Housing Profiles

16 Bank Street

Seymour, Connecticut

John Morrison



Introduction

When architect Joesph Migani arrived in Seymour, Connecticut, the town’s downtown was struggling. Its commercial heyday had long since passed, cast aside by outlying malls and strip malls.

But hidden beneath the surface dilapidation of downtown Seymour, Mr. Migani saw an attractive collection of Victorian-era buildings.

Mr. Migani started his downtown odyssey by purchasing three downtown buildings and converting them into an architectural office and a collection of antiques shops. He followed that project up with 16 Bank Street Apartments — the purchase and restoration of two buildings to create 12 affordable apartments for seniors and ground-floor commercial space.

Financing for 16 Bank Street Apartments included a $400,000 grant and a $750,000 subsidized advance from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston's Affordable Housing Program through member Naugatuck Valley Savings and Loan Association.

In this FHLB Boston multimedia profile, tour 16 Bank Street Apartments, visit with residents, and learn more about what it took to turn Mr. Migan's "field of dreams" project into reality.

(Photo left: Helen Seder Coquillard, resident)

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The Developer

Joseph Migani is principal at O'Reardon Migani Architects in Seymour, Connecticut, and developer of 16 Bank Street Apartments

In the 1700s there were two major competing retail store families in Seymour. That history was repeated with two different families ― the Konowitz and Eckhardt families ― in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Konowitz family operated the Seymour Furniture Company on Bank Street and the Eckhardts ran the Eckhardt Furniture Company across the street from it. It was a tradition typical of small towns before the era of commercial strips. These were general purpose stores that, at different times, sold everything: furniture, appliances, propane gas, even coffins. The 16 Bank Street project is the story of the Eckhardt Furniture Company.

My wife and I became involved with these families in 1995 when we were consulting with the town of Seymour on downtown revitalization and ghost-wrote grants for it. At the time, much of downtown Seymour was boarded up and vacant, as old mill towns tended to be.

The Seymour Furniture Company had gone out of business. The owners retired and put their buildings on the market. Thinking that somebody was going to buy the buildings and tear them down, I stepped in and bought a complex of three buildings.
(Photo right: 16 Bank Street Apartments)

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We just went in there and made an offer and it was accepted and we have been living with the consequences ever since. I think it would have broken my heart if the buildings were torn down. Sometimes you have to decide if you’re going to be a bystander or a participant. It was a totally irrational, totally emotional decision.

Our plan was to put our architectural office upstairs and a group antiques shop downstairs in the main building. Our goal was to kick-start a downtown antiques district as a tourist destination for the town.  A national consultant told us that creating such a destination was a formula for success for old mill towns like Seymour.

For 10 years I was a weekend warrior, restoring those buildings when I wasn’t busy with my architectural practice. My father was a contractor and I grew up working for his company during high school and college. So contracting is in my blood. I didn’t have the money to do the work but I had weekends and a lot of energy. I got a crew of college kids to work on the buildings every Saturday and Sunday for 10 years. When I was able to take time off from the architectural practice we would work on Fridays too.

The buildings now have two tenants:  a 16,000-square-foot group antiques shop and our architectural office on the top floor. I operated that antiques business for the first six years, and my oldest child has been running it for the last 11 years. The shop is the anchor for the antiques district in downtown Seymour.

(Photo right: Joseph Migani)

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A key to our success was the willingness of the town’s building department to let  us to do the work in phases ― which is unusual.  We were able to do one floor at a time for each building. They would let us occupy the floor once we completed work on it. Every eight months we renovated another floor.

16 Bank Street
When I finished the first project, my wife said if you do this again you’re going to be single. So it took a few years for me to talk her into letting me restore the building across the street from our first acquisition. That property consisted of a 1917 three story commercial structure, an 1870s Victorian house, and a vacant lot.  It had been continuously occupied over the years by one family. This was the site of the Eckhardt Furniture Company and the future site of the 16 Bank Street project.

I said, “Look, we’ve worked so hard on our office and the antiques store, but look across the street. Look at that blighted property. Do you want someone else to buy it?

