Developers offering more high-end, luxury apartments in downtown New London

New London — Downtown redevelopers are rooting for Yehuda Amar, the investor who recently completed work on two Bank Street properties and is marketing his penthouse unit at 147 Bank St. for $2,300 a month.

"I love it. I want him to succeed," said Frank McLaughlin, who owns 55 rental units in 19 buildings in the city, 16 of them downtown. "If he can get that, that's good for me and the upscale, New York-style loft apartments that I have downtown."

"I think Yehuda will do well in those spaces," said Mel Foti, another downtown redeveloper, who is finishing work on his own building at 18-20 Bank St., opposite the former H. Marcus & Co. clothing shop, that he intends to rent at higher price points.

"I live downtown, and I know what I pay in rent, and what my neighbors pay, and I think there is definitely a market for higher-end apartments downtown," said Foti, who also is planning redevelopment of the Barrows Building at 253 State St., which he owns with a partner.

Work to convert the State Street property to luxury apartments, retail space and office suites will start next year.

"I don't think (Amar) will have a hard time finding tenants there," said Ned Hammond, New London's economic development coordinator. "The work is very well done ... and today, younger people who have good employment, they are not into old as much as they are into new. They want nice, new, comfortable. They want nice appliances, fixtures and cabinets."

The downtown is heavily populated with more traditional apartments in the $750 to $950 range. But real estate agents and developers say young to middle-age professionals are looking more and more to downtown New London as a place to live and want nicer properties with more amenities — and are willing to pay for them.

"The fact that Electric Boat is hiring young engineers who are not buyers, but renters, has helped the market considerably," said broker Lori Hopkins-Cavanagh. "They have money to afford a higher rental space."

Amar's nine newly available apartment units, at 147 and 153 Bank St., range in price from a low of $1,200 a month for a second-floor, one-bedroom unit, to $2,300 a month for the fourth-floor, two-bedroom, two-bathroom penthouse with sweeping views of the Thames River all the way out to Long Island Sound. 

Other units are advertised from $1,500 to $1,850, depending on their size and what floor they are on.

All of the units are walk-ups, and feature hardwood and tile floors, granite countertops, stainless steel appliances and washers and dryers.

Eighteen months ago, Amar started gutting and remodeling the two buildings across the street from the Custom House, converting 153 Bank St., the former home of Modern Electric, to Berths on Bank, with three retail spaces on the street level and six apartments — three each on the second and third floors. 

The property next door, 147 Bank St., has been renamed Eagle's View, and that includes another retail space on the ground floor, and one apartment each on the second, third and fourth floors.

An Israeli-educated architect with property holdings around the world, Amar came to New London because his wife has family here.

He's hired Shore Views Real Estate and Hopkins-Cavanagh, the owner/broker, to market and find tenants for his buildings.

"These are very affordable," Hopkins-Cavanagh said of the Bank Street units. "To get these same water views in Mystic, you would pay two or three times that amount."

Coffee shops, clubs, restaurants

Kate Wargo, 25, the social media strategist at Connecticut College, rents a newly renovated unit in Foti's property at 18-20 Bank St., close to Parade Pizza and Muddy Waters restaurant. 

She declined to say what she's paying, but her landlord said her unit and others he's planning are on the upper scale of what New London has seen in the past.

With bright light shining in from oversized windows, Wargo's two-bedroom, second-floor walk-up offers impressive views of the Thames River and the nearby Fishers Island Ferry terminal.

Wargo was raised in New London but never lived downtown until she took the Bank Street apartment last spring, and she said she's enjoying her experience.

"It's so easy, and I'm learning things about New London that I never knew before," she said.

One Sunday, she had her windows open and heard strains of jazz music so she went outdoors to see where it was coming from. 

To her delight, on the nearby City Pier she found Coast Guard musicians performing.

A number of her home furnishings were purchased at the New London Antiques Center at 123 Bank St., and, Wargo said, she's become a regular at downtown coffee shops, clubs and restaurants.

