So Long, Officemates. Hello Hotel?

isaiah.JPGLawyer Isaiah D. Cooper’s eyes light up when he talks about working at 205 Church St., the historic office building across from the Green.

Why not? He’s got a great view of the New Haven Green and the old courthouse from the compact third-floor office he’s occupied since 2004, plus a floor full of camaraderie with other solo or small business people.

“It’s a classic, pre-war building. It’s got history. I like the look of the elevator cabs, the shape of the building,” said the attorney and musician.

What he doesn’t like is the specter of having to leave in about a year. Neither do his fellow tenants, he said

Hampshire Hotels and Resorts, the New York-based developer, has bought the building. It will most likely will turn the building into an approximately 180-room, high-end boutique hotel, said Kevin Lillis, Hampshire’s vice president for real estate development.

Hampshire hasn’t completely made up its mind about what’s going to go there, and is still doing research on the market and the city, Lillis said. But it will either be a hotel or a luxury residence “with a student component.”

“We’re still investigating the market, replacing the HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning), updating the building, bringing it back to what it used to be,” he said.

“It’s a fantastic building,” he said of the the 1928 modified Georgian-Colonial structure by Cross & Cross.

balconyJPG.JPGLillis said the hotel would have standard rooms on the lower floors and balcony suites at the top, making use of the seven-foot stone balconies (in photo) now on the building’s upper floor. Wachovia Bank, which now occupies the street floor of what had been known as the Union Trust Building, has a long-term lease and will be staying, Lillis said. The bank occupies about 35,000 square feet of the building’s 165,000 square feet. The upper floors had been the home of the Tyler, Cooper and Alcorn law firm before it moved away and eventually broke up in 2008.

The hotel would carry a top-end brand name. Lillis said the company has been talking to all the top franchises.

He said the building’s trademark cupola would be gilded and the masonry is being repaired. Because of the proximity to Long Island Sound, salt water has eaten away at some of the masonry. He said the outside is being repaired and sealed.

Cooper knows only too well about the flaws in the HVAC.

The piping for the heaters and air conditioners “runs from one office to another” along a wall and “when one freezes up, they all freeze up,” he said. Maintenance workers use blowtorches to melt ice dams inside the pipes that form when one tenant decides to turn off the unit serving that office.

“It’s hard to work in 50-degree weather,” he said.

And yet, he’s going to miss the place a lot, he said.

There is a feeling of camaraderie among professionals and others working at the 18 offices leased from New Haven Executive Centre LLC, on the building’s third floor.

The hallway walls are interrupted doorways every few feet. Behind those doors are lawyers, a behavioral research practice, financial groups, and the organizing group of the city’s new community development bank.

They help each other, Cooper said. The lawyers, especially the litigators, network with each other, he said. He has used the psych firm, he said. Cooper’s practice involves company formation, mergers and acquisitions, consulting agreements and the like.

For the $893 a month, plus parking, he pays to the executive center, he is entitled to phone service, a copy center (extra cost) and a shared receptionist, Cooper said. Parking is arranged for a fee.

jansarge.JPGJanette Blomberg, in photo, the office manager, greets visitors. “Just call me Sarge,” she laughs. She said she makes sure all runs smoothly for the tenants.

In a year, all that should be gone. Cooper says his landlord, Executive, hasn’t formally told him when he needs to vacate, but Blomberg said it will be in a year.

That’s when the third floor will join the other floors as empty shells awaiting for their next use.

There is a three-story internal staircase that the Tyler, Cooper law firm once used to go from lower to upper floors of their multistory offices.

harborview.JPGFrom the former offices on the top floors, views run all the way from the nearby New Haven Green to the harbor, seemingly at the building’s door.

It is those views that hotel guests, or possibly residents, will enjoy. Cooper wondered aloud about the renovations, something that Hampshire’s Lillis echoed. “We would need to go from two bathrooms on a floor to 20” if the building becomes a hotel, he said.

Hotel guests or residents would need parking. Hampshire’s Lillis said he’s looking at a two-story parking structure, possibly one story below ground. Again, all that is still in the early planning stages, he said.

Stairs.JPGHe said converting the building to a hotel would be more costly than other uses. But said the market, especially with Yale expanding and the Smilow Cancer Hospital and the proposed Carter Winstanley office and laboratory building between North and South Frontage roads, looks good.

That view was shared by Ginny Kozlowski, president of the Greater New Haven Convention and Visitors Bureau. She now is also executive director of the Connecticut Hotel and Motel Association. That group’s headquarters have moved from Glastonbury and share the CVB’s quarters on Orange Street.

“This may be perfect timing,” she said. “With the Smilow [Cancer] center coming on line, those rooms should be absorbed.” The build-out should take all of two years, perhaps more, she said.

“The economy is going to be growing. Yale is adding two more undergraduate colleges to their campus,” she said. A major high-end boutique hotel is not available anywhere north of Greenwich.

She said based on information that has been shared, if the hotel is built, it will be higher end than the Omni. She said that with the Courtyard by Marriott adding 47 rooms, downtown has a total of 820 rooms, including the New Haven Hotel, the LaQuinta on Sargent Drive and the Premier on Long Wharf Drive behind the New Haven Register.

The New Haven Hotel, the LaQuinta (formerly the Fairfield Inn) and the Premier (which started out life as a Residence Inn) have all recently been bought, she said.

Hotel experts see regional hotel occupancy rates declining by 10 percent this year, but recovery and increased demand pushing them ahead 1.5 percent in 2010. New Haven, she said, is doing better than the region and should continue to do so, she said.

One thing Lillis, Koslowski and Cooper agree on is that the conversion is not going to be easy.

“This is going to be a complex renovation,” Cooper said, looking out his window facing the Green.

They all say they’re happy that whatever the 242-foot-high building sees next, it won’t be the wrecker’s ball.

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