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Blooming Onion

Building confidence in Winooski's beleaguered downtown


Published October 22, 2003 at 1:49 p.m.

  • Michael Tonn

Coming in for a landing at Burlington International Airport may be the only time a Winooski resident can appreciate living under the flight path. If you crane your neck, you can spot your own roof, or at least the twin spires of St. Francis Xavier's. Certainly the Winooski River, that grand, curvy waterway separating the Onion City from its big sister the Queen, comes into view before you touch down.

What an airborne observer can't see is the bustle of speckled painters, sawdust-covered carpenters and eager developers just a stone's throw from the scenic Winooski Falls. For that matter, although some 35,000 motorists pass through downtown Winooski every day, perhaps only an observant few have noticed creeping improvements to the west side of Main Street. In small towns dissected by major thoroughfares, commuters tend to stop only for red lights, and Winooski is no exception. Well, OK, there are two exceptions: Sneakers, the perennially popular eatery, and the destination nightclub Higher Ground.

But late last October, a small bar called the Monkey House opened just two doors down from Sneakers; the metal simians dangling over its front door are a neighborly nod to the Converse high tops in front of the breakfast bistro. And the bar, comfortably outfitted with low couches and a vaguely Moroccan decor, seems to pick up where the cafe leaves off: Sneakers has lines out the door for weekend brunch, but gave up on nighttime hours long ago. Over its first year of business, the Monkey House has quietly built up customer loyalty of its own -- a mix of locals and students from nearby St. Michael's and the University of Vermont. One recent Saturday night, a knot of people stood waiting to get into the bar, while a five-piece band on the other side of a large picture window served up faux disco to a capacity crowd.

This is the kind of traffic the owner of the building had in mind. When Lou Natale was living on West Canal Street several years ago, he says, "I saw the potential of this place. As buildings became available, I bought them up."

To date he's purchased and renovated four properties -- three facing Main Street and another a couple blocks down West Canal. In a sense, Natale has led the small brigade of optimistic businessmen who are slowly transforming the gateway of Winooski. Though they're working privately and independently, these efforts are inherently part of -- and to varying degrees counting upon -- the city's official vision for its future: the Winooski Downtown Development Project.

The grand scheme to reinvent Winooski's business district is already five years in the planning and is at least that many years from completion. The 21-acre parcel extends from Main Street east to the edge of a 104-acre wild area -- itself a future city parkland. When it's finished, the first phase of the project, estimated at some $165 million, will substantially alter traffic patterns and add hundreds of units of mixed housing, a 945-space parking deck, a new building for Winooski's largest employer -- Vermont Student Assistance Corporation -- and office and retail space. In addition, it will revitalize the moribund Champlain Mill and for the first time in the city's history, provide public access to the waterfront with a riverwalk along the beautiful Winooski.

If, that is, the project happens at all.

From the start, financial uncertainties have threatened to unravel Winooski's plan, which depends on a complicated consortium of federal, municipal and private investment. But with the addition of an experienced housing developer, the Boston-based Hall Keen, Gov. Jim Douglas said last month it was "likely" the state would guarantee a $22 million federal HUD loan for Winooski. With that announcement, the unflagging executive director of the Winooski Community Develop-ment Corporation has almost lifted the guard on his optimism. Charged with shepherding this ambitious project, Bill Niquette hopes the resolution is now mainly a matter of getting all the involved parties in the same room at the same time to sign the papers.

"This thing could have died for a lot of reasons that have come and gone," says Niquette, a 30-year-old Winooski native who barely remembers the city's last stab at "urban renewal," which paved over a downtown neighborhood. At one point, city officials considered enclosing the entire city under a dome. If current plans don't come to fruition, he assures, "it would be for some odd, random reason. But a lot of people are solidly behind this now."

Those people have been hovering over a different kind of aerial view of Winooski -- the one drawn, and redrawn, several times in the sure, linear strokes of an architect's pen. If the financial closing takes place before the end of the year, as Niquette expects, the "involved parties" will no doubt spend the frozen winter months digging through piles of paperwork; the real digging, he says, should begin in early spring. And thus would begin a new layer of history in the Onion City.

Back on the west side of Main Street, Natale isn't wasting any time finishing up his renovations. Especially, perhaps, because he plans to spend the winter traveling in Africa and building a house in Panama. A large color photo of him in the Monkey House attests to Natale's wanderlust: He's clad in a turban and a sarong, and a camel lounges in the desert background. "I travel for five months, work for seven," he says. Since moving to the state from New Jersey 14 years ago, Natale, now 42, has been industrious; he's the guy behind the Hood Plant renovation in Burlington and, along with Anne Rothwell, is a former co-owner of Club Metronome. Natale, Rothwell and Troy Pudvah are partners in the three-year-old Immaculate Construc-tion Company, which is responsible for much of the activity on Main Street. Natale estimates he's invested "about a million" dollars in Winooski so far.

Besides the Monkey House, which has three apartments above it, Natale and partners transformed the building just north of the bridge from a derelict pawn shop into four apartments. Next to the Monkey House, the building that once housed World Gym is transitioning to a second-floor apartment and a street-level gallery for The Hempest, the Burlington-based enterprise selling hemp clothing and products, Natale says. The fourth project was chronologically his first in Winooski: a building on West Canal that comprises three professional offices and the funky, mostly subterranean apartment he has dubbed "the Batcave."

