Aug. 07--WATERTOWN -- Fix up the Lincoln Building's facade and they will come.
In a strategy similar to that famous line from the 1989 baseball movie "Field of Dreams," local real estate investor and developer Brian H. Murray hopes that making major improvements to the exterior of the downtown landmark, at 89-99 Public Square, will help attract anchor tenants to the now-empty storefronts.
He has asked the Watertown Local Development Corp., also known as the Watertown Trust, for a $200,000 grant to restore the building's exterior. The development corporation's loan committee approved the request on Monday; the full board will take it up on Aug. 21.
If the grant is approved, the facade work would begin the $1 million first phase of the project starting this fall, Mr. Murray said. The first phase also would include upgrading the first-floor commercial space and then restoring the rear exterior.
Later, the upper floors would be converted into apartments, but that portion of the overall project, first estimated at $12 million, will have to wait, until state affordable housing tax credits can be obtained, he said.
During the past year, the real estate investor has been marketing the ground floor to potential tenants, "but none of them panned out," Mr. Murray said, adding that he believes "it's very difficult for them to envision what the building would look like."
Getting the facade restored could make the difference in attracting tenants to the nine storefronts, Mr. Murray concluded. He confirmed that he submitted a proposal to the Greater Watertown-North Country Chamber of Commerce for it to become an anchor tenant as that organization plans to move from its Coffeen Street headquarters. Lynn M. Pietroski, the chamber's CEO and president, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
The subject of the 55,300-square-foot building also was discussed this week at the WLDC's loan committee meeting. Mr. Murray noted his frustration with the slow progress of the project.
For about a year, the landmark has sat idle after Mr. Murray was unable to receive substantial financial assistance through the state.
He then enlisted Neighbors of Watertown Inc., a local housing organization that has completed numerous similar projects in the city, to take over the affordable housing component of the project and to apply for the tax credits.
Mr. Murray and Neighbors officials planned to combine the application with a proposed $9.3 million plan to upgrade Brighton Apartments on Court Street, but they found out recently that the strategy was not possible.
Instead of competing with the Brighton Apartments application this year, they decided to seek the tax credits during the next round, about 18 months from now, said Neighbors Executive Director Gary C. Beasley.
Mr. Murray believes it's wise to invest in the building's facade now and seek the tax credits next year, he explained.
"If we get them leased out on the ground floor, then we'll be in great position for the rest of the building and bring it back to life," Mr. Murray said.
Plans call for restoring the facade "from top to bottom," Mr. Murray said. He has brought in Syracuse architect Randy Crawford for advice on how to proceed with the facade project, which would include repairing exterior masonry, ornamental woodwork and windows.
In 2012, Mr. Murray, owner of Washington Street Properties, and Mark S. Purcell, owner of Purcell Construction, purchased the Lincoln Building from a Long Island corporation for $500,000. They originally planned to include a small-business incubator and market-rate apartments in the project, but changed the focus to affordable housing when they learned it would be easier to obtain tax credits.
Built in 1871, the structure was originally three stories tall; its top two floors were added more than 100 years ago.
When first built, it was known as the Dolittle and Hall Block -- which Mr. Murray used to name the building's corporation name. He and his partner formed Dolittle and Hall LLC when they acquired the historic structure.
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