Loft living is catching on
Upscale condos filling old factory buildings
 
By Shaun Sutner, TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF

WORCESTER— Mark W. Piscillo found the perfect environment to assemble his collection of oversized Andy Warhol portraits, Murano glass hanging lights and sleek Euro-design furniture in leather, steel and glass.

It was the loft-style condominium he moved into last year in a converted biscuit factory off Shrewsbury Street, the city's bustling restaurant row.

Loft living is not for everyone. There are no yards or garages, minimal storage space, sometimes unconventional living spaces and usually not enough bedrooms for families with children.

But for a 43-year-old single guy like Mr. Piscillo, owner of Victory Bar & Cigar on Shrewsbury Street, his loft's 12-foot ceilings, expansive brick walls and exposed beams lend a cosmopolitan flair and convenience to city living.

"It's a very unique setting. It's different," Mr. Piscillo said of his two-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot condo. "And I like the fact that it's a mile from the train station. Worcester is starting to catch up with Boston and Providence."

In a vibrant real estate market that has seen single-family home and condo sales and prices soar, more than 200 loft and loft-style units are expected to be occupied in renovated warehouse and factory buildings in Worcester by the middle of next year.

Most of this activity is occurring in formerly industrial sections that had few residents. And while some see it as a fad destined to peter out into a small niche market, many observers see the trend as another piece of evidence of the long-stagnant center city's comeback as a place to live, not only work or pass through.

The city's loft boom mirrors the creation of lofts in large cities such as New York and Boston, which now are so expensive that young couples, singles, and "empty nesters" have been priced out. They are finding more affordable lifestyles in smaller urban centers such as Worcester, Lowell and Lawrence.

"There are good, solid, fundamental reasons why that market is going strong. There's a good economic tailwind behind it," said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Economy.com. "Part of it is affordability. Lower-priced condos or lofts look a bit more attractive, and there's been a steady improvement in center cities that makes this sustainable in the long run."

The Biscuit Lofts' 43 units, which went up for sale two summers ago, were filled from day one, and the developer is building a few more.

Across town, in a less-upscale and quieter neighborhood near Webster Square, the Fremont Lofts' 97 units are about six months from completion. More than 60 percent of them are already sold — at prices ranging from $160,000 for a small 1-bedroom to $329,000 for a large, skylit unit. Most, however, have a price in the mid-$200,000s.

Near downtown, in an up-and-coming area promoters are calling the "Canal District," the old Heywood building is also in the throes of a conversion that is expected to yield about 50 lofts and apartments.

A few blocks away, the so-called Canal Side building has newly minted lofts for sale, and a $1 million renovation has converted a fire-damaged former synagogue nearby into modern condos.

Christopher T. Hajec, a real estate broker for the Heywood, bills the "SoHo-style lofts," in a reference to New York's trendy arts district, as offering "style, sophistication and convenience."

"Be a part of the redefinition of what it means to live, work and play in Worcester, one of the hottest real estate markets in the Northeast," reads a newspaper ad from Mr. Hajec, who is selling 10 lofts in the Heywood.

Overheated marketing hype?

Perhaps, but its unqualified optimism reflects the hopes of loft promoters and other business people who are opening restaurants, clubs and shops near projects such as the Heywood.

Mr. Hajec said the Heywood and Canal Side conversions show that Worcester is shedding its identity as a community that is reluctant to shed traditional ways of doing things.

Loft living is "chic, it's artsy, it's definitively showing that things are changing," he said. "People in Worcester need to see tangible evidence, so they'll trust that things are really happening."

However, among their quirks, lofts have other features that may make prospective buyers think twice.

While heat is generally included, electric bills can add up when central air-conditioning is factored in. And monthly condo fees at a 1,370-square-foot, two-bedroom unit in the Fremont, for example, amount to $262.

Some loft complexes, including the Fremont, have shared amenities such as media and fitness rooms; buyers may not want these facilities, which could soon be outdated and cost to be maintained.

But their selling points — from the contemporary brick and beam take on the old buildings' industrial heritage to interior features such as stainless steel kitchen appliances, granite countertops, chrome fixtures and high-tech security — often outweigh limitations.

That was the case for Ferdinand Ladia, a registered nurse who just bought a two-bedroom at the Fremont.

"It was more affordable, it was in the center of the city, and it's a beautiful brick building," Mr. Ladia, 34, said as he picked out carpet colors and cabinet styles in the lofts' sales office recently. "They've got huge ceilings, and it's wired for the Internet. I knew as soon as I saw it that I wanted to live here."

Contact Shaun Sutner by e-mail at ssutner@telegram.com.