It took me two years to buy the property. The owners were born in the building and were not motivated to sell it quickly. In 1950, they had inherited the furniture company from their parents and were well established in the community. By the time we bought it, it was a terribly blighted property. (Photo right: View of Joseph Migani's first Bank Street renovation)

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Naugatuck Savings Bank ― which helped us with a character loan for the first property ― loaned us $300,000 to buy the property. It was my history with the first project that made it possible to get financing for the second.  The bank had given us a mortgage for the first project, and I had dutifully paid it for many many years. I was responsible, so there was some credibility there.

It took me two years to design, get zoning approval and permits, and figure out funding for the project.  We never really figured out the funding because we started construction without having it fully in place.

I had to go to a third community bank, Newtown Savings Bank, for an additional $900,000 in financing. As far as they were concerned it was a character loan, but it was secured by the property.  I was already under construction and used that money to bring the project to the next level.

I was originally going to do artist lofts. We had done the drawings, received the zoning permissions, and pulled our building permit. I was acting as a general contractor and started doing my HazMat remediation. We had already done our interior demolition. The building was structurally sound but we had to gut rehab it and reinforce the shell to bring it up to current code and prepare it for all new systems.

(Photo right: 16 Bank Street Apartments)

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But the bank didn’t think artists’ lofts was a good idea.  Bill Nimons of Naugatuck Valley Savings and Loan ― which sponsored the 16 Bank Street AHP application ― introduced us to a financial consultant to help us look at other options, including senior housing.

Naugatuck Valley Savings and Loan is amazing. Bill has done everything possible short of showing up and swinging a hammer to make this project happen. I think he is a hero. We’re just one of his customers, but he is this great community guy ― as community bankers can be.  I mean, he really helps people and is a major generator of economic development in this area.  He is not to be taken lightly. There’s no confusion here whatsoever. I work to pay his mortgages and I’m happy to do it.

We decided to do 12 age-restricted, 55 or older, subsidized affordable senior apartments, and four retail ground-floor retail stores. The second and third floors each have six one-bedroom apartments.  These are gorgeous, class-A, one-bedroom apartments.  Many of the seniors who live there are downsizing from suburban homes and want to be in a place that is lively and within walking distance of amenities. Our apartments are more upscale than typical senior housing.

We applied to the state Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) and the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston’s Affordable Housing Program for funding, and both came through for us. We also applied for historic tax credits.

(Photo right: 16 Bank Street Apartments)

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To win the grants we convinced the Seymour Housing Authority to enter into a public-private partnership with us. The housing authority is the property manager. When I first appeared before them, they were very suspicious, as small town people tend to be. Who are you?  What are you doing? But I had some credibility because we worked on the first project and started the antiques business.

We were the developer, the architect, the general contractor, and one of the subcontractors on the 16 Bank Street project. I would wear the contractor’s hat and address all of those problems and issues, and then I would wear the developer’s hat and learn about his issues. Now I’m much more empathetic as an architect because I have worn my clients’ hats.

It all came together because it was a field of dreams project. It’s a historic building in a downtown served by a train station; it’s the revitalization of an impoverished area; it’s all of these wonderful things that score points in grant applications. It’s a really great project.

The only downside was we did historic restoration, which was very expensive. We worked on it in consultation with the state historic preservation officer. But when sent it to the feds they denied us the $350,000 in tax credits. They said we put in an elevator stair hall that was too high. We appealed it, explaining that the elevator had to go to all of the floors. But they said, “Look we told you what we told you. You needed to come to us sooner.”

(Photo right: 16 Bank Street residents Rose Degennaro and Helen Seder Coquillard)

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We went back to the state for help and they gave us a $330,000 grant. And, again, we received the grant because it was a field of dreams project. They were enthusiastic about the project and the fact that we had carried the ball all that way.

At each step along the way I was facing personal disaster, bankruptcy. But we were solid. We had the training. We’re hardworking folks. We were able to make this work. We were also fortunate that this took place just before the economic collapse. If it had happened later we would have been a statistic.

