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'WE'VE SET THE STAGE'

TIMES STAFF WRITER
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The contractors have cleared, the fountain is installed and the ribbon has been cut. The work, however, isn't complete.

Watertown officials admit that Public Square is a hint of its former self, but the $7 million streetscape project is expected to help foster development.

"We've set the stage," said Kenneth A. Mix, city planning and community development coordinator. "Now we need others to come and help fill that stage."

Revitalizing Public Square will take more than improving streetside aesthetics, both city officials and private developers are saying.

"We want the community to feel proud of its downtown," City Manager Mary M. Corriveau said. "A revitalized, vibrant downtown is a key to this region's future."

A key to creating a bustling downtown is enticing tenants to live there, she said.

Both Watertown Rx LLC manager Donald G.M. Coon III and Neighbors of Watertown Executive Director Gary C. Beasley agreed with that concept.

In the past two decades, Neighbors has refurbished the Marcy, Buck and Brighton buildings downtown. The group also administers state and federal grants to property owners to fix facades and create upper-floor apartments.

"We try to work on large buildings — like the Buck and Marcy — that a private developer generally won't do," Mr. Beasley said. "We also have micro-programs for the facades and apartments."

There are very few buildings downtown with upper-floor apartments.

"It would be easier to count which buildings do have apartments than those that don't," Mr. Beasley said.

Those programs entice property owners to maintain their buildings, Mrs. Corriveau said.

"Neighbors plays a very active role, not only downtown, but citywide, and we hope they'll continue that role with revitalizing downtown," she said.

Mr. Beasley said there is interest among property owners in renovating their buildings using financing through Neighbors.

"I'm comfortable saying that there are probably four store owners that would like do to the facade program," he said. "That will probably create eight (housing) units."

Mr. Beasley said once the paperwork is finalized, work can begin with spring's arrival.

"There's been a lot of interest from business owners about these grant opportunities," Mr. Mix said. "I think they have been waiting for some time and now that streetscape is done, they're willing to give it a shot."

Stephen J. Bradley is taking another route. The owner of Abbey Carpet, 150 Court St., plans to build 10 apartments above his store this winter.

"Business owners downtown have suffered a lot of strife because of the streetscape project," he said. "But we're a larger business and we were able to weather through this. I just think the time is right for this project."

Mr. Bradley agreed that while Neighbors is an asset to the city, he has both the resources and the financing to complete the project on his own. He plans to obtain financing privately for the approximately $300,000 project.

"It would be easy for me to say we're doing it solely for the purpose of revitalizing our downtown, but we're also doing it to get the full income potential from our investment," he said of the building's upper floors.

Mr. Beasley agreed there is a need for apartments downtown.

"There's a constant demand for our buildings," Mr. Beasley said.

The city will revamp zoning laws to accommodate tenants of downtown properties. Those laws will ease on-site parking restrictions and promote higher-density housing, Mr. Mix said.

"We want to be able to codify the downtown area in relation to the remaining commercial districts," he said.

Watertown Rx owns eight buildings downtown, including the Paddock Arcade. Mr. Coon said there is a constant demand for the vacancies in those buildings.

"You go to downtown for professional services, to talk to your lawyer or stockbroker or to visit your bank," he said. "I see downtown as a central business district for the city."

Mr. Coon said he envisions the Paddock Arcade as being the economic center of downtown.

"The arcade is a major part of downtown, and that's not to take away from the other retailers," he said. "It's someplace that people can come inside from the weather and do some shopping."

While the streetscape work has made downtown attractive, the project also aims to create a more walkable environment.

Christopher B. Leinberger, a metropolitan land strategist and developer, wrote a report for the Brookings Institution in 2005 concerning downtown revitalization.

"The appeal of traditional downtowns — and the defining characteristic that sets those that are successful apart from their suburban competitors — is largely based on what can be summarized as walkable urbanism," he wrote.

He continued: "Fostering such walkable urbanism is the key to the revival of any struggling downtown. But doing so can be a challenging process ... ."

Traffic features — including tighter turns and sidewalk bumpouts — were included in the Public Square redesign to make downtown more pedestrian friendly.

"You really just have to go downtown to see how nice it looks," Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham said. "There are some nice things; it's exciting."

The mayor said the historic buildings are both a blessing and a problem.

"I think many of the stores down there are nice looking and I'm sure others will want to come downtown," he said. "There's always going to be challenges. None of those buildings are getting any younger."

Crews will begin renovating the Franklin Building, which is owned by Neighbors, in a few weeks, Mr. Beasley said.

"One good thing for next year is the Franklin Building," Mr. Graham said. "It's always important to see progress, and that building is a pretty major project."

Both Mr. Graham and Mrs. Corriveau said the national financial situation is the largest challenge facing downtown, so much so that it may hinder any development of the Woolworth Building.

The six-story building was vacated by its remaining tenants in December 2007 when pipes burst in the upper floors. It was purchased in May by Michael A. Treanor. The developer has said he plans to convert the former five-and-dime store into a luxury hotel. The $4 million to $5 million Mr. Treanor plans to spend renovating the hotel and an additional $4 million or so to build a parking garage will require him to secure financing.

"The city serves as a foundation to help build relationships between the owner and entities that can provide financial assets that can be used to develop the building," Mrs. Corriveau said. "We want everyone at the table to talk about the opportunities and challenges in an honest and upfront way."

Both the city manager and the mayor said the existing businesses have created a "solid base" for development.

"I think many of them have nice-looking stores," Mr. Graham said. "People look at the doughnut and the hole. I tend to think I focus on the doughnut."

Marketing businesses and organizing events shouldn't be put on the city's shoulders, they said.

The Downtown Business Association plans to collaborate with the Greater Watertown-North Country Chamber of Commerce in the upcoming year to host events. DBA President Albert J. Romano Jr. has said he's seen an uptick in membership requests, and members are excited about the upcoming summer.

"I think there's a lot downtown has to look forward to," Mr. Coon said. "Do I think we can rest on our laurels? Absolutely not. I don't think that's on anyone's mind."

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