Lower State Street is finally getting a facelift, thanks to new developers who want to build there.
Metroplex and city officials declined to describe the new deal, but it has motivated them to fulfill a dream held for decades by Lower State Street business owners.
They’re getting new utilities, new pavement, new sidewalk and lighting that matches the rest of downtown.
Crews will close the westbound side of lower State Street — from Erie Boulevard to South Church Street — for five to six weeks. Work is slated to begin this week.
For the newest owner on Lower State Street, it’s the news of new development that’s exciting.
“Look, you can lay concrete. It’s great to put in some concrete,” said Transfinder owner Antonio Civitella. “But you really need to have a whole community. One building doesn’t do it.”
He’s hoping the project includes the vast expanse of empty space that once held the Robinson’s building.
“That big hole right across the street. That would be nice to have (developed)!” he said. “I’m excited.”
The city is starting work now to replace water and sewer lines. That work will be done by Nov. 22 so that the Gazette Holiday Parade can march uninterrupted through downtown.
In the spring, Metroplex will do the streetscape work.
The only question left: what project could have inspired all this?
There are three major lots to be sold: the vacant Olender’s building, the former Robinson’s space next door to Olender’s, and, a little farther down the street, the vacant building that burned last year.
Mayor Gary McCarthy would only say that the city’s doing the street work because of that project.
“It’s because — well, there are developments on State Street that I can’t tell you about,” he said.
Metroplex Development Chairman Ray Gillen wouldn’t say either, citing his normal policy of not announcing a project until the contracts are signed.
But he indicated that many investors have been considering all three sites.
At least one developer has considered the former Robinson’s location, which Metroplex has been trying to sell for years.
“I have serious interest in the site,” Gillen said.
And others are looking at the burned-out building at 237-247 State St. The building is structurally sound, though it would likely have to be gutted.
“We have people interested in that,” he said.
The only new development that’s not a secret is the sale of the Mr. James building.
Transfinder has purchased it and will turn the two-story barber’s shop into additional office space. Staff is already moving into the first Transfinder building, which is nearby. It will formally open next week after a $7 million renovation.
In the Mr. James building, Transfinder may run a business incubator, one of many “technology accelerators,” Civitella said.
Three successive generations ran Mr. James before Mark Scolamiero reluctantly closed it early this year. He then died of a heart attack before he was even able to empty out the building.
He ran out of money when he had to temporarily close after the fire next door at 237-247 State St. The business was already struggling to stay afloat, and he never recovered from the loss of income, he said at the time.
Firefighters have recently determined that the fire started because the owners of the building illegally tapped into a National Grid power line. They installed a fake meter and used extension cords to move power from their tap, McCarthy said. Those extension cords blew, causing the fire. There have been no arrests in the case.
Since then, city officials have found at least one other location with an illegal power tap, McCarthy added. That tap was on Union Street.
Other new developments on Lower State Street include Thai Thai at the corner of State and Erie Boulevard, which will replace Bangkok Bistro. That restaurant is slated to open soon — but first the road in front of the restaurant will be closed while the city replaces the water main.
Workers will close the westbound lanes of State Street while they install a “sleeve” inside the pipe, which is simpler than digging it up and laying new pipe. The sleeve will harden into a new, impermeable pipe.
Traffic will be detoured onto Erie Boulevard, where drivers are already encountering slowdowns from the delayed paving project of that street.
That project should have been done by now, McCarthy said. If it had been, the utility work on Lower State Street would not have conflicted with it.
He offered a more detailed explanation of the delay, which had previously been described as unexpected problems removing old utilities underground.
He said the actual problem was a conflict between National Grid and the city’s contractor, Rifenburg.
National Grid blamed Rifenburg for damage done to power utilities under the street. Rifenburg officials said the damage was there before them, McCarthy said.
“We’re just moving ahead, fixing it They can hash it out in court later,” he said.
He directed Rifenburg to take action to reduce gridlock, and traffic was moving more smoothly Thursday. Closing part of State Street won’t help, but he said he had no choice.
“I had to do the water stuff now,” he said. “So that it’s done before the parade. I don’t want the Gazette mad at me.”
The project should take only five or six weeks, he added.
“It’s supposed to move fairly quickly,” he said. “But when you get underground, with these old pipes, you never know.”