By STEVE JONES Staff writer
Three developers — all with takes on mixed residential-commercial uses — have submitted plans to reinvent Old City Hall.
The icon at 207 N. James St. has been empty since the summer of 2008, when the Mohawk Valley Community Action Agency moved out at the end of its lease. Erected in 1894, the building was home to municipal government for more than eight decades. After the current City Hall was built in the late 1970s, the Rome Urban Renewal Agency took over the address, turning it over to the city when the Agency was dissolved several years ago.
Designed in the Flemish revival style by Walter Dickson, it is 20,000 square feet and three stories tall with a large attic and bell cupola. The rear of the property was also the site of the former city jail until it was demolished, creating additional parking beyond the 25 spaces already there. The property is assessed for $125,000, according to city records.
One proposal comes from Venture Developers of Rome, headed by Steve Olney, who is in the construction business. The proposal is for several commercial spaces on the first floor, including a pub, and a boutique hotel in the upper floors.
Stem Development of Camillus, led by native Roman and architect Paul Stemkoski, has a plan called The Lofts at Old City Hall. This plan focuses on residences, but includes first floor professional office space.
YES Development of Rome, led by renovation specialist Matt Varughese, is proposing a mix of commercial spaces and loft apartments.
A team of city officials were at the site Tuesday. "I’m glad all three proposals came from people right here in town," said Mayor Joseph R. Fusco, who was at the Tuesday review.
The project will be an expensive investment in what has been and is meant to again be a downtown anchor. To generate interest in private development, the city is leaning heavily on a state grant program: Restore New York. The program is offering up to $700,000 in reimbursements. "Without that seed money, the private sector could never make this work," said Fusco. "It’s good that we have the state helping us." The three developers estimate total project costs ranging from $1.3-$2.1 million. The city has already spent $166,000 at the site to shore up the aging building — a combination of Restore New York money and Urban Renewal Agency maintenance funds.
To choose a developer, the city has put together a team that includes its in-house Real Property Committee, the mayor himself, three members of the Common Council (Kimberly A. Rogers, R-3; Ramona L. Smith, D-4; and Louis J. DiMarco Jr., D-7), as well as a group of citizens who all participate in various downtown development groups.
The committee has met twice now to interview the firms. They will meet again Tuesday, said the mayor. The project’s time line notes that the intention is to have the property in private hands by the end of this summer. The Common Council will have a say in the transfer of the property. That transfer will be facilitated through a local development corporation such as Rome Main Streets Alliance, the Rome Community Brownfields Restoration Corp. (which is involved in the former Rome Cable site) or Rome Industrial Development Corp.
The Old City Hall site is within the federally-recognized Bellamy-Gansevoort Historic District, which includes St. Peter’s Church and its rectory, Gansevoort and Veterans Parks, the Rome Historical Society and the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier. Because of that designation, the site is eligible for federal and state tax credits. The designation does not, however, dictate how the site can be used. That is governed by the neighborhood’s zoning — a C-4 designation that covers a range of commercial uses and includes residential mixed use. It is recognized as the most flexible commercial zone in the city. The historic designation does cover any external changes and improvements made there, including the roof restoration that has been done already. One other challenge to redevelopment there, noted Fusco, is limited parking.
There would be significant tangible economic benefits to the city if the building is taken over by a private developer. First, it has never been on the tax rolls so the city would be able to collect property taxes there for the first time. Also, it would relieve the city of its financial obligations for maintenance and heating of the site — an estimated $25,000 a year.
This project is similar to another recent redevelopment in Rome’s downtown — the former Grand Hotel. Now named The Grand, the site at 293 E. Dominick St. was renovated by Grand Development, a partnership of local investors who gutted the building that was built in 1882 and put two first floor commercial spaces in and turned the other two floors into loft apartments. The team spent nearly $1 million split between about $500,000 in private investment, $350,000 in Restore New York funding, $50,000 in National Grid downtown development grants and $25,000 in city facade grants. Currently, the developers there have leases signed with two incoming commercial tenants and all five lofts are rented.