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Developers stress urgency in revival of Watertown Woolworth building

Joanna Richards

After founding his first stores elsewhere, Jefferson County’s Frank Winfield Woolworth bought the building in Watertown where he’d got his start in the dry goods business, intending to raze it and build one of his own stores. Woolworth died before he could see it, but his company realized his plan and the building’s a central part of the early history of the five-and-dime chain. After years of vacancy, two developers have plans to revive the landmark.

Inside, the Woolworth building’s full of the ghosts of long-gone tenants and their activities. Dusty barber chairs reveal the life that once filled an alcove overlooking Public Square. Abandoned wedding gowns from an old shop hang inside a former bank vault in the basement, a hint to how the building has been re-purposed over its 91-year lifespan.

The building’s also full of asbestos and lead paint, which will require careful cleanups. There's also trash – and increasingly, something much worse: water.

“And that's one of our biggest concerns, is to get that fixed, because water is the worst thing you can have for a building,” says Erich Seber, a developer who splits his time between Rochester and Maryland, as he shines a flashlight around the dank interior. About a dozen local officials and reporters step gingerly around piles of junk. The last tenant of the large commercial space on the first floor was a variety re-sale shop, and they left plenty of inventory behind.

But Seber and his partner see beyond the garbage, drips and buckled floor. They catch glimpses of the Woolworth building's former life as a center for downtown commerce.

“There's part of the original counter that's in the back of this building. We talked about putting a small, little public museum down there,” Seber explains to his tour group. “I'm trying to find out, how do we put a maybe a part of the counter there, so people can actually sit at, if nothing else, even a 10-foot section of that counter, just to have fun.”

But this isn’t just a preservation project. It's about making the building a vibrant part of the city again. In its next incarnation, the developers envision 60 affordable one- and two-bedroom apartments on the building's second through sixth floors, with the first floor reserved for commercial space. Seber estimates the total cost of the effort at $15 million.

He and his partner have applied to draw on some state tax credits, for offering affordable housing, and supporting historical preservation.

Back on the tour, Seber takes the tour group to the upper floors, where he highlights both charming architectural features – wood trim, original windows, the old multistory mail chute – and signs of imminent trouble. Water’s not the only problem.

“If you look out the window real quick, there's a parapet up there,” Seber says. “That parapet someday is gonna go down, and we want to catch it before it goes down, 'cause if it goes down, it's going down five floors onto the structure below it, which is gonna cause a lot of damage, which is one of those things no one wants”

Seber's message hits home with mayor Jeff Graham.

“I'm learning that the building's getting significantly worse as time goes on, and there is a sense of urgency to do something,” he says. “And that's why I think it's important that this incarnation of renovating the building succeed, because if it doesn't, it doesn't bode well for it.”

Seber and his partner have floated the idea of a 15-year tax abatement deal with the city, its school district, and Jefferson County. As one county legislator on the tour noted, if this development project doesn't work out, it's taxpayers who could end up footing the bill for demolition.

Mayor Graham doesn't want to see that happen.

“If you have something here that's a mixture of residential and commercial, you've got people living downtown, which is always a good thing, and you know, it would just look good. I mean, pride matters, and when you have eyesores in the middle of good things, it doesn't help,” he says.

A big decision on the future of this building takes place this month. That's when Seber expects to hear about his funding applications with the state. If successful, construction could begin this fall, with the project complete around the end of next year.