SCHENECTADY — A minor landmark and distinctive remnant of old-time Schenectady is on deck for a new owner and new use.
The old weigh station at Van Guysling Avenue and Clinton Street is earmarked to become a Moroccan-style spa at the hands of the entrepreneur who runs Tara Kitchen restaurant on Liberty Street.
Aneesa Waheed said she will close on the purchase when necessary state paperwork is completed.
She’s simultaneously planning to open a third location of Tara Kitchen in Guilderland, and has increased production of the restaurant’s bottled sauces.
But it’s the hammam — a traditional spa in the Islamic world, descended from the bath houses of the old Ottoman Empire — that has most grabbed her imagination lately, both because of the building it will occupy and because of the long delay in getting the project rolling.
“It’s so exciting to be able to repurpose it in such a unique and modern way,” Waheed said of the weigh station. “We’re not going to alter anything on the outside.”
The hammam originally was to be built at 204 Lafayette St. building, but the agreement soured, she said. “It was just kind of a nightmare.”
Mediation failed to salvage the deal, Waheed added, but “It’s not a project any of us wanted to give up on.”
The old weigh station is essentially a large house or small commercial building cut almost in half by an arched passageway, leaving a footprint of about 600 square feet on each side. At two stories tall, that’s only about 2,400 square feet of total usable space.
For this reason, there have been few prospective buyers for the historic structure, which dates to 1910 or 1920 and once held a scale in the floor of the archway to weigh wagonloads of coal.
The Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority became the building’s owner when it acquired the surrounding parking lots. Metroplex has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in stabilization and repairs but hasn’t aggressively marketed the building, Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen said.
“We had one [potential buyer] who wanted to use it but they wanted to put a big lawn in front,” he said. “They [would have been] a great user but they had this Great Lawn concept.”
Metroplex couldn’t sacrifice all the parking spaces such a plan would have consumed.
He added: “This seems like a good fit. We had it appraised, we're selling it to her for market value.”
That’s $26,000. The 0.14-acre plot that would be included in the sale includes no parking spaces, but customers can use the surrounding lot and nearby garage.
There may also be financial assistance from Metroplex for facade improvements.
Because Metroplex owns it, the state must approve the sale. Waheed also must agree to a state environmental easement allowing future ground testing on the site, which was contaminated a century ago with residue from a coal gasification plant but has been cleaned up.
Architects Jim Hundt of Foresight and Michael Roman of C2 Design will be working on adapting the space to modern use; Hundt will accompany Waheed to Morocco to see examples of what she wants to create in her hammam.
“The thing that’s got us both excited about this project is the unique exterior,” Hundt said.
It’s obviously an old building, and even slightly exotic, if not a full-blown Moorish design.
Hundt said he looked at the building himself, several years ago, as a potential new office for his firm. But that was before Metroplex made the repairs, and the work Hundt would have needed to do was just too extensive.
“The stabilization they did is very helpful,” he said.
There are a few cracks in the masonry-and-steel walls, but overall it’s solid, Hundt added.
The plan is to put reception/retail space on one side of the building and bath/spa space on the other, then connect them with a corridor disguised as a gate.
Normally there would need to be an elevator in a two-story building to comply with federal law on access for the disabled, and that would be impossible in this project. But all functions of the second floors will be replicated on the first floors, so this project should qualify as handicapped-accessible without elevators.
RESTAURANT BUSINESS STRONG
The hammam will be a new line of business for Waheed, who opened the popular Tara Kitchen in Schenectady in 2012 and added a Troy location in 2017.
She also bottles the distinctive sauces from Tara Kitchen for sale at retailers around the region and beyond. The prices have come down recently, thanks to economy of scale and the use of a contract bottler in Vermont. Sales hit 25,000 bottles last year, she said, and through that, “we’ve been able to make this cuisine accessible to a lot of people.”
Another recent development: wedding catering, “something I wouldn’t have thought about 10 years ago.”
Next up is a third restaurant location.
Waheed is waiting to close on the purchase of 1785 Western Ave. in Guilderland, a building that Paesan's Pizza vacated in favor of new space several doors west.
Waheed chose the location in part because it’s close to the family’s Niskayuna home.
“We kind of triangulated our location from home,” she said. “We looked at Latham but Latham would have been too close to Troy and Schenectady.”
Guilderland also was chosen for business reasons: The Capital Region’s largest shopping mall is less than a mile away and its largest college less than two miles; thousands of public- and private-sector employees work nearby at the state office campus and at Executive Park; it’s a town of 35,000 people with significantly higher levels of education and income than the region as a whole; and 30,000 vehicles pass per day on Route 20.
Plus, it was just the right size, not too big.
“We will do our business the way we know best,” Waheed said, “45 to 50 seats, beer and wine, and of course good food all day.”