It wasn’t so long ago that the one thing you might be certain to find in many downtown New London storefront windows was a for sale sign.
Indeed, even during the last real estate boom, the one that ended with the collapse of the housing bubble and the start of the Great Recession, downtown largely sat out the big dance, full of dilapidated and empty arks no one seemed to want.
But the band seems to have struck up lately, and downtown New London real estate is in high demand for the first time in a long while.
"From the fire department (on Bank Street) all the way up to State Street is a very hot market," said David Preka, the owner of general contractor Advanced Improvements, who just bought two downtown buildings, the former Roberts Music stone building at 90 Bank St., which he is renovating into apartments and retail space, and an apartment building with ground-floor retail at Bank and Green streets.
"Also very promising is the section (of State) from the intersection of State and Bank all the way up to the library," he said.
In addition to work on its own building, Preka’s company just finished a project creating three new luxury lofts on lower State Street.
Quinn & Hary Marketing last week hosted a celebratory open house at the firm’s new renovated State Street offices facing The Parade.
Workers with New London-based contractor Yankee Remodeler have begun a major building renovation on Bank one block from State. Investor Eric Hamburg of Westport-based Industrial Renaissance LLC, a major developer, has purchased not only the Capitol Theater on Bank, but the two adjacent buildings, with plans to create a wide swath of new retail space.
I have been around New London since the days when much of State Street was the failed Captain’s Walk pedestrian mall, canned music wafting out over the abandoned street. I’ve seen some encouraging development over the years since, but nothing like the boom going on now.
There are still a lot of empty storefronts, which eventually could fill out with more apartments developed. And the owners of some empty buildings still may hold on longer, until the market further improves.
Connie Howard, an agent with U.S. Properties, which does a lot of commercial real estate brokerage in New London, says she actually has a waiting list of buyers interested in any buildings on Bank or State that come on the market.
"Downtown properties are especially in demand," she said.
Most in demand are buildings suitable for retail on the first floor and apartments on the upper floors, she said.
The price of a large office building at 300 State St. was just lowered to $1.2 million, and there is a lot of interest, she added.
The upswing began sometime around last spring and has been improving, she said.
"We are showing buildings we haven’t shown in six months or a year," she said.
Howard said some of the interest seems to be driven by the promise of a new National Coast Guard Museum downtown. But she thinks the robust hiring at Electric Boat seems to be driving even more of the demand for properties, especially those with residential potential.
Preka says he thinks EB workers may be among those interested in the apartments he is developing, but he believes the market is driven more by local residents who like the idea of downtown living, walking to bars and restaurants.
That would make New London part of a national trend, with interesting, walkable villages and downtowns becoming more appealing, especially to young people, than suburbs.
I asked Preka if he might be pursuing any other buildings downtown.
The one thing that might give him pause, said the president of the Builders Association of Eastern Connecticut and chairman of the Groton Economic Development Commission, is the city’s development approval process, which he said is slow.
"It could be streamlined," he said.
That little warning chirp, from someone familiar with many development regulations in towns across the region, is one that New London officialdom should heed, as the development music swells.
Let the band play on.
This is the opinion of David Collins.