Long abandoned factories in the Valley slowly coming back to life
New Haven Register (CT), 2014-07-13
July 13 --In its manufacturing heyday, the lower Naugatuck Valley was populated by skilled factory workers and tradesmen.
The buildings they toiled in are still here, many reborn for new uses.
The Industrial Revolution was in full swing when immigrants from Europe were seeking to build a better life for themselves and their families in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
They settled in the Valley and worked in the copper, brass and textile industries, to name a few.
Residents walked to mills and factories, as well as to church, school, banks, stores and restaurants. They lived in multifamily dwellings, and often several generations would reside under the same roof.
They built houses of worship and joined cultural organizations that kept them in touch with their Old World backgrounds.
Factories were located near the Housatonic and Naugatuck rivers to take advantage of hydroelectric power.
But most of these once-thriving businesses are gone or are operating on a much smaller scale than they had been.
Greater Valley Chamber of Commerce President Bill Purcell said old factory buildings "are a conundrum for these communities. They don't lend themselves to simple solutions. Often a solution lies in a public/private partnership."
In Ansonia, Economic Development Director Sheila O'Malley said city officials are focused on adaptive reuse of vacant buildings that once housed thriving factories. "Development officials need to be creative in their approach to revitalization of old buildings while preserving their historic character," she said.
Ansonia officials are focused on about 60 acres that make up the Farrel Corp. and Ansonia Copper and Brass Co. sites, O'Malley said.
"We're planning to expand the boundaries of our city center plan," she said. "That allows us to be a bit more flexible." The expansion is pending approval of the Planning and Zoning Commission at its next meeting, O'Malley said.
The city's economic development focus is on "getting more foot traffic downtown," she said.
The Farrel property was purchased in 2013 for $1.9 million by Hamden resident Moustapha Diakhate of Washington Management Co. LLC.
Diakhate said last week he expects to start working on rehabilitating the Farrel Processing Center at 501 E. Main St. in the "next three to six months."
He said he wants to build 91 to 100 apartment units in the former factory. "Getting financing is not as easy as it used to be," he said.
Diakhate said he has met with O'Malley and Ansonia Mayor David S. Cassetti about the plan. "I'm working day and night on this project," he said. "My goal is to acquire more vacant buildings in the Valley."
Diakhate said Cassetti has told him he is anxious to see apartments built first. The plan includes retail on the first floor with one- and two-bedroom loft-style apartments on the upper floors, he said.
O'Malley said development officials are always concerned with "what's the best, most cost-effective way to use buildings that in small communities are big eyesores."
She prefers to see demolition and brownfields remediation work done in phases in an "organized fashion." O'Malley said that before reusing a building officials need to understand its history and its past role and "make it fit into the fiber of the community" today.
O'Malley said the city can control development of city-owned properties, including the Ansonia Armory at 5 State St. , the Palmer Building at 153 Main St. , and the ATP Building at 497 E. Main St. , and "try to get the highest and best use" of the buildings. The city has "three very interested buyers" for the ATP and Palmer buildings, which are attached she said.
O'Malley said the city is seeking grants to support demolition and cleanup of abandoned factories.
"We want to effectuate change for the whole city," O'Malley said.
Valley development officials "are trying to be creative" in cleaning up contaminated sites, she said, and to that end they have formed the Brownfields Land Bank .
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's website, "Land banks are governmental or nongovernmental nonprofit entities that focus on the conversion of vacant, abandoned properties into productive use."
O'Malley said, "The land bank will assume the responsibility and take some of the burden" off communities. The organization has applied for nonprofit status.
In addition to O'Malley, members include Purcell; founder Arthur Bogen , CEO, Down to Earth Consulting Services; Joseph Carbone , president/CEO of The Workplace Inc. ; Cathy Awad , executive director, Northwest Regional Workforce Investment Board; and Kevin Taylor , executive director, Waterbury Neighborhood Housing Services.
"Ansonia would like to take advantage of the land bank," O'Malley said, for an as-yet-unspecified site. Many former factory locations in the Valley are designated as brownfield sites.
Derby Mayor Anita Dugatto said the Valley Council of Governments is performing a "Phase 1 environmental assessment" of the former Derby Cellular Products Co., an abandoned factory on Roosevelt Drive ( Route 34 ). The company closed in 2009.
Derby officials recently held a workshop on downtown revitalization, which is part of the Vibrant Communities Initiative. Dugatto said the key to creating a new economy is linked to restoring the city's historic buildings.
The Vibrant Communities Initiative is financed by a grant from the preservation division of the state Department of Economic and Community Development . The grant is administered by the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation .
CME Engineering's John P. Guszkowski , director of planning, and Evelyn Cole Smith , director of architecture, presented at the workshop. They have met with the city's Vibrant Communities Initiative steering committee and taken walking tours downtown.
Guszkowski said, "Downtowns are not what they used to be." He said they once were filled with shops, but "retail commerce over the last 50 years has spread out in auto-centric transportation hubs." He said Derby is incredibly rich in historical resources.
One goal is to determine how buildings could be redeveloped instead of torn down or left vacant, Guszkowski said, and to improve the overall quality of life in Derby .
The committee came up with the top three buildings that have redevelopment potential, are historic and could "spark" more redevelopment. They include the former J.C. Penney building at 17 Elizabeth St. , the former United Illuminating building at 33 Elizabeth St. , and a building at 195 Main St. at Minerva Street .
Guszkowski said the question is which building, if fully developed, would best serve as a catalyst for downtown revitalization.
