Brockport debates renewal project
Meaghan M. McDermott, Staff writer
The former Whiteside, Barnett and Company warehouse on Clinton Street in Brockport doesn’t look like a sturdy enough vessel to hold the community’s hope for downtown renewal.
Cracks separate its blocks of Medina sandstone, weathered window-holes are covered with ancient boards, and its sagging roof seems to be shambling off toward the nearby Erie Canal.
But it’s on the National Register of Historic Places, the Greater Brockport Development Corp. has sunk nearly $100,000 in rehab and environmental cleanup on the site, and now it’s attracted attention from developer Greg O’Connell, a retired New York City detective who made his name breathing new life into Brooklyn’s beleaguered Red Hook neighborhood.
His interest, and the other elements Brockport is hoping to base its revitalization on, may contain lessons for other small western New York communities that have seen better times.
O’Connell, who’s also been instrumental bringing renewal to Main Street in Mount Morris, Livingston County, has a purchase offer in on the 1850s-era Brockport building and plans to redevelop it into a mix of apartments and commercial space. Officials hope his involvement could help turn the troubled area just west of the downtown business district — the site of a homicide just three months ago — back into a thriving neighborhood.
But the deal hinges on a tax break already approved by the village of Brockport being given the OK by the town of Sweden and the Brockport Central School District.
“There’s a ton at stake here,” said Margay Blackman, the village’s mayor. “Clinton Street’s a blighted area … but this property is canal front property and although it’s just one property there, it’s an anchor for the whole street and we know what Greg O’Connell has done in Red Hook and Mount Morris.”
For his part, O’Connell said that as much as he’s interested in giving Brockport a boost, the building’s in such a state that the project isn’t feasible without the two-decade break on a property that’s already tax-exempt right now.
“This is the project, they know what we want to do and the track record of what we’ve done in the past,” said O’Connell. “And they know if they want this to happen, this is what we need.”
The tax break in question is relatively new: a state program that allows towns, cities and villages to adopt a local law that would designate a distressed area to receive a 20-year property tax abatement for “newly constructed or substantially rehabilitated buildings for projects that have an affordable housing component.” It sunsets in 2015.
The law, championed by state Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, Cattaraugus County, gives other localities the same power to offer tax abatement that New York City has long been allowed to provide. She has promoted it as a way to help communities combat blight and save historic buildings that have fallen into disrepair.
“Unfortunately, all across upstate, our downtowns are suffering from blight and decay,” she said. “And this law helps make the economics work. Oftentimes if you don’t have an abatement or exemption, it’s difficult for it to be feasible to redevelop. And, the localities don’t lose anything: if the property is not going to be rehabbed, it will just fall further into decline.”
Properties within the areas designated by their municipalities for the break, known as a 421-m exemption, are put on a 20-year abatement schedule, with up to three years’ grace for construction phases. The assessed value of a property would be frozen for the first 12 years, and phased in with a 20 percent increase each year until the two-decade mark. It’s simliar to breaks New York City’s long been able to give.
“I thought, if something like this is good for New York City, then why not do something similar for upstate?” said Young,
Bill Andrews, a Brockport village trustee and member of the Greater Brockport Development Corp. board, said no taxes are being paid now on the Clinton Street property, which has an assessed value of about $64,000. If O’Connell does purchase the property, he said, the law would allow the property to be taxed on that $64,000 during construction and 12 additional years. After that time, the exemption on the increase in assessed value would phase out by one-fifth every other year until full taxation was reached in year 20.
Michael Andriatch, president of the Brockport Central School District Board of Education, said the board is very concerned about the potential tax impacts, especially as so much of the village — largely The College at Brockport — already is tax exempt.
We have to “look carefully at how giving another property an exemption impacts future requests,” he said.
Beginning around 2007, O’Connell bought up much of downtown Mount Morris. He sank his own money into rehabbing the tired facades and renovating Main Street’s second-story apartments. His work there was modeled on his success in Red Hook, where he owns more than 1 million square feet of property, and his investments helped turn a once crime-ridden industrial area into a hip, thriving neighborhood of artists, artisans, businesses and even an IKEA.
