There’s good luck, there’s good timing … and then there’s two cousins from Rotterdam who bought up eight commercial properties down the block from Mohawk Harbor, long before the transformative project was even conceived.
Jeff and Ray Legere, owners of Legere Properties and the Legere Group, are now looking for ways to benefit from the $450 million-plus being poured into the former Alco factory site, the millions of people expected to visit the casino each year and the thousands of people expected to live, work or stay at the waterside community every day.
Ray Legere told The Gazette in January that the goal is to complement the casino, not compete with it. They’re off to a good start with that: Rivers Casino & Resort administrative personnel packed the second floor of the Legeres’ 1482 Erie Blvd. while casino construction was underway a hundred yards distant, and also ran their school for dealers there.
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The influx temporarily boosted occupancy at the building, which had been running around 35 percent. It formerly housed Ellis Medicine’s Belanger School of Nursing, and Legere is trying to find a new educational tenant, because the space is set up as a school. Failing that, it may need to be cut up to attract a different category of tenant.
The office building at 1473 Erie Blvd. — connected to 1482 by a pedestrian bridge — is running around 90 percent occupied, as is 1462 Erie Blvd., which was the fi rst property the Legeres acquired in the area, way back in the 1990s.
Rounding out the Legeres’ nearby holdings are a building at 17 Mohawk St. and garages nearby at 401 Front St. that are rented out; a vacant lot at 326 Front St. that will likely become overflow parking; a small upholstery shop at 1424 Erie Blvd. that is vacant and could fall to the wrecking ball if demolishing it would be expedient; and a sprawling former railroad freight depot at 1410 Erie Blvd. that presents the greatest potential and greatest challenge for redevelopment.
The old depot, most recently home to Grossman’s Bargain Outlet, is in rough shape and stabilizing it would cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars. Making it a thing of beauty — in his offi ce Ray Legere has architectural renderings proposing to do just that — would cost hundreds of thousands more.
“Everybody wants to save it but nobody wants to support it,” he said, explaining that the Legere Group can’t undertake the project on its own or on spec, because of the cost.
So what prompted all this investment in a neighborhood that for decades was dominated by the shabby buildings of the old locomotive factory? On a stretch of Erie Boulevard where drivers would hit the gas and accelerate to 45 mph as they left downtown Schenectady for Glenville or Niskayuna?
“We didn’t have a crystal ball, but I was excited to be near the plant,” said Ray Legere, whose father worked at Alco. “I knew it would come back some time. … I saw it as an asset to the north end of Schenectady.”
And so it was.
In spring of 2011, the massive buildings came down, one by one. Late that summer, tropical storms flooded much of the site, metaphorically washing the slate clean as one era ended and another began.
After the floodwaters receded, the Galesi Group began cleaning up contaminants left in the ground from a century of heavy industry; raising the ground level against future floods; carving the namesake harbor into the riverbank; and developing the new community.
The first hotel opened late last year, the casino opened last month and construction continues on a hotel, a bank and coffee shop, townhouse-style condominiums, apartments, retail shops and office space.
The challenge for the Legeres is how to profitably complement all this without directly competing with it.
“The interesting crossroads that we have is, we’re offi ce buildings,” Ray Legere said. “Is that the biggest and best use right now for that area?
“As you drive down Erie Boulevard, one of the things that’s lacking in this area is retail — retail for foot traffic,” he added.
Adaptive reuse is the buzzword that comes up.
“It may be time to explore other reuses given the proximity to the casino” and Mohawk Harbor, he added. “This end of the city is going to be the new hub.”
That could include construction on part of the 1473 Erie Blvd. parking lot, which faces right onto the casino’s driveway, or building on the roof of one or more of the buildings.
As mentioned, the greatest potential and greatest challenge for the Legeres is the old Delaware & Hudson freight building. It has been heavily modified through decades of adaptive reuse and is badly deteriorated from years of vacancy, but it sits on 2 acres with sweeping exposure to casino-bound traffic on Erie Boulevard, especially if the old upholstery shop in front of it is removed.
It’s also a survivor from an earlier era, which is something Ray Legere values personally — across town, he and Jeff Legere are revamping the historic Schenectady Armory as a multipurpose event venue.
Asked if he thinks he’d get a public black eye if he tears down the old freight depot and builds something modern in its place, he said, “I’ll have a black heart if I tear it down. I do not want it to go away. But I have to look at the realities, and the fi nancial obligations that come with it. I don’t want it to go away, but it’s killing me.”
Legere estimates it dates to the late 1800s, because it is at street level and the tracks in downtown Schenectady were elevated above street level in the early 1900s. Just stabilizing the building — not adding the cupolas, or new roof, or soaring glass windows shown in the architectural concept drawing, just making it able to stand for decades more — would cost $1 million or more. The wooden floors are sagging above a modified crawl space and the piers that form the foundation are crumbling.
“I’ve been proposing and trying to get people to partner with it,” Legere said. “Nothing is signed. We’ve been talking to two different national retailers, but nothing is signed.”
Almost anything can be fixed, he noted, but not everything can be fixed economically.
The Legeres branched into real estate management from their successful contracting business in a slow and steady manner, sometimes acquiring properties less with an actual plan for them than with a conceptual goal or even just a gut feeling. Their series of acquisitions near a brownfield that turned into the biggest project in Schenectady in a generation was an example of this.
“It’s intuition,” Ray Legere said. “It’s not premeditated foresight, it’s just what feels right.”