In Shelton , Purcell said, "all of Canal Street is a prime example of adaptive reuse," such as the Birmingham on the River condominiums on Canal Street .
Developer John N. Guedes , president of the Bridgeport -based Primrose Cos. Inc. , rehabilitated the former Birmingham Corset Co. into the upscale condo building alongside the Derby-Shelton Bridge .
Jenny Ames , a teacher at Bradley School in Derby , lives in the building and said she likes "the idea of reusing rather than creating waste" with new construction.
"Growing up in Shelton we drove by the building and I'd always admired it," Ames said. "Who knew that someday I'd live there? Now I think about all the workers who toiled here. What were their lives like in the Valley 100 years ago in 1914?"
In an email, Guedes outlined plans for the Spongex Foam Products building at 6 Bridge St. , at the corner of Canal Street . It is on the other side of the Derby-Shelton Bridge from The Birmingham.
He said, "It is part of my master plan of development for the Shelton Industrial Housatonic Riverfront area on Canal Street .
"The master plan of development calls for a combination of adaptive reuse of salvageable, historically significant old factory mill buildings and new construction.
"[It] calls for the development of 700 residential units and 100,000 square feet of commercial space," Guedes said. "So far 363 residential units have been developed.
"The first phase was the conversion of the six-story, 180,000-square-foot Birmingham ( Corset Co. ) building into 113 residential lofts. The second phase was the demolition of the Beard/Tilcon asphalt plant, site mitigation and the construction by AvalonBay Communities of 250 apartments," Guedes said. Both developments are on Canal Street .
"The next phase will be the Spongex building, which is to be converted into 50 loft-style apartments," Guedes continued. "It is to be done in conjunction with the construction of a new commercial building for the adjacent Rolfite site" at 131 Canal St.
"The Rolfite site was also an old industrial building that was foreclosed on by the city and demolished, and the site was part of the Brownfields mitigation program," he said.
Another example of adaptive reuse benefiting the community is the downtown site once home to a major employer, Sponge Rubber Products Co.
An arson fire destroyed Plant 4 of Sponge Rubber Products on March 1, 1975 , idling thousands of Valley residents.
Nearly four decades later the site -- dubbed "The Slab" after the devastating blaze leveled the building -- features the Shelton Farmer's Market, Veterans Memorial, Derby-Shelton Rotary Club pavilion and the Shelton Riverwalk.
In Seymour , the former Housatonic Wire Co. stood at 109 River St. until a fire leveled the historic building on Sept. 11, 2010 .
Alex Budzinski had owned the building since 1978. He and his late father, John Budzinski , started the company nearly 40 years ago in Shelton . It manufactured steel wire for paper clips and notebook bindings.
In 1978, the Budzinskis bought the property at 109 River St. and moved it to Seymour . After his father died about 20 years ago, Budzinski continued to run the business until he sold the operation to Taconic Wire in North Branford .
The vacant property was cleaned up in 2012. The town received a $500,000 grant from the state Department of Economic and Community Development to clean up the contaminated soil on the site.
First Selectman Kurt Miller has said he hopes a developer can purchase the property and put it to good use once again.
Marian O'Keefe , curator at the Seymour Historical Society , said the site has had eight factories on it since the mid-19th century.
She said she'd like to see the site developed into a park, since it features a waterfall and river views.
O'Keefe recently completed a survey of Seymour sites for the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation . She said as far as she can determine all of the former manufacturing buildings in town are being put to good use.
The former Waterman Pen Co . factory on Wakeley Street was redeveloped and now houses Waterview Apartments , O'Keefe said.
Other former factories are being used for storage, she said. "I can't think of any abandoned factories in Seymour ," O'Keefe said. " Seymour has been very good about utilizing buildings the right way."
Seymour Economic Development Director Fred Messore said Seymour Lumber Co. at 79-101 Bank St. , which closed in 2008, "is not just vacant." He said the structure has been deemed unsafe and blighted.
In April 2011 , the town, working with Valley Council of Governments , received a grant to perform a Phase 1 environmental report and in November 2011 received a grant to perform a hazardous building materials survey. Messore said both are necessary to prepare the property for redevelopment.
In this case, Messore said, the town has held several meetings with local, regional and state officials along with several developers and real estate professionals and utility representatives to prepare the property for marketing for redevelopment.
Also in Seymour , the former Seymour Specialty Wire Co., a mainstay on Franklin Street for 150 years, closed in 1992. It sat abandoned for nearly 10 years. The site was eventually purchased and a 67,000-square-foot Super Stop & Shop opened for business there in late 2001.
A piece of the same wire company property was also taken over by the Seymour Police Department , which moved from its cramped quarters on Wakeley Street into its new digs at 13 Franklin St. in late 2002. The 22,000-square-foot police station moved into Seymour Specialty Wire's former office building, which had undergone a $3.5 million renovation.
O'Malley said the region's economy is making a comeback..
"The factories held promise and hope for decades and fed and clothed the Valley, but the resurgence of the Valley will be from the strength of its people," she said.
"With new and creative ideas like Transit Oriented Development , we are seeing a resurgence of ideas that will help to repurpose these buildings; from breweries to mixed-use developments to clusters of antique stores and restaurants," O'Malley said. "The Valley people built the factories and made them viable. And in the end, Valley ingenuity will breathe new life into them once again."
Register correspondent Jean Falbo-Sosnovich contributed to this story. Have questions, feedback or ideas about our coverage? Connect directly with the editors of the New Haven Register at AsktheRegister.com .
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