The price tag kept climbing and the finish line kept getting moved, but the first and biggest piece of the Mill Lane Artisan District is done.
More important, and perhaps more remarkable given the events of this year, the huge building stretching along State Street between Church and Ferry streets is almost entirely spoken for: All but one apartment and all but 2,000 square feet of commercial space are leased.
The price tag so far for five years of planning, land acquisition, demolition and construction, plus equipment for the Frog Alley brewery, is $43.5 million, said owner/architect J.T. Pollard.
When he first walked The Daily Gazette through the old row buildings and blockhouse along Mill Lane in April 2017, the anticipated price tag was $14.5 million.
“Probably the biggest surprise financially is we had to stabilize the existing building for seismic load, as part of the new code,” Pollard said. “That was a change order we weren’t expecting.”
The rest of the price escalation was mainly due to size escalation — the price tag roughly tripled as did the square footage.
Pollard walked The Gazette through the project again on Tuesday.
Traces of the past remain — the blockhouse, the facade of a firehouse, the bones of the old Breslaw’s department store — but they are overshadowed by all that’s new in the 145,000 square feet.
This includes a brewery, distillery, pizzeria, bakery, 74 apartments, and top-floor office space for a local tech company.
Here’s an update on the various aspects:
APARTMENTS: The residential portion of the project filled up even amid the COVID crisis. Rents at The Lofts at Frog Alley run $1,250 to $2,500 a month, about $2 a square foot. Most of the apartments are 750 to 800 square feet, with a few 600-square-foot studios and a few larger two-bedroom units. Epoxy-coated concrete floors, high ceilings and exposed ductwork create an industrial vibe, but most units have a non-industrial amenity: one or even two balconies.
OFFICE: The Jahnel Group, a local software developer, long ago outgrew its space in The Stockade and committed three years ago to the Mill Artisan District. For its patience it got an expansive top-floor space with soaring views, and built an office that would have to be on anyone’s short list of best workspaces in the region.
DISTILLERY: A gleaming steampunk-looking array — pot still, gin basket, column stills — is in place to make whiskey. Pollard recently submitted applications for the state and federal licenses he will need before it can start to produce bourbon, gin and vodka. He’ll also need to pick a name for the distillery. “Frog Alley” has a certain ring but isn’t necessarily the front runner.
PIZZERIA: An Italian-made wood-fired pizza oven is the centerpiece of Annabel’s Pizza Co. It can reach as high as 900 degrees or it can function as a smoker at a much lower temperature. A range of pizzas and other food is available, either from the brewery taproom or a State Street entrance.
BAKERY: Bountiful Bread has all the pieces in place for high-production baking — jumbo mixers, proofing cabinets, multi-chamber oven fed by conveyor belt. But opening is on hold until the COVID crisis and its restrictions on restaurants ease. Operation will be similar to the Stuyvesant Plaza location — light sit-down or takeout meals with retail bread sales.
BREWERY: The first piece of the Mill Artisan District to open is, not surprisingly, also the furthest evolved. Frog Alley Brewing can produce 11,000 barrels of beer (2.7 million pints) a year with its most efficient equipment or 14,000 barrels if it goes all out. Pollard expects to reach capacity by June or July, thanks to new distribution contracts in and around New York City.
The COVID-19 crisis has crimped sales of draft beer on tap, significantly, but also caused an increase in sales of canned beer as consumers stay home.
“The brewery has just performed fantastic. We’ve beaten our projections and then going into New York City is going to be huge for us,” Pollard said.
When it’s time, the next step would be three more fermenting tanks and another bright tank, which would double the brewery’s holding capacity and add 7,000 barrels to its annual production capability.
The breadth of the Mill Artisan District plan, in a stretch of State Street that revitalization largely had not reached, drew state economic development grants worth millions.
The vision remained the same but the details of the plan began to evolve almost immediately.
Pollard found the old low-rise brick row storefronts on the 100 block of State Street too deteriorated to adapt.
He demolished that stretch of buildings, acquired the Mill Lane Apartment building (formerly Breslaw’s) and gutted it, then set about constructing a new structure along State Street where the row of storefronts once stood.
The current mix of commercial occupants — craft brewer, distiller, pizza maker, baker, software developer — all create things, some of which might be called artisanal, but they aren’t artists hand-making small quantities of specialty items, the common definition of artisanal.
“We still think of it as maker space,” Pollard said. “We’re just really trying to gravitate to local and made on-site. We have another phase planned where we might get some of those small artisans.”
There are two other aspects of the project: educational and entrepreneurial. Nearby SUNY Schenectady County Community College will use the site as a place for real-world training and experience for its students, while nanobrewers or advanced hobby brewers will dip their toes in the market with a temporary presence in the brewery and taproom.
Like so much else, these initiatives were set back this year, but they remain on track. A lab is set up near the distillery for the SCCC baking program and the first tenant brewer did a trial run this week.
YET TO COME
One last piece of the district has sat on State Street at the corner of what used to be Mill Lane for most of two centuries, and most recently was the Blockhouse Beef And Brew tavern. The compact brick building was also a tire shop, an auto repair shop, a restaurant and a laundry over the decades.
It never was a blockhouse, though it gained that nickname somehow.
Pollard is still looking for the right use for that building. At one point it was eyed as the distillery space, but that was more efficiently placed beside the brewery.
The building survives because it was in better shape than the State Street storefronts were, and because it has a certain patina imparted by age — it is believed to have been built in the 1830s.
“I like that old building,” Pollard said. “I think it’s got a really great feeling.”
It’s also a neat contrast — old Schenectady and brand new Schenectady, 20 feet apart across a former alleyway. The blockhouse just needs a lot of TLC, and the right new use.
Meanwhile, facing right out at the blockhouse, the last 2,000 square feet of vacant space in the new building needs a tenant that compliments the rest of the commercial occupants rather than competing with them.
Finally, if Pollard can make a deal and secure financing, he’d like to purchase more land for the future Phase II of the Mill Lane Artisan District.
And like everyone else, he’s ready for the return of some normalcy with an end to the COVID crisis, which delayed the project he’d had in the works for half a decade.
“There’s a lot of highs and lows,” he said of the year 2020.