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Can Digital Cool Reinvigorate Mill River?
by Melissa Bailey | Jul 24, 2012 2:35 pm
Posted to: Business/ Economic Development, Fair Haven
David Salinas peered into a former brewery being rehabbed as the “nucleus” of a re-envisioned Mill River business district—and saw a potential new home for his growing shop of “new-media junkies.”
Salinas, 32-year-old CEO of a digital marketing company on State Street, took a tour Tuesday of 458 Grand Ave., the former New Haven Brewery on the bank of the Mill River, at the gateway to Fair Haven.
Casper “Cappy” Amodio bought the century-old building from the city for $1 in 2010 and commenced a gut rehab. Amodio subdivided the building and is recruiting as many as 42 small businesses to rent out office space. He said he expects to be done with renovations “by the end of the fall.”
On Tuesday, Amodio sent construction crews home and invited neighboring businesses and city and economic development officials to tour the space. Mayor John DeStefano called the spot “a great starting point” for a re-imagined business district along the Mill River. The city and the quasi-public Economic Development Corporation (EDC) hired consultants to come up with a plan to promote the growth of industry there; click here and here for background stories.
The vision for the district combines building on the strength of existing plumbing, paint and other home improvement and contractor outlets with the kind of new-media, digital age “creative” enterprises drawn to lower-rent former industrial spaces.
Enterprises like Salinas’.
Salinas showed up to Tuesday’s tour as a member of the EDC board looking to see New Haven prosper—and as the head of a burgeoning company looking for a place to expand.
Salinas, who’s 32, has been growing his business, digitalsurgeons, in New Haven for six years. A native New Yorker, he came to Connecticut to get a bachelor’s in business administration at the University of Bridgeport, then chose New Haven to set down roots. He now employs 23 people. The company offers clients web development, design and media strategy.
When Lady Gaga was looking to hold a holiday event at the high-end fashion outlet Barneys New York, the rock star’s agency chose Salinas’ company to “aid with digital conception, planning and execution” of the promotion, according to the company’s website.
Salinas and his 23 employees, a band of “new media junkies,” now work out of an office space on State Street at the former Robby Len swimsuit factory, which has been reborn as a workout mecca.
Salinas pulled out his phone on Tuesday’s tour and showed off a panorama of his current office space to Amodio and property manager Kathi Telman. His company occupies 3,000 square feet now. That’s fine for now, but he plans on investing in tech startups, which would be housed in the same space. So he’s looking for 5,000 square feet to accommodate the expansion.
Telman suggested the front space may just be the right size for him.
Its semi-circular windows look out onto Grand Avenue and the Mill River.
Overhead is a brand new roof.
Amodio spent a half-million dollars on the roof alone, according to his son Vinnie.
Amodio said when he found the building, it was “a disaster.” He discovered the entire roof needed to be “torn off” and replaced. And the second floor was falling through, so that had to go, too. He tore out everything until only the walls were left standing. He kept the historic brick facade, and got city money to fix it up.
A photo pinned to a hallway bulletin board hints at the building’s rich history. It was built in 1900 as the powerhouse for the city trolley system. It housed six generators, according to Amodio. In 1987, the spot became a brewery for Elm City beers. The second floor became a restaurant, where diners could taste oysters while looking down on micro-brewery tanks and sipping a mug of ale. After over 10 years of brewing, the building landed in the city’s lap due to foreclosure.
The building lay vacant for over a decade as the city tried, six or seven times, to find a developer to fix it up. One deal involving former Democratic Town Committee Chairman Dominic Balletto gained city approval, but never took off. After that project fell through, Amodio approached the city with an offer.
“This place is worth one dollar,” Amodio recalled saying. “That’s all it’s worth to me.”
Amodio had earned a reputation as a developer who does good work and sticks around, said city Economic Development Adminstrator Kelly Murphy. Amodio took over the former Erector Square factory in 2000 and rented it out to artists and dance and yoga studios. He stayed in the picture as the landlord.
