Schenectady Daily Gazette
October 26, 2017
By John Cropley
Landmark facing City Hall has undergone complete overhaul
SCHENECTADY — The landmark Seneca Building has bounced back after a lengthy renovation and new tenants will start moving in this weekend.
The six-story structure at 118 Jay St. dates to around 1900 and was once the tallest building in the city. Standing across from City Hall and the Jay Street pedestrian mall, it is in convenient proximity to all of downtown.
“It’s a good location,” said Queens-based project developer Noah Smith. “I think that’s what made this successful, at the end of the day.”
He led a tour Thursday through the residential portion of the building, floors two through five, where much of the work being done was simple touchups and cleanups. The retail space on the first floor has further to go before completion, and the sixth floor is closed-off attic space.
All the apartments are one-bedroom units with similar floor plans in two sizes. The smaller units rent for $850 a month, the large units for $1,150. Gas, internet and cable TV service are included in the rent.
Twelve of the 16 apartments were leased as of Thursday morning, and a prospective tenant was in line for the 13th.
Smith said he’s had some interest in the ground-floor space but nothing strong yet. It’s a U-shaped, 2,400-square-foot space that could be split into two pieces. It hosted restaurants through much of its history, and would be ideal for an eatery now, Smith said.
The Seneca Block building started off as a 47-room hotel and later was converted to apartments.
In 2014, city officials ordered the building vacated due to unsafe conditions. Smith bought the structure, rundown and infested with assorted vermin, at a cost of $160,000 and set the renovation process in motion.
It initially was going to be only a moderate overhaul, he said, much less time-consuming and expensive than it eventually turned out to be.
It already was an apartment building, his reasoning went, so it wouldn’t require too many alterations.
But the apartments were railroad-style and needed to be reconfigured. The plumbing was cast-iron and galvanized steel, and needed to be replaced. The electrical wiring was old and needed to be brought up to code. A fire alarm system was required.
More and more of the original plaster walls had to be torn apart to accommodate each of these upgrades, and eventually it made more sense to just replace the plaster with drywall.
“Even if we could have saved it, we couldn’t have saved it,” Smith said of the plasterwork.
“As is often the case, once you start poking, doing the real investigation,” more and more needs to be done.
Some pieces of the past remain, through, cleaned up and ready for the future. The old wooden wainscotting and the tin ceilings are still in place. The original staircase was rebuilt and refinished. Porcelain bathtubs were cleaned up and got new marble surrounds. Multiple layers of paint were sandblasted off the cast-iron radiators and a new finish was sprayed on. The original heart pine floorboards, refinished, glow in each apartment.
“These things give an old building character,” Smith said.
There’s also a some new technology mixed in: digital rotisserie ovens; an intercom system that tenants can use with their cellphones wherever they are; washing machines wired to the Internet; and a new fire alarm system, which the city took a special interest in following the deadly 2015 fire that destroyed two apartment buildings just down the street.
“We like to think of this building as a nice blend of old and new,” Smith said.
He said it offers residential tenants proximity to all of downtown and would offer a commercial tenant proximity to a lot of foot traffic, thanks to Proctors, City Hall, the Greenmarket and other downtown attractions.
When there’s a big event on State Street, Smith said, “all these parking spots are taken and people are just streaming down Jay Street.”
The project was undertaken by Smith’s 118 Jay LLC. Much of the $650,000 cost was financed by Community Preservation Corporation, a non-profit housing finance company that has arranged about $9.7 billion in private and public investment to finance more than 170,660 units of affordable housing in the last 43 years, including more than $730 million for 385 multifamily and mixed-use development projects in the Capital Region.
The Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority provided a $24,000 grant to restore and beautify the facade. Smith said the grant covered about half the cost of the work. Decades’ worth of grime is now gone from the brickwork, and four newly painted lions sparkle along the roofline.
Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen said the project, a few hundred feet from State Street, has continued the revitalization of the city’s downtown.