What she has learned living downtown, she said, is that it's more about community than the accommodations, and she's embracing that.

McLaughlin, who owns multiple rental units all over the city at various price points, said Amar's higher rents will be a good test for investors who are buying buildings on and around Bank and State streets.

About seven years ago, McLaughlin gutted and refurbished upper-level apartments in a building he owns at 13 Golden St., and has had good success renting them since for about $1,500 to $1,800 a month.

"There's demand now," he said. "People in the military get a housing allowance. And sometimes, we get staff from the Coast Guard. And EB's got personnel starting at $65,000."

McLaughlin and the other redevelopers said it's not uncommon for two young professionals making good money to team up to rent a two- or three-bedroom unit and split the cost.

"It's a no-brainer," he said.

Retail a tougher sell

While the property owners are optimistic about finding tenants for downtown apartments priced at $1,500 a month or more, they agreed that filling street-level retail space is more of a challenge.

Amar has four retail spaces in his two buildings, and Hopkins-Cavanagh said she is seeking tenants, but it would help if the city had a more defined downtown marketing plan.

"Is there a comprehensive plan? It would be good if there were a strategic plan of development for the downtown. Maybe there is one floating around, but I'm not aware of it," she said.

Foti has found a commercial tenant for his Bank Street building, but acknowledged it can be difficult. Lenore Auger opened One Personal Grooming Studio earlier this summer, an extension of her Putnam-based enterprise, and is anxious to grow her spa business in New London.

But the redevelopers believe that more high-end residential units will help to attract more and varied retail.

"I think these apartments will help a lot to create an environment in which select retailers can survive and prosper," Foti said. "But it takes more work. You need certain pre-conditions for retail to succeed. And we have not had the base of consumers to support a lot of retail downtown, unless you're a certain type of retailer."

'Great place to live'

Bill Cornish, another downtown property owner with multiple residential and retail units in the central business district, said he believes the city should make a more concerted effort to attract retailers.

He suggested city officials visit successful nearby business districts, such as Mystic, Niantic and Groton, to see the kinds of stores and services located there, and consider inviting those business owners to expand or relocate to New London.

When Amar first invested in downtown New London, he acknowledged he was enticed by the prospect of the Coast Guard Museum opening at Union Station.

That plan is still in development, but the downtown redevelopers said they are finding tenants for their residential units regardless of the museum project.

"I just showed one of my units to a military officer, a physician, this week," McLaughlin said. "And I'm getting a lot of engineers. These people are hearing that New London is a great place to live."

Some young professionals moving in downtown work in the city, said Hammond, but others are commuting to places outside of New London.

"We have people who want to be near transportation centers and in urban settings, and the more units we have that are nicely done, with modern fixtures and appliances and green technology, those will be attractive to those who can afford to rent them," he said.

In the past, Foti has invested in properties in Bridgeport and New Haven, but now he's focused on New London's central business district.

"I'm bidding like crazy on stuff," he said. "For the first time in a long time, we have some organic growth that makes it possible to buy a building, renovate it, and get a return on your investment." 

"You couldn't do that eight years ago," he said. "But finally, all the conditions are right for investing here."

He points to other redevelopers who are acquiring properties on Bank and State streets, like Eric Hamburg, who has bought the old Capitol Theater and former H. Marcus & Co. building on Bank Street, and Quinn & Hary Marketing, which bought and is renovating 48-50 State St.

"Generally, the economy is improving," he said. "And what's going on at EB with all these young engineers who have no prejudices against New London, that's helping."

Amar's high-end Bank Street apartments might serve as a test case of sorts for New London.

"Yehuda is pushing the market," said McLaughlin, "but I think the market is there, and it will continue to improve."

"Getting above $2,000 for the upper floors? We are watching," said Hammond, the economic development coordinator. "I go to meetings with my counterparts, and I know, those new apartments with quality materials — that's what millennials are looking for."

a.baldelli@theday.com

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