Thursday, May 19, 2011

EDITORIAL: Historic Preservation Is Reviving Downtowns And Can Here, Too

Pessimists consider themselves realists.  In truth, pessimism is often just ignorance.  That’s a little harsh.  Perhaps it’s just insensitivity to possibilities.
Nonetheless, it was a breath of fresh air to spend a recent afternoon with the knowledgeable Elise Johnson-Schmidt, the Corning architect and former executive director of the Market Street Restoration Agency there.
Corning has been a charming place to visit for decades, but so are Cooperstown, Oneonta and other Otsego County communities.  Yes, Corning is headquarters of Fortune-500 Corning Inc., but Cooperstown hosts the National Baseball Hall of Fame and first-rate museums, and Oneonta hosts two now-thriving colleges, Hartwick and SUNY Oneonta.  (And, it should be added, a Corning plant.)
So if Johnson-Schmidt envisioned and implemented an effort to return housing to the upper stories of Market Street buildings in Corning, there’s no reason why she can’t do the same here.  She is allied with Klugo Enterprises of Corning, which won the contract to redevelop the former Bresee’s Department Store into, yes, stores on the first floor and, yes, apartments on the second, third and fourth.
She also spoke at that all-day seminar Otsego 2000 sponsored last fall on redeveloping upper stories in buildings on Cooperstown’s Main Street, which informed a series of recommendations the village Planning Board forwarded to the Village Board a month ago for consideration.
Independently, village Planning Board chair Charlie Hill and such board members as Richard Blabey had been studying what can be done to energize a stagnating Main Street, so Johnson-Schmidt was singing their song.
Among the recommendations on the trustees’ desks is to remove requirements that apartment owners provide dedicated parking spaces for their tenants, spaces that in Cooperstown simply don’t exist.  Private enterprise, Hill and Blabey have posited, will fill the void; until the market catches up, the village can lease tenants or landlords spaces in the Doubleday Parking lot.
When Hill asked the folks in the county Real Property Office what might be done, he was told the state enables localities to abate taxes on improvements to commercial properties, 100 percent for eight years, then bringing them up to full valuation 25 percent a year for the next four years.
Absent that, the property-tax system discourages property owners from upgrading their buildings:  For now, in addition to paying for often-costly renovations, property owners are immediately penalized by seeing their property taxes rise.
This would require each locality – the village and Town of Otsego, or the City of Oneonta, plus the school districts – to adopt the enabling legislation.  Longterm, it’s a great idea, since – beginning a dozen years from now and beyond – rising tax revenues will, over time, more than make up anything that wasn’t levied shortterm.
Whether or not the localities act, Johnson-Schmidt said three components are now in place that make the redevelopment of upper stories possible, as well as essential to create the cash flow necessary to make historic downtown buildings financially viable:
One, revisions to the state building code.  For instance, sprinkler systems may be installed when a second egress from an apartment is impossible.
Two, New Markets Historic Tax Credits allow 39 percent of the cost of certified upgrades to be deducted from a developer’s (or investors’) tax bills.  (Earlier tax credits for historic renovations were eliminated during the Reagan Administration, putting an abrupt halt to an exciting era of downtown redevelopment.)
Three, Restore New York grants, enacted during the Spitzer Administration, provide funds to close the gap between the cost of renovations and what a private developer can invest and still anticipate a profit.  Oneonta’s effort has taken full advantage of these to make the Bresee’s project viable.
The beauty of this combination is that everyone wins.  Decrepit (or merely under-used) heritage buildings, often displaying workmanship that simply can’t be duplicated today, find new life.  Neighborhoods around these buildings likewise revive, with housing creating a demand for services – food and hardware stores, for instance – that have moved out to the malls or the periphery.  As the demand for housing grows, existing apartment houses can be improved, higher rents paid, and tax revenues grow.  Any investment – and tax credits, grants and abatements are investments, not expenses – are eventually outstripped by new revenues.  Everyone wins.
In Corning, the effort has created 41 trendy apartments in spaces that were vacant a decade ago, and momentum continues to grow.  A fancy restaurant – Tony R’s, opened in 2007 –occupies several storefronts; The Cellar, a tapas bar, is offering 40 wines by the glass, 75 by the bottle.   Boutiques, high-end service businesses and smart cafes abound.
If Bresee’s, why not those vacant floors that extend west along Main Street from Oneonta’s Muller Plaza.  If not the old opera house in Cooperstown, why not the upper floors of that village’s landmark KeyBank building?
Optimism?  Pessimism?  Fiddlesticks.  Let’s simply sensitize ourselves to the possibilities … and act.

No comments:

Post a Comment