Individual investment fueling Shelton downtown’s rebirth

Photo of Brian Gioiele

SHELTON — Al da Silva grew up in the city and remembers a vibrant downtown lined with factories with workers who patronized the local establishments.

He also remembers when, as he put it, “it turned” — sparked by the BF Goodrich fire in 1975 which led to 3,000 people losing their jobs and the closing of so many of the factories that had been a staple of Shelton’s downtown.

“I always thought about what it would be like to redevelop the downtown again,” da Silva said recently.

Those thoughts became a reality in the mid-2000s, when da Silva joined with fellow developers — most notably Shelton developer John Guedes — to rehabilitate one of the old factory buildings into what is now The Birmingham on the River condominium.

Since then, developers have invested more than $144 million in already completed projects and those in planning or under construction, and with more than 841 apartments and 30 commercial units helping bring downtown back to life.

It was a steady domino-like process to recreate downtown Shelton, da Silva said.

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

This was a spark, he said, that ignited a flood of development, rehabilitation and private investment — some $144,075,000 in more than 15 years — along Howe Avenue and Canal Street.

“We’ve been waiting for 30 years,” Mayor Mark Lauretti said about the developments dotting the downtown.

Lauretti said getting investors interested in investing in the downtown — particularly Canal Street, which was littered with vacant factories in sites with significant contamination — was difficult, but the “affordability factor” of the city’s low mill rate and burgeoning workforce helped move the process.

“Investors are smart ... when the return is there, they know it,” Lauretti said. “The goal was always getting people to the downtown ... and the apartments do that. The downtown is coming of age. People do not realize what it was really like ... how bad. It’s really coming of age.”

Overall, Lauretti has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in state and federal Brownfields money to remediate the Canal Street sites. In the end, he said the city has spent some $10 million in his time, mainly with work on the BF Goodrich site, on the downtown.

"I give a lot of credit to the individuals who decided to invest in the revitalization of the downtown area of Shelton, especially in the last two decades, with these various projects,” Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Virginia Harger said.

“There is a limited number of persons who have the ability to do so and who have been willing to do so over the years,” she said, “but those who recognized the potential that each new or rehabilitated building would bring have done so. Their time, energy and commitment has now led others to become more confident with submitting a proposal.”

Don Stanziale Jr., owner of Midland Development & Contracting and developer of Cedar Village at Carroll’s, the former location of the Carroll’s hardware store, has played a part of his own in Shelton’s rebirth.

“I’ve been here since 1980 … I grew up here,” he said. “The downtown is the last part that needs to be fixed. There is always work to be done, but if all of us keep working together, we can make it better. It already is so much better.”

Stanziale’s redevelopment of the old Carroll’s Hardware building on Coram and Hill Street into Cedar Village at Carroll’s is in phase 2. All the apartments in phase 1 are full and phase 2 are available, he said. Monthly rent on a one-bedroom apartment there runs between $1,350 to $1,650, he said.

He has invested more than $10 million to date.

Stanziale and his son, Don III, are also contractors for new construction on vacant land at 356 Howe Ave., property owned by Perry Pettis, that will be called Riverwalk Place Apartments.

They are also rehabilitating a six-family home at 289 Coram Ave., which sits next to a vacant lot. The land was once town property which was used as a parking area by residents in the neighborhood. He said he hopes to build an apartment house there as well in the future.

And his hope, he said, is to continue to purchase similar properties and redevelop them into living space while beautifying the community in the process.

Harger credited Lauretti — as did the developers — for being approachable and open to ideas, which in turn made those willing to invest make the decision to take the financial plunge.

“The Planning and Zoning Commission and staff have been open to sitting down, listening to new proposals and the opportunity to suggest changes to benefit everyone: the city, the developer, current residents, the small businesses downtown and those who are looking to reside in a downtown environment,” she said.

Harger also said investors look at Shelton’s low mill rate and property tax stability as a major draw.

“That is a direct result of (Lauretti) and his administration properly managing the city, knowing the overall picture and goals for the city and making proper decisions on where taxpayer dollars should be spent to achieve those goals,” she said.

Da Silva said the opportunity to revitalize downtown came with the Route 8 redevelopment and the growth of commercial businesses in the city.

“We looked at the market, did studies and found that with all the corporate development, there was a major need for housing,” he said. “We knew there was going to be a big demand in Shelton with all those businesses coming in.

“(Guedes) really started the whole process … redeveloping Canal Street,” he said.

Da Silva returned downtown three years ago at the urging of his daughter and business partner Alexandra da Silva, submitting plans for redeveloping the Webster Bank site at 502 Howe Ave. Now nearly complete, the five-story structure will have 56 apartments and two first-floor commercial businesses with Common Ground coffee shop on the corner.

Overall, Da Silva’s investment downtown sits at $12 to $15 million.

Along with The Birmingham and Shelton Avalon, Guedes has three other projects ongoing: The Lofts, Riverside retail center and Riverbreeze. He has also just submitted a proposal for the Park Royal, and there are planned developments on the former sites of Star Pin Factory and Chromium Process. In all, his investment totals in the multimillions.

Shelton Economic Development Corp. President Paul Grimmer prepared a chart with 15 major downtown projects that showed five completed, four under construction, three approved and one in the planning stages.

Another development on the rise is Bridge Street Commons II, which will feature 72 apartments and two commercial spaces at 427 Howe Ave., the corner long known as home to Dunkin’ Donuts. Developer Angelo Melisi’s latest downtown development — his first was Bridge Street Commons at 50 Bridge St. with 48 apartments and four commercial units — brings his investment to some $25 million.

Harger said Shelton is experiencing growing pains with all the activity in the downtown, but each is being addressed and can be resolved.

“Is there more to be done?” she asked. “Yes, and there always will be, as is to be expected.”