Hundreds of thousands of dollars are pouring into the shell of a once-proud, now-devastated apartment building on a devastated corner of Newhallville—along with big dreams of helping to rebuild transitional neighborhoods.
The money is going toward fixing up 555 Winchester Ave., an eight-unit, circa-1916 brick building at the corner of Starr Street.
Pockmarked with broken windows, bereft of much of its interior, it anchors the corner next to abandoned lots and across the street from a boarded-up house surrounded by two more empty lots. Down the block from the Taurus Cafe, a magnet for crime, 555 Winchester is part of a bleak stretch of a neighborhood struggling to rebuild. Two notorious slumlords milked the property, then left it to rot. A couple of other would-be developers, including David Nyberg, picked up the property, then offered it back for sale without reviving it.
It’s one more abandoned property amid some of the 30-plus city-owned empty lots in the surrounding neighborhood. The abandoned properties may have held back the neighborhood. But they also represent an opportunity: People in the neighborhood as well as in City Hall are trying to figure out how to build Newhallville’s forgotten properties back up. (Click here for a related story.)
Enter Yonachan “Yochi” Levitansky, a 26-year-old budding developer who grew up in Beaver Hills’ close-knit Chassidic community. For the past few years Levitansky has worked for one of New Haven’s fastest-growing real-estate empires, Pike International. Seven months ago he set out on his own, forming his own company in hopes of redeveloping and managing properties all over town.
His first challenge is 555 Winchester. And what a challenge. He recently picked up the 7,376-square foot hulk for just $150,000. He said he has enough financing (from unidentified “out-of-state investors”) so he can spend up to $400,000 in all. He plans to gut the building, preserve all the original brick, replace cheap interior “garbage wood” walls with new brick, put in hardwood floors, central air-conditioning, and all new heating and plumbing and electrical systems.
His goal: Rent to a mix of good tenants, be they students or subsidized working families who pass rigorous background checks. He envisions four one-bedroom apartments; as well as one three-bedroom and three four-bedroom apartments with two bathrooms apiece.
In the process, Levitansky is attempting to repeat what a man named Nicholas Junjulas, whose name is carved above the building’s entrance, accomplished in 1916: Construct a sturdy, inviting place for lots of families to live in the heart of Newhallville. (More on Junjulas later in the story.)
He has hired a local 10-person crew to carry out the work. “We took it down to the bones,” he said. The crew includes Mark Lee, who has his own plumbing and heating company; general contractor Tony Hoyte (pictured) ...
... and workers like Mario Callahan (pictured), 42, who’s concentrating on the framing and sub-floors. “It’s coming along nice. It’s nice to see” it coming together, Callahan said during a break in the work.
Levitansky said he hopes, “God willing,” to have the building all ready to rent by September. But he’s just getting started. He’d like to purchase the abandoned house across the street from its out-of-town owner. And he has his eye on the grassy expanse right next to his building. It comprises four separate lots that the city acquired over the years, then left alone, well maintained but not put to much use. Levitansky has inquired about buying all that land from the city in the hopes of constructing a mixed-use development, a mix of storefronts (for wholesome, perhaps not-for-profit enterprises, he said) and homes.
Eventually, he said, he’d “love” to purchase the next seven homes down to Division Street in order to “bring Science Park up to” Starr Street.
He has pitched the idea to Erik Johnson, head of New Haven government’s anti-blight agency, the Liveable City Initiative (LCI). Johnson grew up on Shelton Avenue in Newhallville. He’s trying hard to pull people together to come up with a broader strategy by the end of the year (when a new administration prepares to take over City Hall) for how to address all the vacant and abandoned properties in Newhallville.
A lot is happening piecemeal in the neighborhood, Johnson observed: the construction of a new charter high school, grassroots neighborhood clean-ups and community gardens, the renovation of beautiful old homes by not-for-profit Neighborhood Housing Services, the construction of a new mini-neighborhood at Science Park. At the same time, problems with slumlords and crime have threatened to hold back progress. It makes sense to put together a smart, comprehensive approach to knit together all the positive developments brewing, he argued.
Johnson told Levitansky he’d need to see more before considering the sale of the large lot. The city won’t do “a speculative development deal for an entity with a limited background,” Johnson said. Levitansky would need to show he has the money. And he’d have to demonstrate some successes on other projects.
Levitansky said he’s working hard on that, eying properties in different parts of the city for revival. He watched Pike International’s Shmully Hecht do that.
Now Hecht is focusing his company more on upscale development.
“I’m Shmully’s protege,” Levitansky said. Hecht gave Levitansky a second chance after Levitansky had a run-in with the law. “I worked my way up from the bottom. I learned a lot from Shmully, almost everything I know about real estate.” He’s younger than Hecht, and perhaps more prepared to take on riskier projects. Like the properties at Winchester and Starr.
“I see him where I was when I started,” Hecht, who’s 38, said of Levitansky. “I’m excited to see young guys tackling some of the neighborhoods that have been overlooked.” Outside of Jim Paley’s Neighborhood Services, Hecht said, “we collectively have failed in Newhallville in the public and private sector.” Maybe, he said, the new up-and-comer can succeed where his predecessors failed.
Or where Nicholas Junjulas succeeded a century ago.
Local historian Colin M. Caplan looked into the story behind the name above the entryway to 555 Winchester. Here’s what he found:
“Nicholas Junjulas was 47 years old when he had 555 Winchester Ave. constructed. It was designed by local architecture firm, D’Avino & Marchetti, and contained two stores on the ground floor and four apartments. Nicholas was a Greek immigrant who ran the Olympia Candy Company on the corner of Chapel and Church Streets. 555 Winchester Ave. housed his large family with included him, his wife, Mary, and their nine children: Helen, John, Peter, Parre, Antonia, Gustav, James, George & Christopher. They moved to the Bronx during the 1920s.”
For now, at least, Levitansky expects to stick around his hometown and make his mark with multiple 555 Winchesters.
Previous stories about Newhallville’s turnaround efforts:
• Gardeners Prevail; Vacant-Lot Challenge Remains
• After Crash, Neighbors Seek Fix For Blind Corner
• Newhallville Confronts A Mega-Landlord
• Newhallville Bounces Back; House Will Get Built
• Levin To Newhallville: “We’ll Be Back”
• Newhallville Up For “Historic” Boost
• Cops Make Arrest In 83-Year-Old Prof’s Mugging
• Harp Probes The Newhallville Conundrum
• “Let There Be Light” (Emitting Diodes)!
• “Serenity” Takes Root On Shepard Street
• Bird Garden Fights Blight
• Yale Flees Newhallville After Prof’s Mugging