinsky also cited the “huge inventory” of existing homes that are just waiting for new life — much like Saratoga 20 years ago, before builders and contractors started buying them and fixing them up. “That’s one of the very attractive things of Glens Falls,” he said.

“Architecturally speaking, I consider Glens Falls to be vastly more contained, in a sense of having a true cohesive downtown, than Saratoga,” said Levinsky, never one to mince words. “It has not had its architecture emasculated with new faux-Victorian structures.”

Hoffman, one of the other high-profile developers from Saratoga County, says the demand for all kinds of space, both residential and commercial, is increasingly robust. Leases are being signed before projects are even finished, he said.

“Typically, you rehab space and then try to lease it. It might take several years,” said Hoffman, whose many projects include apartments in downtown. “Glens Falls is very much ahead of that. There’s a hunger for space — both residential and commercial.”

Of course, despite all of the optimism in Glens Falls these days, the local housing market hasn’t been immune to fallout from the national housing meltdown in recent months. The housing crisis, and all of the attendant media coverage, has started to take a toll on local buyers’ confidence over the past several months, according to Gray Whann.

But with spring on the doorstep, local buyers are starting to show some signs of life,” she said.

“Buyers are coming out,” Gray Whann said. “You can see them at open houses. They’re shopping.”

 
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