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City, Jefferson County officials tour old Woolworth building

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For the first time, developer Erich H. Seber heard water dripping from the Woolworth Building’s leaky roof and saw damage it has caused to the original ceilings.

He is worried about what might happen if he and his business partner, David Gallo, are unable to begin their $15 million project next fall to transform the Public Square landmark into affordable housing.

The brick parapet — the wall-like structure at the top of the roof — also has structural problems and, if not addressed, could come tumbling down and fall through all of the building’s six floors, Mr. Seber said. The developers don’t know if the building can withstand another winter, he said.

On Thursday, city and Jefferson County officials toured the 91-year-old structure with the developers to see how much work it will take to renovate it into 50 apartments. The developers want the city, county and Watertown City School District to approve a 15-year tax abatement package for the project. No one from the Board of Education or district attended the tour.

In coming weeks, the three entities will be asked to approve the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement.

While walking around the second floor, Donald C. Alexander, CEO of the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency, asked whether “it was discouraging” to see the amount of deterioration that has occurred in recent months.

“There are obstacles, but it’s not impossible,” said Mr. Seber, who has estimated he’s been in the building as many as 30 times since he and his partner took over the project last fall.

They hope to hear as early as late April whether their application for about $8 million in historic tax credits to help finance the project is successful, Mr. Seber said.

If that happens, he hopes construction would start in September. It would take 12 to 14 months to complete.

The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation recently approved the preliminary drawings of how the developers plan to preserve the building’s historical characteristics. The developers also expect to hear soon from the National Park Service about their plans.

Plans call for incorporating the old U.S. mail drop box in the former office building’s lobby into the project. The elevator doors also would be reused. The storefront of the old Watertown Savings Bank location would be turned into a community room for tenants and its safe converted into a library.

The project would feature a mix of one- and two-bedroom apartments, geared mostly toward young professionals and older residents. Corridors on each floor would stay intact, but all other interior walls would be removed and replaced with a new configuration for the apartments, Mr. Seber said.

The 11,000 square feet of commercial space on the ground floor may include retail or office space, or possibly a restaurant.

The developers are working with Purcell Construction Corp., Watertown, and Lecesse Construction, West Henrietta, as contractors and the Syracuse-based Crawford & Stearns Architects and Preservation Planners to help with the project’s design. GYMO Architecture, Engineering & Land Surveying P.C., Watertown, is working on the engineering aspects of the project.

A musty smell dominated the old F.W. Woolworth store, where Re-Sale America was located in later years until it had to move out because of deteriorating conditions. Old vinyl records, boxes of VHS tapes, books and furniture now cover the floor.

The group that went on the tour recalled fond memories of the Woolworth store and the building in its heyday.

“My doctor was upstairs,” City Councilwoman Teresa R. Macaluso said. “I remember going to his office.”


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