In New London, a century-old building is getting a new life and new tenants
New London — Mel Foti said he saw a great opportunity when the neoclassical Dewart Building on State Street came on the market this year across from the Garde Arts Center and next to the venerable Thames Club.
He closed on the building Oct. 31, and records in City Hall indicate he and partners paid $840,000 for a century-old space that a decade previously had commanded $2.5 million. Foti's investment group, 300 State Street Partners, bought the Dewart Building and its marbled staircases from 300 State LLC, whose principal was listed as Randy Abood.
"It's a landmark building, an architecturally significant building," said Foti, a retired banker turned real estate investor who has lived in the city for more than a decade. "It's one of the anchors of upper State Street."
Foti said he saw an opportunity to inject a little more pizzazz into the 53,000-square-foot building that includes old Perry Mason-style doors with transom windows and four first-floor retail spaces. He inherited a mix of renters in a space that was about 65 percent occupied, over the past few weeks signing on an additional five tenants.
"It should be higher," Foti, who owns several properties in downtown, said of the occupancy rate, which under his watch is already up about 10 percentage points. "The tenant base is very interesting."
Among the tenants for the building's 71 rentable spaces is ePath Learning, a tech firm run by Dudley Molina, and PWOP Studios owned by Carl Franklin, a local musician and computer entrepreneur, as well as communications and marketing firms, counselors, artists and attorneys. Foti's new tenants include an art gallery and martial arts studio as well as offices for Hygienic Art.
The five-story Dewart Building at 300-310 State St. was built in 1914 for millionaire financier Morton F. Plant, whose father had made millions in the railroad industry. Plant died just four years later.
Designed by local architect Dudley St. Clair Donnelly, who is also responsible for the Mercer Building, ISAAC School building, and the downtown Citizens Bank, the building's name changed when William J. Dewart bought it a few years later. Dewart obtained his fortune while serving as business manager for Frank Munsey, a New York publishing giant who was responsible for building the Mohican Hotel across the street in 1896.
"It's in reasonably good shape given its age," Foti said.
The previous owners, he added, invested in a new roof, boiler and facade improvements. But one of the two front elevators, he said, hasn't worked in more than a decade, and he plans to repair or replace it.
"We need two functioning elevators," he said.
Foti has invested in improved building security, including better lighting out back, where tenants have access to 16 parking spaces, and more than a dozen new security cameras. The building, he noted, is secured by a system that requires a fob for entrance.
Also being planned are replacement windows that will have to be spread over several years, as well as possible upgrades to the heating and lighting systems and other enhancements. He hopes, for instance, to make improvements to several empty spaces to make it easier to show off to potential renters.
Returning luster to the building
Foti said he also has hired a maintenance manager who will be able to quickly address renters' concerns. This was a major issue with current tenants, he added.
"I think if you want to fill buildings, you need to show you care," he said. "A building superintendent is the key factor in rebuilding luster in a building."
The downstairs retail space has a barber shop, financial services firm and the Bike New London store, with one space still open that not long ago had housed Lindsay Liebig Roche Architects. Foti said he is negotiating with an established downtown retail business to fill the one vacant first-floor spot.
Unlike many downtown office spaces that tend to be narrow and deep, he said, the Dewart Building allows for a wider range of configurations, perfect for arts and creative uses. Indeed, the building is full of charms, from the old mail chutes to dark wood paneling on the walls to the brass banisters.
In the hall outside one set of fifth-floor offices is a life-like depiction of the Blues Brothers, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. Other offices host a radio station, a rapper ("The Danger Room" is his studio) and a yoga business.
"A lot of people are inviting their friends here," Foti said, happy to see the interest new management is taking in the building.
A shared conference room is available for anyone who reserves it, and a communal break room also is part of the common spaces.
As Foti walks around the building, he glows with enthusiasm for spaces that show the wear of delayed renovations, pointing to where broken pipes had created water damage to the original plaster walls and then painting a picture of how the rooms will look when he's done with repairs.
Marketing, management and maintenance, he said, will make all the difference in helping the Dewart Building turn the corner.
"This will look like a million bucks when it's done," Foti said.
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