6/29/2016 - New York investors who will build student housing Downtown have big plans for Waterbury

NY investors plan to build student housing Dowtown.

 

Investors from New York are planning to build student housing in Downtown Waterbury and do other projects, as well. Pasted below is a story from the June 27, 2016 edition of the Waterbury Republican-American on this development. You can also access the online version by CLICKING HERE but you may need to be a subscriber to view the story from Michael Puffer and the video from photojournalist Erin Covey.

 

By Michael Puffer

Waterbury Republican-American

WATERBURY — A pair of deep-pocketed New York investors planning to build a privately run college dormitory downtown have big aspirations for Waterbury's city center.

Louis J. Forster, a successful investment executive, and his brother-in-law Joseph Gramando, an experienced builder, plan to buy the upper two floors of the Brown Building at 20 East Main St. in early July.

It's a large downtown building in a prime location that has been the focus of repeated failed redevelopment schemes.

Most recently, a Massachusetts development group backed out of a plan to build a mix of affordable and market-rate apartments with millions of dollars in state backing.

After that fell through, city officials courted Gramando and Forster's interest. The two men plan to retrofit the top two floors of the 63,388-square-foot building into 28 suites serving 90 students. The units, including furniture, are modeled on dormitories at UConn's main campus at Storrs.

Gramando and Forster plan to get to work in July. They also plan to buy and demolish the neighboring Lerner Building at 52 East Main St. to create a 28-space parking lot. Gramando said the partners don't have to borrow a nickel for the $7 million project, allowing them to move quickly. They expect to begin renting in August 2017.

"The faster we can get this together, the faster we can get something else going, like an eatery or something," Gramando said during a recent tour of the Brown Building.

Gramando said he and his partner hope to purchase additional downtown buildings, including the former Howland Hughes department store on Bank Street. Gramando and Forster had a brewing deal to buy the 113,995-square-foot building and retrofit it for use by hundreds of Post University workers. The deal fell apart last year, but the hope hasn't been entirely extinguished.

Gramando said he still wants to buy Howland Hughes, but would need a tenant lined up. Mayor Neil O'Leary said negotiations with Post and other potential tenants are ongoing.

Post CEO John Hopkins, in a statement sent via email, would only say that his institution intends to expand and is "at the very preliminary stage of exploring options for additional space, both downtown and throughout the area."

Post has also taken a look at draft plans for the Gramando-Forster project and expressed interest.

"Post has plans to grow enrollment, and is committed to remaining in Waterbury while we grow, so we are of course interested in the possibilities this project presents," Hopkins said.

Gamando's hopes for the Brown Building hinge largely on UConn. He would expect the 90 beds in his new dorm to fill quickly. He plans to build a food court to serve the branch. He expects demand for housing will spur him to build more student housing.

Waterbury's UConn branch has grown. In it's first year on East Main Street, in 2003, the branch enrolled 677 undergraduate students. This year it enrolled about 900.

UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said there are no immediate plans to further expand the footprint of the Waterbury branch, but the university continually reviews its program offerings.

"We talk often with Waterbury officials about our shared goals for downtown: a vibrant, active center where our students and others can live, shop, eat, and enjoy the city's amenities," Reitz said. "Having housing available nearby that's affordable and attractive to our students would be a great addition, in our view, and a great convenience for those who'd like to live and study close to campus."

To make the private dorms a reality, city officials will have to convince the Zoning Commission to create an exception to the ban on group housing in the downtown, one specific to students attending some sort of post-high school training or degree. A hearing has been set for June 30. That proposal will come to the Zoning Commission with the full support of Mayor Neil O'Leary's office, and of the Waterbury Regional Chamber.

David Krechevsky, public policy and economic development director for the chamber, said the New York developers come with enormous promise. Krechevsky, like Mayor O'Leary, likes that the project isn't dependent on hefty state or local assistance. Krechevsky said that means the proposal is more secure.

Krechevsky said the student housing proposal meshes with the city's most recent downtown revitalization report. Among various recommendations, that report places a premium on market-rate housing to bring disposable income to downtown shops..

"If you want to revive an urban center, it really helps to have people living here," Krechevsky said. "This proposal helps. It's not the end-all, be-all, but it definitely gets some younger poeple living downtown to improve the vibrancy."

In the early 2000s, former Gov. John Rowland wrangled $200 million in state money to bring Waterbury UConn to a new building on East Main Street, to renovate the Palace Theater across the street and to build a performing arts school for middle- and high-school students. The package was meant to trigger a renaissance of East Main Street.

"In the next three years, this city will change so much that you won't even recognize it," Rowland predicted optimistically during a 2003 tour of the nearly complete UConn building.

But the investment has so far failed to trigger the hoped-for cascade of investment. And UConn students tend not to linger downtown. That would change with student housing, according to proponents.

Gramando said he was introduced to Waterbury through an architect friend who suggested there might be smart investments in the downtown. At the time, he was on the hunt for an area in which he and Forster, his brother-in-law, might invest. They'd considered Baltimore, Manhattan, Yonkers and Mount Vernon, VA.

Waterbury offers low-cost real estate with potential. Gramando said he and Forster are attracted to the downtown's antique architecture and the easy access to bus, rail and highway transportation. Primarily, however, the main draw is a city mayor and economic development administration that is eager, energetic and determined, Gramando said.

O'Leary said he's spent more time with the New York investors than any other potential investors during his four years in office. Economic Development Director Joseph McGrath has spent even more time, in meetings and tours of possible investment sites. After the first meeting with O'Leary and McGrath, Forster turned immediately said "I want to do business here," Gramando recalled.

John Lombard, who bought the Brown Building in 1996, said credited O'Leary with making him feel he had a real partner in City Hall.

Like many downtown buildings, Lombard's has charming and ornate structure, but is worn by decades of decay, decline and disuse. The entrance features marble tile floor and metal-tile ceilings. Water-stained tiles and other damage is evident throughout the top floor. There's a rusted-out bathroom. One office features dusty dentist chairs, with old magazines littering the floor. Another office is full of paint cans from an aborted renovation attempt predating Lombard's ownership.

Lombard will retain ownership of most of the first floor of his building. He plans to bring in more retailers that appeal to college students. Lombard believes this deal might be a sign the downtown is ready to finally turn a corner.

"I think it's the most exciting thing since we brought UConn downtown," Lombard said.

O'Leary said he's made it a priority to develop a strong relationship with University leadership, especially UConn President Susan Herbst. That relationship helped seal a deal for the city to renovate the downtown Rectory Building and lease classroom space to the university.

"This is where a lot of dots are starting to be connected," O'Leary said of the dormitory development.