"When we were renovating, there were literally bats flying around in it," Natale explains. "Bums had been sleeping in it." Now arguably one of the most intriguing, urban-styled apartments in Chittenden County, it has 22-foot ceilings, original stone walls, a circular metal staircase and a catwalk leading to two of the three bedrooms. "We wanted to make it architecturally significant," Natale says. The place showcases his creative ways with architectural salvage and a taste for what he calls "funky luxury."

In the Main Street apartments, that means polished, radiant-heated concrete floors, marble in the bathrooms, and hot tubs. At $1200 to $1500 a month, the rent is on Winooski's -- and even Burlington's -- high end. But limited parking, a relentless stream of cars out front and the prospect of massive construction haven't deterred tenants. "Every-thing we build is rented because we have a reputation," Natale says.

That confidence is echoed by Demetrios Michaelides, who bought the building on the corner of Main and West Canal following the recent closure of the restaurant A Taste of Dixie. His sons Kosta and John will move their Dorset Street business, Donny's New York Pizza, into the space when some extensive renovations are complete. Indeed, on a recent morning, the entire place seems torn apart, yet beginning to exude new energy. Overseeing the work, Michaelides happily brushes off his hands and takes a break to talk about the incoming pizza and sports bar, with its four apartments overhead. "I really enjoy the area here," he enthuses, gesturing toward the Winooski Falls outside. "It's very European-like -- that's where I came from."

An IBM employee who has been in the area 30 years, Michaelides says he was encouraged by other local Greek restauranteurs to nab the Winooski building, despite its history of failed food businesses. Though few might share his opinion that Vermont's most ethnically diverse city is otherwise very "continental," he insists that "this area is going to be worth a lot of money," and he fantasizes about adding a fourth-floor apartment for himself and his wife. "The views are unbelievable," he says, "the river, the steeples. I fell in love with it. I want to make this the crown jewel of Winooski."

Michaelides' expansiveness is persuasive, but why should Donny's succeed where so many other restaurants have not? That includes across the street, where the owners of the Edelweiss Bakery & Cafe finally moved to Johnson after four years in Winooski, claiming the lack of parking killed them. Despite a brand-new paint job on the building's exterior, city officials don't yet know what's in store for the inside.

But Michaelides offers a recipe for success. "You give value for the money, run a clean place and create a nice environment," he says firmly, pointing out the frequent lines at Sneakers and Papa Frank's, a longstanding Italian eatery around the corner. Besides, he suggests, "There are more than enough people, even with locals, to keep us in business. And if we all clean up our act," he continues, referring to other businesses on the block, "there's enough beauty here."

Only in the eyes of its entrepreneurial owner is there any beauty in the Hanson Block, named for a long-gone shoe store on the site. The weedy, rubbish-strewn vacant lot on West Center Street and the dusty building beside the post office comprise the property purchased by architect Gordon Rowe, 36, and his father, an architect-engineer in Arlington, Mass. The day he offers a tour through the former location of Fiori Bridal, it's raining hard, and the roof is leaking. Rowe apologizes for the mess; this project is barely getting started, and its raw wreckage offers outsiders a glimpse into just how visionary redevelopers have to be. "We're kind of in a waiting period for stuff to clear the permitting process," he explains.

Rowe moved to Vermont about seven years ago and lives in Huntington; though inspired about his project, he confesses to not knowing much about Winooski or the history of his building. At this point, he's not entirely sure what will go in it, either, saying only that several prospective tenants have expressed interest. What he does know is that both the two-story existing property and the four-story one slated for the corner will offer a mix of commercial and residential space. The apartments will rent for $700 to $1000, Rowe speculates. He anticipates construction on the new building will begin "before the ground freezes."

An architect's drawing of the project taped to the front window indicates a handsome, if unremarkable, brick complex with green detailing. The clean, contemporary design is probably akin to what the entire project across the street will look like. And that, suggests Winooski community developer J. Ladd, is the only downside to an urban core that develops all at once rather than over time.

Part of Ladd's mission is to develop a much-needed community center in Winooski -- which may or may not be included in the new project. Either way, he deems it "downtown redevelopment with an eye to the future and to vitality -- a 21st-century Vermont design that is pro-downtown and anti-sprawl."

Architectural conformity is a small price to pay for a project that, according to Niquette, will "allow more people to live, work and play in a great urban environment." But everyone agrees that losing Higher Ground is a bummer.

Almost since its inception five years ago, the nightclub's four owners have lived with the knowledge that an impending development would displace them. At first, says booking manager Alex Crothers, talks with city officials suggested the project could include a new home for the club. But there was one problem: Their current building will be razed and the entire site will be under construction for a couple of years. Furthermore, the project will include housing whose residents might object to the noise and traffic of a nightclub in their midst.

"Everybody wants a club, but not in their back yard," sums up Crothers. As for a new venue, he and his partners have been looking, but Crothers points out, "The project has been so tentative for so long, we're resigned to just saying, 'When it happens, it happens.'"

In fact, despite Niquette's hopes for an April groundbreaking, Higher Ground has not yet been given notice to move out. Crothers confesses to mixed feelings about the project, whenever it occurs. "Downtown Winooski is essentially a parking lot and it has so much potential," he says. "And Winooski's been great to us. But of course, we stand right smack in the middle of the way."

General Manager Kevin Statesir, who has gone to countless meetings with city officials, remains more optimistic about finding both a temporary and a new permanent venue in Winooski. "As time is going on, I'm becoming more convinced the area needs a place like ours," he says. "I'm taking it as a personal crusade to keep hope alive. When we get the 90-day notice, we'll review our options."

Meanwhile, the shows will go on, and Winooski city officials will probably go on losing sleep until the shovels hit the dirt.