Building block

Published 8:50 pm Saturday, July 16, 2011

Andy Damiani looks through a window in his office, from which he can see across West Washington Street to a series of vacant buildings. On his own side of the street, redevelopment has resulted in nearly all spaces being occupied.

Downtown’s past, future reflected in one city block

The 100 block of West Washington Street is just a small part of Suffolk. It’s the kind of area that folks might tell others, “If you blink, you’ll miss it.”

Indeed, one can walk up one side and down the other in less than five minutes. But this short section of street has come to embody the state of development in the entire historic downtown — popular restaurants, established shops and growing residential opportunities, but all within sight of vacant storefronts.

Andy Damiani can remember when the block was the place to be.

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“This was the hub,” he said. “You couldn’t walk down the sidewalk.”

Damiani, a former Suffolk mayor and downtown guru, is either the current or the former owner of several properties on the block. He recently recounted the former businesses in the area — a Woolworth’s, a “first-class” jewelry store and Crystal Restaurant, where gossip was on tap and hands were shaken over countless business deals.

“We had a lot of action on this street,” he said.

But eventually Woolworth’s closed, and so did the jewelry store and the restaurant and other nearby businesses. Sometimes, nothing took their place; other times, a string of ultimately unsuccessful businesses followed.

“Downtowns are difficult,” Damiani said. “You’re always in competition with shopping centers, strip centers.”

Now, the 100 block of West Washington Street is poised for redevelopment.

The odd-numbered side holds the Salvation Army thrift store, a church and a pawnshop. The rest of the buildings are vacant, some of them having been damaged by fire nearly two years ago — and one of those that were damaged never having reopened.

But across the street, the even-numbered side boasts the award-winning Primo 116 restaurant, Damiani’s two buildings with plenty of new and established businesses, a couple of office spaces and the Bullies restaurant, which recently opened in the place where A.J. Gator’s used to be.

It’s a strange dichotomy that mirrors the rest of downtown, all in one street. But none of the properties will be vacant for long, if some local developers have anything to say about it.

“We’re currently negotiating with somebody on [leasing] 5,000 square feet,” said Eric Menden, half-owner of Suffolk Commercial Property Development. The company owns 118-122 W. Washington St., Menden said.

The entire building was vacant when they purchased it, Menden said. About a year ago, the Probation and Parole office was set to move in, but the deal fell through.

The building is perfectly suited for a retail use, Menden said. In fact, it’s a retail business negotiating with him for the space.

“Any activity is good activity,” Menden said of nearby redevelopment. “I’m thrilled to see it.”

He referred to loft projects in varying stages of completion on the block. Near the intersection with Main Street, Monument Construction and 111 West Washington Street, LLC hope to win approval at this week’s City Council meeting to put in 30 loft apartments in the former Damiani Building.

And down the block, next to Damiani’s properties, Andy McCullough is nearing completion on five loft apartments.

The new housing opportunities are just what the city likes to see, said Kevin Hughes, director of the city’s Department of Economic Development.

“One of the things we’re trying to concentrate on is creating more opportunities for people to live downtown,” he said. “We’ve had a good run with a lot of restaurants and retailers coming to downtown in the last 10 years. Now we need that second wave. New lofts are going to help bring that.”

Damiani’s most recent project, the Shoppes on the Square, began last year when he bought a building that had sat vacant since 1974. It now is fully rented and has a variety of new shops, including a florist and a party-supply store.

Damiani is encouraged by the prospect of people living downtown again to support businesses. Many folks work downtown, including Suffolk Public Schools administration and court employees, but they’re not there on the weekends.

“This block is going to work,” he said. “The future looks pretty good. I’m enthusiastic about it.”