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SOLAR OUTLOOK BRIGHT ‘GOING EXTREMELY WELL’: Developer renovating icon, replacing some tenants

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Businessman and developer Brian H. Murray knew what kind of reputation the Solar Building had before he purchased it in September.

He was well aware of the numerous police calls, the unkempt condition of the six-story building and the sketchiness of some of the tenants.

Yet Mr. Murray said he saw potential in the 106-year-old structure at 200-212 Franklin St., with its “neat architectural features.”

In foreclosure for two years, the building was sold to him for $1,200,001 at public auction. Former owner Solar and Frontier Buildings, San Francisco, was criticized for neglecting the property after purchasing it in 2007.

Since acquiring it, Mr. Murray already has made several improvements to the building. He plans to make upgrades to the 73 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments. Some need just a paint job; others need major renovations, such as replacing carpeting, ceilings and appliances.

So far, about 10 have been completed. Two commercial tenants are remaining.

“It’s going extremely well,” Mr. Murray told the members of Advantage Watertown during a progress report Friday morning. “It’s been fun.”

After the meeting, he took City Manager Sharon A. Addison; Kenneth A. Mix, the city’s planning and community development coordinator, and Donald W. Rutherford, CEO of the Watertown Local Development Corp., on an impromptu tour of the building and the work going on there.

It was a flurry of activity. Two construction workers were replacing lighting in the lobby, which is undergoing a face-lift. In the upper floors, other workers were working on a handful of units.

During the tour, Ms. Addison remarked about the structure’s hydraulic elevator with its original metal birdcage skeletal structure, something that probably was added after the building’s construction.

The group looked up at a series of decorative wrought-iron railings and posts on each of the floors in the central atrium and noticed a skylight six stories up. Hallways still feature white hex tile floors with Greek Key mosaic tile borders, and brass doorknobs remain throughout the building.

“We’re going to clean all of that up,” Mr. Murray said.

To help with security, lights have gone up on the building’s exterior. High-definition security cameras have been added both inside and outside, spurring some tenants to decide to move out because they did not like them recording their comings and goings, Mr. Murray said.

Key fobs — small security hardware devices given to tenants to open locked doors — have replaced keys to the front entrance, he said.

“Hundreds of friends and former tenants all over Watertown had keys to the building,” he said.

Some 15 to 20 problem tenants have been evicted and another bunch received 30-day notices Nov. 1 that they have to leave. Several new tenants have moved in. Police calls are down, Mr. Murray said.

“We’re looking for good tenants,” he said, noting that it originally was a “luxurious extended stay” building and not where permanent tenants lived.

Mr. Rutherford said he is confident the new owner will bring the landmark back to its heyday.

“He has the wherewithall,” Mr. Rutherford said. “He knows what he’s doing.”

Built by contractor John A. Solar, the Solar Building was once the largest structure in the city.The building was owned by Phelps Construction Co. from 1960 to 2007. The V-shaped structure and its architectural features are patterned after the famed Flatiron Building in Manhattan.

In recent years, Mr. Murray has purchased a number of buildings in and around Watertown, including the lower level of the building that houses Stream International on Arsenal Street, the Lincoln Building on Public Square, the former Hospice Foundation of Jefferson County Inc. building at 425 Washington St., the Top of the Square plaza and the Palmer Street and College Heights apartments.

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