The repurposing of rundown industrial properties into mixed-used developments is not a new concept. But the creation of the Cherry Street Lofts redevelopment project in Bridgeport’s West End neighborhood is taking on a new purpose through the erasure of a hulking site that has been an unwelcome eyesore for decades.
The project is based within a city block bordered by Cherry Street, Howard Avenue, Railroad Avenue and Hancock Avenue. The American Gramophone Co. operated a factory on the site from 1870 until 1934. Over the years, additional buildings were constructed – the eight buildings on property date from the 1930s – and different tenants occupied the industrial spaces until the 1980s when it became vacant. Over the years, the property’s acute lack of upkeep – most notably in a constellation of broken windows that are visible to I-95 motorists and Metro-North riders – personified the concept of urban blight, while its designation as a brownfield site complicated its rehabilitation.
At a Jan. 31 groundbreaking for the project, Mayor Joe Ganim acknowledged that the transformation of the property was being discussed during his initial years at City Hall.
“If you talked to people who come in and out of the city, on I-95 and on the train, they always said this part of the town was the visual gateway that hundreds and thousands and millions of people see every day when they pass through Bridgeport,” he said. “And they leave with an impression. They may not know what’s going on in these buildings, but they see only the broken windows and they see buildings that need to be refurbished.”
The Jan. 31 event was not the first groundbreaking at the site – a similar event took place with Ganim’s predecessor, Mayor Bill Finch, in the summer of 2015, but work on the project was delayed as different entities entered and exited the project and additional financing was arranged.
For the first phase of the development, with the cost pegged at $75 million, two of the property’s eight buildings will be razed because of structural deterioration as the site undergoes cleanup. Construction will then begin on 157 residential apartments – with 126 units set aside for residents making no more than 60 percent of the area median income – and this will be the first multifamily housing construction in the area in more than a decade. This phase will also include the construction of a community facility, a gym and a 40,000-square-foot outdoor recreational space. The first apartments are expected to be available in 18 to 24 months.
A second construction phase, estimated to cost $58 million and not yet formally scheduled, will feature the creation of 154 additional apartments and a new home for the Great Oaks Charter School, along with housing for the school’s tutors. The development was originally designed to include retail space for a supermarket, but that aspect of the project was later dropped.
“In many ways, this marks the rebirth of this part of the city,” Ganim said.
The project is receiving a major financial boost via the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, which is placing $35 million into the development – its first project based in Connecticut. The trust is buying Connecticut Housing Finance Authority-issued bonds for the $54.4 million adaptive rehabilitation of the buildings that will be transformed into housing units. Andrew Nolan Pfeiffer, New York regional investment officer for the trust, noted that this was among the more complex projects that his group has participated in.
“We worked with Corvus (Capital Partners LLC), The Pacific Companies and CHFA to create a new financing structure that was unique to this project, which included many things such as an early rate-lock to mitigate interest rate risk and structured drawdown bonds to help eliminate negative arbitrage,” he said. It was complicated, and that was just the debt. This project had eight or nine other sources involved with it.”
Pfeiffer added that his organization’s participation also came with a significant caveat. “Every investment we make, including here at Cherry Street Lofts, is required to be built with 100 percent union labor,” he said, adding that 235 jobs are being created on this project.
For Peter Carroll, president of the Fairfield County Building and Construction Trades Council, the project is personal.
“On behalf of a kid that grew up in the city – one of 11 kids from in the city – very, very proud that I can stand here today and say that this project is going to transform the city back to where it was when I was young,” he said. “The hundreds of members that belong to this community are going to go to work here in this community, with decent wages and decent benefits.”