The Court is Now in Session
Historic Building Has a New Lease on LifeFor the partners at Opal Real Estate Group, the historic block in Springfield known as Court Square is more than just another real-estate redevelopment opportunity. Before the passage of years, they say the building and its surroundings were one of the most vibrant developments in the city. The Springfield Redevelopment Authority, which owns the site, is hopeful that the players, funding, and vision are in place to return Court Square to that status once again.
Hanging on the wall behind Demetrios Panteleakis’ desk is a large painting of 31 Elm St. in Springfield, a building that most know simply as Court Square.
This historic block across from City Hall and Symphony Hall has remained vacant for decades. While the city has been diligent in keeping the property secure, time and nature have taken their toll on the elegant structure. Two other smaller buildings, Byer’s Block and the brownstone on the corner of Elm and Main known as the Chicopee Bank Building, are also part of a larger project that in recent months has city officials excited for the future of Springfield’s center.
Panteleakis is the managing partner of Opal Real Estate Group, the preferred developer for the site. The company, owned by Peter Picknelly, was one of the finalists back in 2008 to redevelop the property, but lost the bid to Connelly and Partners from Boston.
However, when that developer’s plans fell through, only a couple months old and a fast and furious victim of the economy, Opal was asked if it would like a second chance at bat.
The property is owned by the Springfield Redevelopment Authority (SRA), and in June of this year, Opal was named the preferred developer at Court Square. It was granted 120 days to come up with plans for funding and redevelopment, by all accounts a comprehensive and laborious process which examines every system of the structures, their history, and their potential future.
It’s an interesting moment of happenstance how Panteleakis came upon that painting, by the same artist responsible for the murals in the elevator lobbies of the very same building. Because, in many ways, the chance encounter with that work of art in an antique store is a metaphor for the larger forces now underway in the revitalization of the property. It’s a story of the right people in the right place at the right time.
Recently, BusinessWest had a chance to sit down with both Panteleakis and Brian Connors, the city’s point person for the property from the Office of Planning and Economic Development. The story they told is not one that has an easy answer. As Connors said, “if this project were a simple fix, it would have been done long ago.”
The difference this time is that, for Picknelly and his partners at Opal, the building is more than just another real-estate redevelopment opportunity. “Court Square was once the most vibrant part of the city,” Picknelly told BusinessWest. “Today, this is the best of New England — the grandeur of the historic buildings married to the modern structures nearby. Springfield is our home, and this building is at its core. In order for our city to be revitalized, this building can’t be abandoned.
“I believe, if done correctly, Court Square can be an important part of our city’s future,” he added. “Springfield simply cannot completely rebuild itself with this grand building left vacant.”
Center of Attention
Connors called the location “one of the most significant civic spaces in the entire Commonwealth,” and of the Court Square buildings themselves he simply said, “buildings that look like this just aren’t built anymore.”
The SRA also owns Union Station just a few blocks away, and he called both these sites key properties for Springfield’s future. Opal had been committed to the Court Square project for months before their preferred status, he said, and meets with city officials on a weekly basis to hammer out the ongoing issues that arise with a project of this scope.
“You don’t just hand over the keys and start construction,” he said. “It’s really a lot of due-diligence work. Opal, meanwhile, is getting all their applications in, their historic tax credits, their financing. We’re very excited to have a private partner advancing this as quickly as they can, with the best of all their expertise. They know Springfield, and they’ve worked on historic redevelopment.”
Patting his hand on a ream of Opal’s paperwork, only a fraction of the documents and reports that will chart the project’s course, Connors added, “this is already making far more progress than ever before.”
But he acknowledged the hard work ahead for both his office and the people at Opal. Between environmental and structural assessments, neither of which is tossing any unforeseen obstacles, and the funding sources, all parties involved will be kept busy before a hammer or shovel hits the site.
Funding is a crucial piece of the puzzle. “A project like this requires every sort of alphabet soup of incentives that are possible — federal, historic, and state tax credits,” he said. “And these are all competitive funds, so those applications are going in now. In a financial environment like there is today, funding is difficult. Banks aren’t loose with their money. City governments don’t have a lot of money.”
Although Connors said that Opal’s preferred 120 days ends in November, if the SRA board is satisfied by the developer’s efforts, the agreement will be extended.
“I can say from our experience, on a staff level we’re working with Opal on a weekly basis, and we’re very satisfied with the progress that’s been made,” he added.
Right now, Panteleakis said, the biggest obstacle his office faces is time.
“We’re in a race to take all the knowledge we’ve accumulated and verify it,” he said. “Because there’s been an RFP for the last ten years, there’s been a lot of study on the building. But for our grant purposes we need to go back and reassess all of it — mechanical, electrical, environmental.”
Opal is no stranger to historic redevelopment; currently it is at work on an historic property in the center of Westfield destined to be student housing for the state university there. At Court Square, Panteleakis said that a careful look at the past success of the buildings can indeed map out a bit of their future.
“You have to look at it less than conceptually,” he said, “and realize that, 25 to 30 years ago, this building had a viable commercial population. And that has a lot to do with location, location, location.”
The plans as they exist now aren’t to reinvent the uses of the building. Although the top floor is presently envisioned as market-rate housing, with apartments of up to four bedrooms, the first floor will remain retail- or service-oriented, with amenities that would cater to a residential or professional population that lives and works in the area. Middle floors are to be mixed commercial use, and there has been great interest in that space, both Panteleakis and Connors said.
Panteleakis, in fact, said the response has been “tremendous.”
“The development process that takes place in a building this size clearly has a point before hammers start to swing where you get a minimum level of commitment in order to have an economically viable project,” he explained. “We are in those conversations now, and we’re trying to firm up some of those commitments by January.”
Responding to criticism of what some may perceive as a surfeit of vacant office space in the city, Panteleakis waved off the possibility to naysay. “There’s a larger philosophical issue that needs to be examined. Anyone can say, ‘there’s too much office and retail space already,’ but it’s the quality of the product that brings people to the downtown. The bottom line is that, when you improve the quality of the product and create competition in that product, it forces everyone to get better.”
Here, he credited the redevelopments that the Dennis Group has made downtown, and how they raised the bar for those sections of Springfield where their historic buildings have been renovated.
Like Picknelly, Panteleakis said that Court Square resonates in his own remembrance of Springfield’s history. And that connection to the past is an important aspect to rebuilding for the future.
“If you have any commitment at all to the city of Springfield, or if you’ve been in the real-estate business and owned property in Springfield,” he said, “you’d know how important this location is. To come to what is probably the most architecturally significant building in the heart of the city, and to see it in disrepair, it makes an immediate statement to visitors to the city, and that has to be reversed.”
This is the type of project that comes along once in one’s career, he said.
“This is Springfield’s legacy,” he went on. “If buildings like this aren’t preserved, future generations are only going to see them in photographs.”
Pointing to the painting over his head, he added, “this is one that will be saved.”