“I can’t lavish him with enough thank-you’s,” said Joel Mike, the mayor of Mount Morris. “He’s a very astute business developer and what he’s done here is nothing short of a miracle.”
Where there were once abandoned storefronts and vacant buildings, there are now restaurants, antique shops and a clean, vibrant downtown. Interest has been sparked in what had been a slumping residential real estate market. Other developers have expressed interest in coming to the area: a Dunkin’ Donuts is planned, and there’s rumors of a Wendy’s Restaurant.
“There’s truly been a paradigm shift here,” said Mike. “What’s been done here is just a model for anyone. You can’t go wrong if you follow his recipe: he’s got it figured out.”
O’Connell, drawn to Brockport by the hopeful encouragement of members of the Greater Brockport Development Corp., said he believes in New York’s small towns. The key, though, is finding each community’s essential character and capitalizing on it.
“You see the same thing, over and over across the state, you see all the vitality that the communities have and sometimes it’s just a matter of being able to come in and give some direction and share what you’ve learned and go from there,” he said. “Each village has its own personality and you have to find what that personality is, whether it’s a college town or it’s got Letchworth (State Park) nearby or industry. You have to go through the history to find businesses that complement each other.”
For Brockport, O’Connell said he thinks Erie Canal history and the already funky and eclectic mix of shops and businesses along Main Street could be key to its resurgence. Balance needs to be struck between the village’s identity as a home for full-time residents and its need to provide housing for transient college students.
But without being able to offer tax breaks to developers like him, communities like Brockport will have a tough time with renewal, he said.
A place to come home to
Blackman said that if the break gets approved, the sale goes through and redevelopment on the building commences, it would dovetail neatly with a pair of grants the village applied for in 2013. Already, approvals have been given for a $200,000 Main Street grant for building facade and interior improvements along Main Street near Clinton Street. Potentially still to come is $775,000 in state Transportation Enhancement Program grants for canal frontage improvements and rehab of the Smith Street bridge approach at the west end of Clinton Street.
Josephine Matela, president of the Greater Brockport Development Corp., or GBDC, and owner of the Red Bird Tea Cafe on Main Street, was instrumental in getting O’Connell involved in the Clinton Street property.
“This is one of the very few intact properties along the canal with the historic designation that it has,” she said. “Rehabbing it is critical for that area.”
Purchased by the GBDC in 2008, the complex of three inter-connected buildings has seen better days. In 2012, the local development corporation was cited by the village for code violations on the property and had to pump thousands of dollars into shoring up the structure, replacing structural beams and patching the roof. The volunteer-run organization, which was censured in 2012 by the state’s Public Authorities Office for failing to file its financial disclosures on time, spent even more money on having contractors remove more than 200 tons of petroleum-contaminated soils from the site, which had previously been used as an auto repair shop. A small area of contamination remains, in a place that can’t be excavated without endangering the foundation of the building. Any remaining clean-up would be O’Connell’s responsibility.
“I’m seeing three or four residential units there, under the law it has to be mixed-use, and maybe some type of commercial there, what you want to do is put something in that keeps people walking from downtown,” said O’Connell, who lives in Brooklyn but also owns a home in Geneseo. He said he’s hopeful about getting homeowners and other business owners together to make the area more presentable.
“Getting a guy like me, from Brooklyn, to come out to Brockport isn’t the top thing to do at my age. But at the same time, the people there, the community is working so hard and believes so strongly that I want to try to make it work for them, make it an example of what you can do throughout New York if you open up that Main Street and bring people back down, make it a place people come home to instead of a place people leave.”
If you go
What: Brockport Central School District Board of Education meeting.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Where: District Offices, 40 Allen Street
What: The board could discuss granting a tax break for a property on Clinton Street in Brockport that could be key to redevelopment of that section of the village.