Schenectady County

Company wants to restore old buildings

Two unusual historic buildings left to rot downtown are finally being restored.
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Two unusual historic buildings left to rot downtown are finally being restored.

Focus Construction has purchased the Morgan Building at 322 State St. and its owner says it has an option to buy the Foster Building, at 508 State St.

The company plans to spend $2.3 million repairing both structures. And unlike the previous owners, who did no work to maintain the buildings, Focus has already started fixing the Foster Building’s roof and has applied for the many pricey permits needed to repair the Morgan Building, according to the company.

Both buildings have unusual, century-old facades that have somehow survived the ravages of time intact.

The Morgan Building, which was badly damaged in a fire last year and is difficult to repair because it abuts the railroad bridge, is one of just four buildings in the Capital Region with a cast-iron facade. The unusual, blueish facade was untouched by the fire and stands out even now, when the rest of the burnt-out building is covered with boards.

The Foster Building has also been crumbling while the rest of downtown came back to life. But the intricate facade, which covers six stories with bouquets, leaves and other designs, is still in good condition. Foster has one of the most highly decorated terra cotta facades in the region.

For a time, it looked like both buildings were heading toward demolition.

The Morgan Building sat vacant for many years, housing a series of homeless men who climbed in the windows, drank, and on at least three occasions, set the place on fire. City officials were so pessimistic about the chance of anyone rehabbing it after last year’s fire that they lobbied for it to be destroyed. Historic preservationists begged them to give the owner a chance, and the city gave in after learning it would cost up to $250,000 to knock it down.

The city pushed harder for restoration of the Foster Building, but officials estimated that it would take at least $1 million to fix it up. With another $1 million for the asking price, no one was interesting in taking on the project. Preservationists despaired, saying they were watching the slow death of an architectural treasure.

But now, both buildings may be on the path to recovery.

Although city officials emphasized that Focus Construction has taken on a huge task by attempting both projects at once, they praised the company for immediately starting work.

“I have to give him credit,” said Metroplex Development Chairman Ray Gillen, who has been trying to market the Foster Building for more than a year. “We’ve been trying to get these building redeveloped and he’s out there. It’s very positive to see people taking on a tough rehab project, and these are both going to be tough.” He was referring to Jeffrey Civitello, owner of Focus Construction.

AGGRESSIVE SCHEDULE

Officials were also startled, but gratified, to hear the company’s aggressive schedule for the Morgan Building. Work is slated to take just 120 days.

“Wow,” said Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden. “We waited more than a year with the other owner — we’re still trying to prosecute him.” Garner Properties LLC faces multiple code violation tickets.

Civitello said he will work quickly because long projects cost more money.

“The difference is, I’m spending my money,” he said. “Developers who get the building for $1 and have Metroplex paying their way can take their time.”

He bought the Morgan Building for $37,000 and plans to spend another $200,000 on the rehab. The first floor will be converted into a cafe, while the second floor will be marketed as commercial space and the top floor will become apartments. He expects a cafe to do well.

“There’s really no place to eat after 9, 10 o’clock at night,” Civitello said. “With all the bars and the bus stop right there, I figure that’s a sure shot.”

The sale price, reached at auction, was so low that he will have no trouble financing the repairs, he added.

“At this stage, we can’t lose,” he said.

Civitello is not receiving any aid from Metroplex, which has offered grants and loans on many of the major projects downtown. But Metroplex did not try to show the fire-damaged building and Gillen confirmed that his agency isn’t involved in Civitello’s project. It was not clear why — Civitello said he’d be happy to accept money from the agency.

“We tried to hook up with the Metroplex, to be in their little crew of people … but they’re very selective, so what we’re doing is with private financing,” Civitello said. “If they have a project they want us to do, I’m happy to do it. Otherwise we’re going to have a cafe on the first floor.”

Metroplex also does not appear to be supporting Civitello’s work at the Foster Building. Gillen said that he would continue to show Foster to prospective buyers until Civitello closes on the building.

MONEY ON THE TABLE

Civitello said he put $60,000 down on a $700,000 sale price and has a signed contract with the owners, but they agreed to a common rehab deal in which he does not close on the building until he finishes the most expensive repairs. That way, Civitello said, he can avoid the cash-flow problem that could result from paying a mortgage while also paying for the repairs. If the owners sell to someone else, they must pay him for his work.

Gillen expressed some confusion, saying he has another prospective buyer lined up to view the building today and has not been informed of any signed contracts. He acknowledged that one of the building’s two owners asked him to stop showing the building because Focus had agreed to a deal, but said it’s good business to keep showing the building until someone actually buys it.

Civitello, who plans to put at least $2 million of his own money into the project, said he still wants to work with Metroplex on it.

“My options are wide open to do what makes them happy,” he said. “There are seven storefronts and they’re beautiful.”

He plans to put 26 upscale housing units on the upper floors while turning the second floor into class-A office space. And even though the building sat vacant for nine years, Civitello said, most of it is in good shape.

“We started working there a couple weeks ago. We took down the dropped ceilings — there’s beautiful vaulted ceilings,” he said.

He expects the work will take 20 months, partly because he’s moving interior walls to turn single-room-occupancy units into classy, two-bedroom apartments. There’s also a lot of interior damage from water pipes that burst in 1999, but Civitello said it’s still head and shoulders above the fire damage at the Morgan Building.

Although Gillen would not discuss Civitello’s plans for the Foster Building, he did offer some help on the Morgan Building. Civitello should apply for a facade grant for that project, Gillen said.

“We welcome their interest,” Gillen added. “It’s important because it’s on the other side of the rail overpass, where we want to bring growth. It gets development in that direction.”

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