|Corning’s Connors Block, Cedar and East Market streets, was the first building renovated for first-floor stores and apartments upstairs. It opened in 2001.|
With Grants, Credits, Revised Building Codes, Restorations Make ‘Financial Sense’ Again
By JIM KEVLIN : CORNING
A big reception was in the works. Corning Inc. President/CEO Jamie Houghton had sponsored it. The plan was to introduce the Connors Block as site of Corning’s first experiment to return housing to the downtown’s upstairs.
Then a big, thick beam in the roof collapsed. Water poured into the premises below.
“There was a ton of water” – yes, an actual ton – “between the ceiling and the roof,” architect Elise Johnson-Schmidt reported discovering.
The mishap didn’t discourage the developers. In fact, the event underscored Johnson-Schmidt’s thesis: Downtown buildings are often in need of expensive repair; if the upstairs floors can’t be used to enhance the revenue stream, demolition becomes the most cost-effective option.
This story had a happy ending. In 2001, a renovated Connors Block reopened for stores and apartments. A decade later, 41 apartments have been created in the formerly vacant upstairs of Market Street buildings, with more on the way.
And a new chapter is about to open for Johnson-Schmidt & Associates, Architects which is partnering with Corning’s Klugo Enterprises in renovating the former Bresee’s Department Store in downtown Oneonta and 1 Deitz St., the yellow-brick building around the corner.
Johnson-Schmidt has also made an appearance in Cooperstown in recent months, speaking at Otsego 2000’s Nov. 16 seminar on reviving housing on Main Street’s upper stories. The Planning Board in April referred the initial revisions to the village code to the trustees.
“I was so excited I could hardly contain myself,” said Johnson-Schmidt, still elated by news of the Bresee’s contract.
She was being interviewed in the second-floor conference room of Johnson-Schmidt Associates at 15 East Market St., which – walking the walk after talking the talk – she purchased and renovated into two stores and one apartment – rented for $1,500 a month to an engineer in the gas-drilling business.
Plus, her architectural firm, three stories on the back of the building, entered from the parking lot that separates the structure from the Chemung River. Her office is on the third floor, rear; she’s partial to the northern light.
“She sees what it used to be in its prime,” architect David Anderson said of his boss. “And she sees what it’s going to be. She doesn’t see the dirt and the decay.”
The Bresee’s plan, announced Tuesday, May 3, in Oneonta City Hall, would create commercial space on the first floor, and five two-bedroom apartments and 10 one-bedroom apartments above.
The recent demolition of the back end of the building will provide tenants’ parking, and additional parking for downtown shoppers, as well as picnic tables and open space.
While revisions in the state code do not require an elevator (a $100,000 expense), Klugo and Johnson-Schmidt plan to install one anyhow as part of the marketing plan – tenants will be able to pull up to the entrance and unload their cars by the elevator.
“You have plenty of student housing in Oneonta,” Johnson-Schmidt said. “The preference would be to offer a different housing opportunity, for professionals, for people who are retiring, for young professionals.”
Construction is due to begin Jan. 1, and Johnson-Schmidt anticipates people will be moving in 16-18 months from today.
As it happens, the Bresee’s partner was perhaps the foremost reason such rehabilitations are possible.
A Painted Post native and Cornell graduate with a master’s in its historic-preservation planning program, and after a career in Europe and New York, Johnson-Schmidt returned to Corning in 1990 as executive director of its Market Street Restoration Agency.
While helping create the 600-building Southside Historic District and enabling 150 facade improvement projects, in 1996 she began lobbying for changes in the state building code to allow redevelopment of upper stories.
The changes – substituting sprinklers for a second egress, for instance – are in place. A second piece, New Markets Historic Tax credits – 39 percent – were enacted by Congress in 2000. A third, Restore New York grants that have been used to prepare Bresee’s for redevelopment, were created in the Spitzer Administration.
“Now, finally,” said Johnson-Schmidt, “there was money for people to actually rehabilitate buildings and have it make financial sense.”
Regarding Bresee’s – the planning began in Mayor John Nader’s administration – Oneonta has “been looking at the right pieces,” she continued. And, she added, Bresee’s can be just the beginning.