We’ve learned a lot in the two years since we brought the housing online in 2008. One problem has been taxes. We negotiated with the town’s selectmen what the taxes were going to be after we finished the project ―$16,000 per year ― and we built that rate into our pro forma. But then they raised the rate to $25,000 and we’ve had a serious cash flow problem ever since.

Another issue has been the price of competing housing authority apartments. The housing authority’s housing stock is clean and presentable, but it’s 50 years old. Rent for housing authority properties is about $ 400 a month, compared to about $800 for our apartments.

(Photo right: Antique shop on the ground floor of 16 Bank Street Apartments)

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We had trouble leasing our apartments because of the price differential. The housing authority told us it would take time for our building to fill up, and it did. It took a year. People wanted to live in our place because of the amenities we offer.

Now we’re in the second phase.  The vacancy rate is higher than we had anticipated because of the turnover, which is due to age. But we have a successful community with an active tenants organization and board. They are wonderful people. You couldn’t ask for a nicer tenant population.

We’ve had three of the four retail spaces leased, but one just moved out when its lease was up. So it has been a struggle.

This was a field of dreams project, which, against all odds, actually succeeded. If you lead, people will join you in pursuing a communal goal.

(Photo right: Joseph Migani)

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Video Tour

Take a video tour of 16 Bank Street with developer Joseph Migani.

Video: Click on the Start link at the right to tour 16 Bank Street. >>

(Photo right: Developer Joseph Migani in front of 16 Bank Street.)

 

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The Numbers: 16 Bank Street

Sources  
Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston Affordable Housing Program Grant
$400,000
Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston Affordable Housing Program Subsidized Advance
750,000
Connecticut Housing Trust Fund
729,822
Sponsor Equity
5,415
Deferred Developer Fee
106,500
Department of Economic Development Grant
313,199
Total Sources

$2,304,936


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Uses  
Acquisition
$213,715
Construction/Rehabilitation
1,591,270
Financing Fees
164,264
Developer's Fee
106,500
Developer Overhead
18,256
Legal Fees
21,037
Other Soft Costs
160,517
Capitalized Rent Up Reserve
11,481
Capitalized Debt Service Reserve
17,896
Total Uses
$2,304,936

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The Residents

Residents Helen Seder Coquillard and Joseph and Rose Degennaro talk about life at 16 Bank Street.

Video: Click on the Start link to the right to view the video. >>

 

(Photo right: 16 Bank Street residents Joseph and Rose Degennaro.)

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About Seymour

Joseph Migani is principal at O'Reardon Migani Architects in Seymour, Connecticut, and developer of 16 Bank Street Apartments

Seymour, Connecticut, is a historic mill town located on the Naugatuck River. The towns in the lower Nagautick Valley have a history going back to colonial times.  Their location on waterways with access to water power meant that Seymour was a manufacturing community from colonial times up to the Civil War.

In colonial times, David Humphries, an aide to George Washington, was an ambassador from the newly minted United States to Portugal. When he returned, he introduced Marino sheep and set up a wool manufacturing plant here ― a precursor of the Industrial Revolution.  Young women who worked in the plant lived in boarding houses in downtown Seymour.

Later there were many copper wire and metal factories in the area.  One of the oldest plants is still active in Seymour. The factories brought in immigrants ―Irish, Polish, Italians ― to work in them. The area had ethnic communities with strong religious traditions that go back for generations. I am from the area and this is the stock that I come from.


(Photo right: View of downtown Seymour)

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Downtown Seymour still suffers because of the zoning and economic development policies. Despite the successes we’ve had with the antiques businesses ― there are eight shops now ― downtown Seymour still struggles from the classic forces of suburbanization and commercial strip development. The town fosters that because it can get maximum taxes from national chains.

Our long range plan is to use our presence to draw people into the downtown and support local business. The downtown will survive only if we continue to present a unique retail experience that offers high-quality merchandise. We also need town policies that truly promote the district, reasonable parking requirements, and property owners willing to reinvest in their properties. The caliber of town leadership is not consistent.  Policies change like a sailboat tacking into the wind.


(Photo right: View of movie theater and shops in downtown Seymour)

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