SARATOGA SPRINGS -- It may be winter, but that doesn't stop the construction season in Saratoga Springs.
From an excavation on Henry Street, to a high-rise going up just off Broadway, to a four-story complex on West Avenue, backhoes and cranes and interior crews are working. In many cases, they are building more of the expensive luxury condominiums that have come to characterize the booming city's new housing stock.
In the city known as the Queen of Spas, there's no question that condos are what people want. With Saratoga's downtown restaurant and entertainment scene less than a furlong away, the luxury condos on Railroad Place have sold in recent years for prices in the million-dollar range.
At the moment, condos in the renovated 1903 elementary school at 77 Van Dam St. -- within a few furlongs of Broadway -- are being offered for mostly between $350,000 and $400,000, and new condos on Union Avenue near Congress Park, where the Skidmore College "Pink Palace" once towered, are in the same price range and have sold rapidly.
"You could walk to anywhere," said Saratoga County senior planner Michael Valentine, a city native. "You're mobile and you're not tied to a car. Saratoga is a very compact."
Condos aren't just a Saratoga Springs thing, yet their continued construction in the city shows that the allure of living in Saratoga Springs doesn't die: It has one of the most vital downtowns in upstate New York, and a world-class reputation for horse racing, performing arts and culture. The "summer place to be" is now appealing to a lot of down-sizing retirees.
"Baby-boomers are getting to that age, they've raised their kids, they're ready to sell the house, they like the no-maintenance thing," said Scott Varley, an associate real estate broker in the city for decades, now affiliated with Keller Williams.
Varley is currently marketing a 34-unit four-story condo building on West Avenue, which will be ready for occupancy this summer, and where condos are selling for $500,000 to $600,000 -- far less than what condos closer to Broadway cost.
The entire city has appeal, said Varley, noting that the West Avenue property is still less than a mile off Broadway.
"Everybody that I meet wants walking distance to Broadway, but the people who say that don't live here now, but they visit and they go to the shops and restaurants on Broadway," he said. "The reality is for those who live here, unless they're within a few blocks of Broadway, they will not be walking downtown, they will be driving."
Part of the phenomena is that Saratoga Springs is the cultural heart of Saratoga County, which has defied the population trends of the rest of upstate New York, nearly doubling in population since 1970, as what were Northway bedroom communities have developed their own commercial and industrial bases.
But the city hasn't seen the explosive growth in the last few decades that has transformed Wilton, Milton and Malta into suburbs, in many cases for people who work and recreate in Saratoga Springs. Instead, the city has seen slow but steady population growth for many years. It had 26,599 residents at the time of the 2010 U.S. census, and is estimated by the Census Bureau to have 28,000 residents today.
The city's real estate market has come to be dominated by condos more than single-family homes, at least when it comes to new construction.
The number of multi-unit building permits issued in the city has exceeded the number of permits for single-family homes in each of the last four years. Last year, the city issued permits for construction of 61 single-family homes, eight two-unit townhouses, and 95 units in buildings that had five or more housing units.
Many of the buyers continue to be out-of-towners interested in spending the summer racing season or other parts of the year in Saratoga Springs, Valentine acknowledged. Nearly all the condos have been built in the last 15 years, since the first five-story building was built on Railroad Place.
Across the Capital Region, the trend since 2012 is that nearly half of all new construction each year -- and sometimes more -- is multi-unit buildings, according to figures kept by the Capital District Regional Planning Commission. The commission's figures don't make a distinction between condos -- which are located in multi-unit buildings but with units that are individually owned -- and apartments, which the occupants rent from a landlord.
Varley described condo units as "red-hot" in all local markets -- but overall, they remain a fraction of all national real estate sales, in what is now a strong market.
Condos are practical in the city in a way they aren't in the suburbs because the city already has all the needed infrastructure for high-density development, like a street system, stormwater drainage and traffic lights, Valentine said. "It's amazing the stuff that goes up in the city on smaller tracts of land, because all the utilities are there, and you can get a lot of building into a small space," he said.
Long-time residents who complain that with all the new construction they miss the "old Saratoga" may not remember the Saratoga of the 1960s, with its vacant storefronts and tawdry businesses, said Valentine, who grew up in the city during that era.
Sales of single family homes went up 2.77 percent to 4.92 million units in December, and sales of condos surged 10.7 percent to 0.620 million units, according to the National Association of Realtors.