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Revitalized city center

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Nearly $2 million in state housing assistance toward restoration of the former Woolworth building on Watertown’s Public Square advances another project in the decades-long rejuvenation of the city center.

The six-story building on the American Corner stands vacant and is becoming an eyesore with an uncertain future that could go the way of other historic properties long lost to the city left to deal with gaping holes and deteriorating structures around the Square. However, developers David Gallo and Erich H. Seber plan to revive the building with a $15.4 million project turning it into a mix of ground-floor commercial space and affordable lower-income apartments on the upper floors.

Drawing residents back to Public Square while rebuilding the commercial base has proven a successful strategy in reversing the decline that followed the failed expectations of urban renewal in the 1960s and the loss of major retailers in the national exodus from city centers to outlying regions.

It altered the image and character of downtown Watertown as abandoned buildings fell into disrepair and were eventually torn down over the next two or three decades.

In the mid-1980s, a slow evolution started to reshape the downtown with a YMCA renovation that created Bugbee Apartments. More than one grand plan for redevelopment of the former Hotel Woodruff site fell by the wayside before the Woodruff Professional Building was built on a portion of the land. An adjacent walkway offers convenient access between the Square and a recently rebuilt J.B. Wise parking lot.

The Henry Keep Apartments on the east end of Public Square and the Olympic apartments on Franklin Street replaced deteriorated buildings and vacant land.

Neighbors of Watertown has been a major player in the redevelopment with renovation of the Marcy Building on State Street, the Brighton Hotel on Court Street and the Buck Building on Public Square.

It partnered with the Watertown Local Development Corp. to redevelop the old YWCA into the Franklin Building and has assisted other property owners with their upgrades and renovations to preserve the city’s heritage.

Jefferson County purchased the vacant J.C. Penney building on lower Arsenal Street to use the site in combination with the old post office to build a new courthouse. Stream Global Services has brought nearly 700 jobs with another 300 possible in support of the local economy while also drawing people downtown.

Public Square’s reconstruction with its new sidewalks, modernized infrastructure and rebuilt streets finally ended the on-and-off debate over how to improve traffic flow through a Square designed for another era. Landscaping, sidewalk benches and improvements to the center island combined with public and private beautification projects have enhanced the downtown and made it more aesthetically appealing to pedestrians and shoppers.

Moving forward, COR Development gives hope for the future of the former Mercy Care Center of Northern New York. The Fayetteville developer plans to demolish the complex that takes up most of a city block at a prime location and replace it with a mix of residential, commercial and retail space consistent with the pattern of redevelopment that has characterized the downtown’s rebirth.

Just as importantly, beyond the physical improvements, the ongoing revival has brought a renewed outlook that sees the downtown as an attractive and enjoyable place to live and work and shop.

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