SCHENECTADY — A former tavern nearing its 200th birthday will likely be the first piece of the city’s next destination area.
Work has begun on the $14.1 million Mill Artisan District, which aims to transform a stretch of storefronts on lower State Street near Mill Lane into a small community that will showcase the area’s history while also offering opportunities to eat, drink and shop.
Architect J.T. Pollard, of Re4orm Architecture, is the developer of the new district and owner of many of the buildings being overhauled to create it. He provided a tour of the work site last week.
The first stop was The Blockhouse, which was actually never a blockhouse but has long been known as such. It has stood on the knob of land on State Street between Mill Lane and South Church Street since the 1830s, according to Doug Sayles, an accountant working as a consultant on the project.
Most recently, it was the Blockhouse Beef and Brew, but it also has been an auto service station, a laundry, another restaurant and a tire shop over the generations.
It will likely be the first building completed in the project and has already been gutted and stripped to its bare bricks and joists.
Walking through the building, one appreciates how much history there is in the structure, as well as how much needs to be done to make it shine again. The structure bears scars from each owner who expanded it, rearranged it, punched new openings in the walls and sealed up previous openings.
But Pollard is confident in both the process and the outcome.
“We’re thinking we’re going to do a restaurant,” he said, adding it might be a “farm-to-table” operation.
The upstairs area will likely become apartment space, which is all the building has been used for in recent years. The basement has such high ceilings that there are possibilities there, too. The original fieldstone foundation stands straight, sturdy and dry.
Across Mill Lane, Pollard has acquired, or is in the process of acquiring, several other buildings along State Street. The largest single piece of the project will stretch east from the corner of State and Mill, as multiple storefronts are combined to make a single 10,000-square-foot retail space, possibly housing a retail shop and cafe featuring local products.
An ideal scenario, said Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority Chairman Ray Gillen, would be to have some of the artisans and craftsmen living, working and displaying their work in the same building where it is offered for sale. It is a specifically focused version of the mixed-used model of urban development in wide use today — retail, residential and business space, all within the same footprint.
All the residential tenants are gone from the apartments, and the remaining retail tenants — including a beauty salon and a tattoo parlor — are on month-to-month leases. They will have to leave before the work commences, but they will be offered help relocating if needed, Gillen said.
The second floor of the Blockhouse. (MARC SCHULTZ)
REALITY VS. POTENTIAL
Walking through the partly gutted 104 State St. building, one can see the shabby shambles that result when retrofits are layered upon one another in haphazard fashion over the course of decades. There’s also the sweet-musty smell of mold wafting out of some dark space.
“We’re finding it here and there,” Pollard said of the fungus, which will be eliminated, along with the damp conditions that foster it. “It’s not much of a problem.”
Some asbestos remains to be removed as well.
But amid all the debris, peeking through holes in the drywall, are the original bricks used to build the structures in the 1800s. They’ll be prominently visible when the work is done.
“We’re taking it right down to the bricks,” Pollard said, and then using a soda wash process that cleans up the masonry without totally removing the patina of age. “It’ll give it an aged look.”
The result is something that can’t easily be duplicated with modern materials and techniques: a genuine piece of the past. There’s no better illustration of this than Sayles’ anecdote that the builder of The Blockhouse, G.Q. Carley, was the son of a Revolutionary War soldier.
“The buildings are here. They’re real; they’re authentic,” Pollard said, explaining his attraction to the area that will become the Mill Artisan District.
Cutting right through the district is Mill Lane, a narrow alley that dates to the 1600s and is named for a grist mill that once stood there.
As Pollard stood outside 2 Mill Lane, explaining his plans to put a micro-distillery there, his voice was drowned out by a dump truck inching ever so carefully down Mill Lane from State Street to get a load of debris from the rear of the State Street buildings.
“One of the things we wanted to do is get in there and do some demo and see what we have there,” Pollard said. That lets him see what needs to be undone, or redone, and at what cost, so planning and negotiations can go forward with a better understanding of what’s involved.
None of the deals for the new occupants of the district — neither restaurant nor retailer nor distillery — are finalized. But Pollard is months into discussions and was confident of the outcome.
Other potential tenants include a cooperage to make whiskey barrels, a New York-made craft store and a brewery.
In an unlikely coincidence, if Pollard puts a restaurant in The Blockhouse, it will be the second former Firestone tire shop in Schenectady that he has converted into an eatery. The much-newer building at 151 Lafayette St., formerly a Firestone dealership, now holds his 151 Restaurant.
Mill Lane. (MARC SCHULTZ)
DISTRICT TAKING SHAPE
Beyond the work Pollard is doing, other components of the district are being finalized.
Gillen said the Scautub Insurance building and the former AAA Building, both damaged in the floods of 2011, will be demolished. Liberty Park will be expanded onto their footprint and renamed Gateway Plaza.
The CDTA bus station will stay where it is, but intercity bus service may be relocated.
The close proximity of Schenectady County Community College helps, too, as it creates the opportunity to tie academic work to real-world experience for students.
Sayles said the interest in downtowns and the popularity of authentically aged structures is important to the planning and execution of the new district.
“The kids don’t want to be in the suburbs now,” he said.
Gillen noted that all of the old buildings in the Mill Artisan District are being saved, rather than demolished and replaced with something new.
The general concept for the district has existed for a while, Pollard said, and was developed through a collaborative effort with Metroplex and Sayles.
Serious discussions to make it reality have been underway for more than a year, but the tipping point came in December, when the most recent round of state Regional Economic Development Council Awards was announced. Among them was $2.325 million for the district.
That was pivotal, Gillen said. “You can’t make the numbers work otherwise.”
Most of the projected $14.1 million cost will be covered with private capital, Pollard said, though grants will be sought as well. Metroplex will likely provide the same facade restoration grants it has distributed to many other Schenectady property owners, Gillen said, but much of the organization’s contribution will be to the larger picture: developing the neighborhood.
The Blockhouse (at right) will be the first to be renovated. (MARC SCHULTZ)
STATE STREET OVERHAUL
The Mill Artisan District is the latest chapter in a long-running effort to revitalize lower State Street.
The stretch between Erie Boulevard and Schenectady County Community College has seen far less investment and improvement as the stretch between Erie Boulevard and the county courthouse. But that is changing.
Along with the $14.1 million Mill Artisan District, some major projects underway or completed are:
- The ongoing $18.3 million conversion of the former YMCA into 61 senior apartments.
- The $20 million Electric City Apartments development, which will create 105 apartments and 10,000 square feet of retail space where several buildings previously stood in the 200 block of State Street.
- The old Schenectady Armory is being repurposed as an event venue capable of hosting thousands.
- SCCC has renovated the Kindl Building and is using it for workforce training.
- The former MVP building was converted into 30 apartments at a cost of $3.6 million.
- Metroplex is about to start construction of new sidewalks, lights and other streetscape improvements from North Church Street to SCCC.
- The Gateway Plaza green space will be created at a cost of $1.5 million.
- The New York BizLab business incubator has filled the former bank building at 251 State St. and will expand next door to the Department of Motor Vehicles office, after the county DMV relocates.
A little farther away, the new casino at the other end of Erie Boulevard is drawing visitors whom developers hope to coax out of their cars and into local businesses in Schenectady.
If it comes together as planned, the Mill Artisan District will be another reason for people to visit Schenectady.
Planned retail space at 108-110 State St. (MARC SCHULTZ)
Six old buildings are targeted for renovation and repurposing in Schenectady’s Mill Artisan District:
- 102 State St.
- 104 State St.
- 110 State St.
- 116 State St.
- 122 State St.
- 2 Mill Lane