Capital Region housing developers finding opportunity in infill housing: “We are not afraid anymore”

Cross-posted from our coalition member Empire State Future.

Throughout New York State demand for downtown living continues to expand as baby boomers are ditching the cul-de-sac and generation X and Y are re-envisioning their American Dream. The change in consumer preference has already driven a million people to the “City that Never Sleeps”, New York City, since 1990, with another million New Yorkers expected by 2035. As people continue to find the value and livability of urban living in New York City and many of New York State’s 61 smaller cities, reuse of existing commercial and industrial structures as well as infill development on abandoned and vacant lots will play a role in serving the increasing demand for residential units.

As each state-commissioned Regional Economic Development Council releases their strategic plans, major calls for smart growth are materializing. This is advantageous for numerous developers who have already made the transition to building residential properties in existing downtowns and on or near main streets. Over the next few weeks ESF is going to highlight a few of these projects from across the state to show what New York’s cities will have to offer in the years to come.

The city of Albany has experienced a major shift in thinking as the 2010 census was the first since 1950 to show growth in the city’s population. This shift in thinking has led to an increased demand for residential rentals and condominiums throughout the city, especially in downtown Albany. The trend was revealed in a recently completed residential market study for downtown Albany, verifying an upswing in demand for downtown living options over the past five years. Developers have responded with unique residential opportunities close to theatres, nightlife and restaurants in Albany and across the Hudson River in Rensselaer, with De Laet’s Landing, a major coming development by U.W. Marx.

Several of the 117 residential units that are being offered in downtown Albany were highlighted recently in the Downtown Living Showcase, sponsored by Downtown Albany BID (Business Improvement District). The tour focused on many commercial and light industrial spaces that have been transformed to lofts, condos, apartments and more. The new units range from affordable to luxury. The high-end includes one of the most ballyhooed projects, 17 Chapel, a luxury condo project that is reborn from a 1928 former auto dealership and repair shop.

As well as the successful commercial reuses, some developers are beginning to see vacant lots as an opportunity for desired infill development. While downtown Albany transforms, from a single use commercial, 9am-5pm area to a 24/7 neighborhood, developers are also finding opportunities in existing residential neighborhoods. One of the best examples is right in the heart of the Center Square neighborhood, situated west of the Capitol and the state office plaza and anchored by the popular Lark St. entertainment district. Within this mostly built-out neighborhood stands five brand new, sold out, infill townhouses developed by Crisafulli Associates. Crisafulli, which had left the residential construction market back in 2001, met with ESF to discuss their project and the transformation that their firm has made to create these unique residential projects.

Talk about turning a deficit into an asset– in one of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods, along the quaint cobblestone Jay Street, once stood a decayed and shuttered parking garage. Mike Crisafulli, son of the founder of Crisafulli Associates, saw this property and was convinced that he could create a highly desirable residential structure. And that he did. The Townhouses at Center Square, built in a way that recreates the neighborhood streetscape, are listed as 2,000 sq/ft of living and 1,000 sq/ft of unfinished garage space (while listed as a 3-car garage, the garage/garden-level floor was left unfinished so that purchasers could decide how to utilize it; in some cases, buyers have already converted the space into additional living or storage space).

There were obstacles to this development. Developers who have historically focused development outside of the center cities are often skeptical of infill development, in particularly digging and constructing near nineteenth century buildings. Crisafulli established that it can be done and that there are rewards to building in existing, desirable neighborhoods. The developer also found it very difficult to encourage potential buyers to look past the higher taxes that exist in the urban areas. Says Mike Crisafulli, “a buyer interested in this property ($329,000) would have to accept that their yearly property tax bill would be the same as a $500,000 home in a close-by suburb.” But Mike Crisafulli, a believer in urbanism, spending much of his personal time walking the streets in Saratoga Springs, saw this opportunity and knew that there was a market for the city-minded buyer who wants a move-in-ready townhouse. Despite slow pre-sales, a common trend with the downtrodden housing market, as construction began Crisafulli saw an influx of empty-nesters, young professionals as well as others show intense interest. Many people new to the region, coming from regions that offer vibrant city life, saw these townhouses as a real choice to maintain the lifestyles they desired. This led to the sale of all the units by June, prior to the first scheduled move-in, in August. The final selling price of each unit was a significant premium over some of the neighborhood’s historic brownstones with similar square footage, proving that there is demand for higher priced, newly constructed infill units in the neighborhood.

While Crisafulli Associates continues to develop and construct a mix of projects throughout the Capital Region, Mike says that they are proud of the townhouses and that they are “no longer scared” if the right infill opportunity comes along again. In the meantime, Crisafulli continues to develop innovative housing, currently working on Phase II of The Lofts at Bryn Mawr. These units are within the city of Albany’s boundaries, served by a transit line, two miles from downtown and across from Memorial Hospital. While not in as walkable a location as the townhouses, the units are dense (close together), offer impressive views of Albany, and the architect, 3T, has won regional American Institute of Architects (AIA) awards for design.

In the Capital Region the public and developers are embracing the advantages of denser development. Is that happening in your region? Keep checking in as Empire State Future details exciting developments happening throughout the state and in your region. Let us know your favorite and what projects we should highlight through Facebook, email, or Twitter. Sharing ideas is how we are going to create the sustainable community and economic development we need in New York State.