Coming into focus: Guedes' Canal Street vision coming to life

SHELTON — John Guedes admits he found few people who could comprehend his ultimate plan for the Canal Street landscape 20 years ago.

Guedes, founder of Primrose Construction, saw the dilapidated structures - remnants of a more industrial age downtown - and envisioned rehabbed structures with apartments and retail for a revitalized Shelton center.

“I’ve always been a strong advocate for revitalizing downtown,” said Guedes, who has four decades of experience in the design-build construction industry. “Here, we need to bring in the young professional … people who will use the retail and restaurants downtown. We are starting to do that now.”

To date, developers have invested more than $144 million in 15 projects — some completed, others underway, still more in the planning stage — in the downtown, from Howe Avenue to Bridge Street to Canal Street, which Guedes’s development operation has called home for more than 15 years.

The results will be more than 840 apartments and 30 commercial spaces. At this point, Guedes has been responsible for more than 300 housing units. Counting Avalon, who he courted for the site next to The Birmingham with 250 units, it tops 500.

The grand total in investment from Guedes tops $33 million for just what is completed or in progress along Canal Street.

Guedes’ vision began to come to life in the mid-2000s, when he joined other developers — including Al da Silva — to rehabilitate one of the old factory buildings into what is now The Birmingham on the River condominium.

“With the Birmingham, everyone thought I was nuts,” Guedes said about his plan to rehab two industrial buildings into a condo complex. “But we paid off the ($15 million) loan in less than eight months. There were 103 units, and we had 66 closed in the first six months.

“The Birmingham was catalyst … it set up the values for the rest of the properties,” he added.

Even da Silva — whose latest downtown development, the old Webster bank site, is nearing completion — said Guedes and this Canal Street project started the dominoes falling.

In prepping what is now The Birmingham site, the developers realized that the neighboring asphalt plant needed to go, so they purchased it, demolished the structure, environmentally mitigated the site and facilitated its sale to what would be Shelton Avalon, a 250-apartment complex next door.

“Getting Avalon signed on ... bringing in 250 units … was important,” Guedes said. “I felt getting (Avalon) signed on to the downtown, it would bring credibility to the area.”

In the years since, Guedes has completed the Canal Street Lofts, the former Spongex site, with 47 units, and the Riverside Retail Center, formerly the Rolfite site, with a new restaurant and an optometrist moving into the first-floor commercial space. He has requested eight apartments on the second level — a request presently before the Planning and Zoning Commission.

“Spongex was a mess … now we’re leasing for an average of $1,800 per unit. Everyone said we couldn’t get anything for those,” Guedes said.

Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Virginia Harger said Guedes has been involved with ambitious projects over the years, including his proposals to rehabilitate the Birmingham and The Lofts, and to construct three completely new buildings, the Merion, Riverbreeze and Riverside Commercial.

“His investment in these projects - and the subsequent high occupancy rates for each building that have been completed - has been the catalyst for others to use their private investment dollars for new construction and the rehabilitation of existing buildings,” Harger said.

“Just as Bob Scinto has done in the area of Commerce, Research, Progress and Waterview Drives,” Harger added, “Mr. Guedes has shown others that investing private dollars into downtown Shelton has the overwhelming potential for each to be a successful venture.”

Work is underway at River Breeze, 64 apartments at 223 Canal St.

Plans for Riverview Park Royal — construction of a five-story structure with 11,000 square feet of retail or commercial space and 92 apartments at property listed as 113-123 Canal St. — are now before the Planning and Zoning Commission.

If approved, Guedes’s Riverview Park Royal plans include completely extending the River Walk from Veterans Memorial Park, along the river and ending at Canal Street East.

He also plans to submit plans for the former Chromium Process site. It was to be a multi-story recreational center, but those plans were scrapped once city engineers recommended moving the proposed building. Guedes said that has forced him to revamp his plans to more apartments and retail.

Next on the list is the old Star Pin site - a property he said he put years into designing, taking into consideration the historic nature of the century old building. That all changed when a fire destroyed the building, leaving a vacant, contaminated lot.

Guedes takes pride in transforming the old industrial buildings, keeping the trademark, gritty look but with modern amenities that attract people and fills the buildings.

But it has taken millions of dollars, including his money, that of the city and state and federal grants, to clean up the Canal Street sites, which have been found to be filled with contaminants from the old industrial operations.

“It has required more capital than anticipated in all cases, but the results have been incredible,” Guedes said. “People didn’t see what I saw, especially with Canal Street. I have had some interest in the rest of downtown but other developers have taken that on (along Howe Avenue).”

One concern from residents is parking — or lack thereof. But Guedes said the developments along Canal Street are built with 1.5 spots per unit, an amount he feels adequately covers the need, especially considering the nearby municipal parking, if needed.

“It’s not as if parking does not exist … people just don’t want to walk,” Guedes said.

He said the hopes of developers downtown are that people will park and walk in the area, visiting retail and restaurants. He believes that will become the norm once the Howe Avenue buildings are completed and Canal Street continues to develop.

“I just had to convince people that this vision is real, it can happen. It is happening now,” Guedes added.

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com