Worcester officials praise $21 million conversion
By Bronislaus B. Kush TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
WORCESTER— Matt Abrams said he got "funny looks" back in 2004 when he told people that he wanted to convert an old factory — sitting right next to a cemetery in a working class neighborhood filled with automotive and other machine shops — into an upscale condominium complex.
Today, people look at him with admiration.
Almost two years ago, Mr. Abrams, a partner in The Abrams Group LLC, had proposed retrofitting the brick structure constructed in 1923 at 160 Fremont St. for a silk and rayon weaving company into a housing project featuring 97 condominiums ranging in size from 788 square feet to 1,890 square feet.
City officials, envisioning the project's economic and social impact on blue-collar South Worcester, embraced the concept.
However, the plan had its share of naysayers, given its complexities.
But $21 million dollars later, the Boston-based Abrams Group, in collaboration with Global Property Development Corp., has completed the project — and, according to officials, about 70 percent of the units have been sold.
"We've breathed new life into this building," said Mr. Abrams.
City officials said they couldn't be more delighted.
Mayor Timothy P. Murray said refurbishing vacant factory space fills a critical need for housing in Worcester.
"We're seeing a growth in population in Worcester, so we're looking for more housing opportunities," said Mr. Murray. "Finding new uses for these old factories helps."
Mr. Murray said the Fremont Lofts, as it is named, which was temporarily used as a library while the Worcester Public Library's main branch downtown was renovated, will also help repopulate a once-rundown neighborhood now experiencing some rejuvenation.
Officials said the plan was successfully completed because the developer took a chance and the city was able to lend assistance with tools created to make problematic projects like the Fremont Lofts feasible.
For example, Julie A. Jacobson, the assistant city manager for neighborhood and economic development, said the City Council approved an adaptive reuse overlay district for the project, which is next to St. John's Cemetery and just off Cambridge Street.
Such a district maintains existing zoning in an area but allows for certain other uses. It also relaxes requirements for parking, dimensions and other things.
"It would have been easier for us to have built this complex in an open field," said Mr. Abrams. "But we prefer to build in old historic buildings."
Last Wednesday, Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, which is handling sale of the units, held a celebratory reception that some prospective buyers attended. Those included empty-nesters seeking to downsize, and single professionals.
"This is the best that I've seen to date," said Martin Gardner of Worcester, who has viewed a number of condo projects in the area.
Like other factory restorations, the units feature large windows, skylights, and exposed beams, brickwork and venting. The condos that have been sold are not yet occupied and there's some minor work that needs to be done, including landscaping.
Brochures state that the one- and two-bedroom units range in price from $169,900 to $339,900, but one Coldwell representative said most of the remaining units cost about $244,000.
Company officials said some units in the building, which once housed the Sweeper Vacuum Co, were purchased by people from the Boston area who were attracted by the prices.
City officials said Coldwell agents also used the availability of commuter rail service and the project's one-mile access to Interstate 290 as selling points to condo buyers who can no longer afford housing in Boston.
Ms. Jacobson said the relatively brisk sale of Fremont Lofts units indicates that the local housing industry continues to be healthy.
Real estate analysts note that the sale of condominiums in Worcester County is particularly strong.
Data from the Warren Group, for example, showed that there were 3,055 sales in the Worcester area last year, up 30 percent from 2004. The median sales price was $205,127.
According to Banker & Tradesman, sales of condominiums across Massachusetts were up 12 percent in 2005.
Local Realtors said that downtown condos are particularly desirable because the supply is limited. This housing stock is especially appealing to demographic groups with money to spend, including young professionals and aging baby boomers, who prefer almost maintenance-free living space.
The Abrams Group has been involved in a 108-unit luxury waterfront condominium conversion in Boston and the revitalization of a Lowell factory into 134 loft condominiums.
Bridgewater-based Global has undertaken similar projects and is involved in the plan to rehab the former Burwick Furniture building at Main and Madison streets.