The city agreed to sell Amodio the building for $1—and pay for the significant environmental cleanup.
“They got a good deal,” Amodio said Tuesday as he toured the space. Restoring the building has been expensive, he said. (Asked how expensive, Vinnie replied, “As many hairs as you have on your head.”)
He showed off the subdivided rooms he created, including a brand new floor on the second story. Each unit has its own A/C, heating and electrical controls. Nine out of 10 units will have windows, he said.
“What’s better than to sit here and have that breeze and the view?”—well, “eventually, when they get that stinking building down.”
He was referring to English Station, the hulking abandoned power plant just across the river.
Amodio said he has gotten a dozen requests from potential tenants, but he wants to wait until he has a firm completion date before signing any leases. He’s looking for small businesses, perhaps medical offices, to fill the space.
“I’m very fussy with tenants,” he said. He doesn’t want a wood shop next to a doctor’s office, for example.
When he learned Salinas was interested in renting from him, Amodio put his hand on Salinas’ shoulder.
“I want tenants who will stay,” he said.
Salinas assured him his company is sticking around New Haven. He said he’s looking for a “cool environment,” a creative space for his crew.
“I love this building,” he said.
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Great! They can wave to the dirt bike gangs getting their 50mph joyrides on Grand Avenue and sidewalks in the MIDDLE of each and every work day! Until someone important gets injured (say a business client, developer, etc) we’ll keep having to up with those marauders each day here in Fair Haven.
I love the building too and am so glad to see real progress being made on its rehab. Good luck to all on this noble endeavor!
Fairhaven: The City is redoing that entire stretch of Grand Avenue this summer, using big bucks from the Feds. They had a chance to finally address the speed issue that you mention, which keeps business clients, employers, and residents away, and they didn’t.
It’s great to see the building preserved for office uses - we need a lot more stories like this in New Haven. It’s happening far less often than it could.
Sold for one dollar huh? I would have bought it for 10,000 bucks in a split second.
I’m happy something is being done to it anyways.
I hope this takes off. It will fill in a dead spot and be good for the city.
I also hope that the Mr. Amodio makes sure new tenants get the proper zoning and building approvals and permits. While still with the City I researched the zoning and building records for Erector Square and, as of July 7, 2010, there were 99 business located there but only 2 had permits.
Even developers Kelly Murphy likes need to get permits. It’s not that hard a thing to do and it does generate a little bit of revenue. Oh, and it also ensures that renovations are done to code.
As for the traffic calming on Grand Avenue, I hope its slightly better than the hideous display of “pretend-almost-far-from-real” asphalt stamping that was done in front of Fair Haven Middle School. What a ridiculous waste of time, as obviously no real effort went into THAT design. But hey, they’re only Fair Haven kids. (that’s sarcasm peeps) Safety for our children isn’t metered out with on-grade markings in a roadway which wouldn’t calm a tricycle. What happened to the raised islands? Absolutely p-a-t-h-e-t-i-c!
Hi Stephen Harris,
The 99 number is incorrect. The only way you could reach that number is if you counted every artist’s studio as a business, which most are not (by any stretch of the imagination).
Having said that, what permits do you think the tenants should apply for and where can we find more information?
DEZ - Agreed. What a huge waste of money, opportunity, and years and years of citizens’ time. Hundreds of Fair Haven residents came out to design that, and the City engineers essentially ignored them. Edwards Street is nice, but City Hall has watered down the traffic calming in other parts of the city, including what is proposed for Route 34, making it next to meaningless.
posted by: streever on July 25, 2012 12:42pm
@ Proud New Havener
Mr Harris was a city planner who did extensive research and has demonstrated honesty and integrity on many occasions—it is hard to accept your blanket assertion without some data to back it up.
I agree with Mr Harris—proper permits and applications should be used by everyone.
