Apartment project in old YMCA nears 50 percent occupancy

Conversion created 61 senior apartments; gymnasium to become commercial space
The newly renovated former YMCA at 13 State St. in Schenectady is shown on Wednesday.
The newly renovated former YMCA at 13 State St. in Schenectady is shown on Wednesday.

SCHENECTADY — The old Schenectady YMCA is a residential building again. The facade still reads “Young Men’s Christian Association,” but its name is 13 State Street Apartments.

After an $18 million overhaul of the 92-year-old landmark at the foot of State Street, the first new residents moved in early this year; managers expect to reach 50 percent occupancy next week, as more tenants move in at the start of the new month.

The building is for tenants age 55 and older. The 61 apartments are almost all one-bedroom units, though they vary considerably in size and layout, because planners designed them to conform to the needs of the historic building, rather than redesigning the building to fit the apartments.

There are also two two-bedroom apartments and eight one-bedroom units with dens.

Lori Harris, senior vice president of new owner Norstar Development USA, said the conversion has been a major undertaking: Asbestos removal alone cost more than $1 million.

“This is the kind of project that can break your back,” she said.

A significant factor in paying for all the work, and keeping the new apartments affordable, was historic preservation tax credits.

The building was never an ornate showplace like Proctors, built in the same year. But it did incorporate elegant and/or distinctive aesthetic elements, and those have been preserved or restored.

The work on the residential side is all but done. Protective blankets hang inside the elevators to protect the walls from the loads of furniture frequently being hauled up to apartments. The hardwood arches throughout the lobby have regained some of their luster, though nearly a century’s worth of bumps and scratches remain, giving them some character. 

A short punch list of work still to be done includes polishing up the tile floor in the lobby.

The old fitness center on the west side of the building is another story, still a partly gutted work in progress. The Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority has a long-term lease on the space and has reached agreement with a tenant. Chairman Ray Gillen would not identify the tenant, but said it will not be a retail operation.

When the sublease agreement is finalized, the tenant will be announced and conversion of the space will begin. The nearly 9,000 square-foot gym will be maintained as a single open space with high ceilings, reflecting the current popularity of such environments for workspaces. The distinctive banked running track above the gym will be restored to usable condition.

The YMCA measures 104,000 square feet and was built in 1926, around the same time as other Schenectady landmarks such as the Van Curler Hotel across the street (now the heart of Schenectady County Community College), Proctors and General Electric Building 37 (with the iconic GE sign on the roof).

By the early 2000s, it was physically rundown, containing somewhat limited exercise facilities and a single-room-occupancy facility for men, some of them struggling with or recovering from a variety of problems.

In 2010, the YMCA moved its physical fitness gear a half-mile up State Street to Center City. In 2014, it moved its residential facility to a former factory at 845 Broadway.

Gillen said the deal to have Norstar buy the old YMCA building was complex and took a couple of years to set up. It included a variety of state and federal incentives — housing tax credits, historic preservation tax credits, a $6.7 million block grant — and gradually declining property tax breaks from Metroplex for the building, which didn’t generate tax revenue for it first 90 years as a nonprofit.

The credits, grants and tax breaks allow Norstar to cover the $18 million project cost and still hold monthly rents to the $700 to $925 range.

It’s a major piece of the significant changes underway on lower State Street, which include the redesigned Gateway Park across from the new old YMCA and an entire block of new or renovated buildings that will become the Mill Artisan District.

County Legislator Jeffrey McDonald, who operates the Stockade Inn a block from the new 13 State Street Apartments, said conversion of the old YMCA was critical because it was a major eyesore at a crossroads leading to Schenectady, Scotia and the historic Stockade neighborhood. “It really gave a bad impression.”

The YMCA’s new residential facility is right next door to the county Department of Social Services, so residents are better able to get assistance than they were at the old building, McDonald added.

Carol DeLaMarter, president of the Stockade Association, said she was aware that some people in the neighborhood were unhappy with YMCA residents congregating near the building, though she herself didn’t have any problems with them. 

She expects no objections to the new residents now moving in.

“Certainly folks are excited about the nature of the people who will be residing there,” she said.

“I think we are all excited about the repurposing of that historic building — where other buildings are getting torn down, this one is getting preserved.”

The one wrinkle so far for DeLaMarter was an asphalt rear driveway being laid over the Union Street sidewalk during the construction phase. It’s a small detail, but one that is noticeable in the historic district, and she’s waiting to see if it gets removed.

Otherwise the project is a fine upgrade, she said.

“I’m looking forward to having that building be open and be vibrant.”

Building superintendent Robert Coppolo led a tour through the facility Wednesday. Each unit has simulated hardwood laminate floors in the living areas and a carpeted bedroom. Some units have special design features to accommodate tenants who have limitations on their mobility. Each apartment has its own heating and cooling unit, and they all feel spacious, particularly now while they’re still vacant.

“You saw the ‘before,’ this is the ‘after,’” Coppolo said, referring to the apartment of Mike DiChiaro, well-furnished and homey only three weeks after he moved in.

“Every piece I have is secondhand,” DiChiaro said proudly. The price tag of the rent and furnishings is as important as the aesthetics for him, because he works for a nonprofit and does not draw a large salary.

The apartment is a culmination of sorts for the 56-year-old Rhode Islander, who moved to Schenectady four years ago and became homeless when his plans fell through.

The Schenectady City Mission helped him rebuild his life with its Bridges to Freedom program and put him in transitional housing for two years while he worked to build up a savings account.

“Most of all they showed me a lot of love,” he said of the journey.

Working as a driver at the Schenectady ARC for the past nine months, he said a lot of the new apartments in the city are out of his price range, but now he’s able to afford a car and a place of his own to live.

He likes the neighborhood and he likes 13 State Street Apartments.

“As you’ve seen, it’s a beautiful place,” he said.

Categories: Business, News, Schenectady County

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