Cool down Streever, this isn’t about honesty or integrity—calling something a business suddenly opens you up to being taxed by the city for your equipment (property). Most of those artist studios straddle the line between what you would call a hobby and a small business. Making art can be very expensive in money and time, and many artists receive little to no monetary return for their artwork. Blanketing them with additional taxes just seems like an uninspired way to raise revenue that would hurt already struggling artists.
But then again, I am not a city planner—Mr. Harris, can you tell me more about business permits and which artists you include in your 99 count?
posted by: streever on July 25, 2012 2:48pm
@Proud New Havener
I’m cool! The weather isn’t, but I’m totally cool.
Zoning isn’t concerned with taxation—it is about what type of use it is. If you sleep there, residential. It is important to have proper use defined and permits filled for a ton of reasons.
If the taxation system on artists is unfair, then that should be reworked.
Thanks for this article. I pass by this building nearly every day, and since I moved here over a year ago I’ve been trying to figure out what it’s called, what its function was, and what it will be made into for future use. It’s a great building and I wish the best to the developers. As a Fair Haven resident, I see this as a great step. Keep going and making things better! I’m with you! (A few guys on noisy motorcycles won’t kill commerce—-they’re just having fun!)
Thank you for the kind words.
@ Proud New Havener,
Some background. A request was made for a Certificate of Zoning Compliance by an attorney. This is a fairly routine document in which a property is researched to see if the land, use, structure(s) comply with the zoning regulations. It is most often requested when refinancing, buying or selling property. The matter was researched and the document mailed to the attorney July 7, 2010. It was cc’d to the Building Official as well.
After the research was concluded it was discovered that the buildings were in compliance because they pre-existed current zoning and that the parcel comformed to zoning.
The problem was almost all the uses were nonconforming. The zoning for this property was industrial which doesn’t permit any of the uses (except the few that had a paper trail). The owner and/or tenants should have applied for Use Variances. There was no evidence of that in the zoning files.
The number of 99 was arrived at by walking through the building and counting names on doors (and some spaces didn’t have names but were being used). Absent a floor plan listing tenant spaces it is logical to assume that each name is a business. One name for one space equals a business.
Additionally, building permits are required to renovate buildings. Again, there was no evidence of permits being issued. Renovation that is not to code is both illegal and potentially dangerous.
The acting Zoning Administrator (remember the City eliminated that position), who was cc’d and presumably received a copy of the CZC, should have issued a Cease and Desist to force the owner/tenants into compliance. I don’t know why that never happened. I think it’s obvious the City needs a full time dedicated Zoning Administrator. It’s not a job that can be moonlighted or split up among several people.
The cure for such a significant breech of process and fairness would have been either a Use Variance for the entire building or a zone change.
My time with the city ended February 17, 2011. Between the date of the CZC on July 7, 2010 and February 17, 2011 no action was taken by either the City or the owner to solve this problem.
Hi Streever, I’d like to hear what Mr. Harris has to say. I too believe we should abide by the law. Which artists are included in the 99 count and what permits do they need?
Hi Mr. Harris, it looks like my previous response got caught in the lag.
I understand how you got the 99 count now, and although I think you made the assumption innocently, I think you should use a term other than business. Artists are wary of being grouped with businesses because then they are put on the tax radar and may get assessed for property like kilns, lathes, et cetera, when they are not businesses and make little to no money off their art.
Given the recent tax assessment fiasco, I think that that is entirely understandable. In fact, I have a friend who started a small business that did not do well and stopped over a decade ago. He received a tax bill for over $30,000 this last year, because, apparently, it was still listed somewhere as a business, and the tax collector just made an assumption about what businesses make and sent him the bill—despite not having any sales of any kind for many many years. The issue was resolved, but it did require time and money—things that not everyone has.
Therefore, it should be clear why some artists wish to guard their non-business status and might bristle when city officials (even former city officials) make statements that indicate otherwise.
Having said that, I am unclear as to what variances an artist might need. In fact, given some of the processes involved in making art, industrial zoning seems most appropriate.