While many developers wait for the glory days of 2004 to return, some are actively renovating American towns using Sensible Practices for repairing the urban fabric and leasing one storefront at a time. Much can be learnt from this man's tale about the challenges that lie ahead of the development industry and how we can be more pro active in creating successful places in a piecemeal fashion.
The Last Townie
In a driving snowstorm in late February, the rural routes that lead into downtown Mount Morris, N.Y. (population 2,800), resembled the roads in the movie “Fargo.” They were windswept white landscapes, farmland on either side, lighted only by the occasional distant flickering taillight.
One of the few vehicles out — a late-model maroon GMC pick-up — belonged to Greg O’Connell, a rumpled former New York City detective. He’s a big guy (6-foot-4, 270 pounds) with a big, bluff, outgoing personality. He’s what you would get if you combined Tim Russert with the Southern poet James Dickey and slipped the result into a pair of overalls. Your hand disappears into his jumbo-size handshake like a baseball into a catcher’s mitt.
O’Connell’s truck idles in Mount Morris’s four-block-long downtown. He was parked in front of a small restaurant called Questa Lasagna (its motto: “No freezers, no fryers”) that opened recently in one of the many buildings he owns here. O’Connell, who is 68, threw open his truck’s passenger-side door, cleared the seat of crumpled papers and declared in his broad Queens brogue, grinning up at the snow: “Welcome to Mount Morris!” His tires crunched as they began to roll through the frozen mess.
The truck is O’Connell’s office. From its driver’s seat, he has orchestrated the rebirth of Mount Morris, a western New York village located 40 miles south of Rochester. In the process he has confirmed his status as one of America’s best-known progressive developers, a guy who is sometimes called the “socialist developer,” a label that makes him chuckle. “I’m about community,” he says. “If you do things right, if you look at the long term, if you’re fair, you don’t have to look at the bottom line every two seconds. That’ll take care of itself.”
Mount Morris needed a hero. Greg O’Connell was available. Like so many small upstate rust-belt towns, it was not prepared for the final quarter of the 20th century. Its manufacturing jobs evaporated. A new Interstate, I-390, bypassed it. Its ambitious kids went away to college and didn’t look back. Its downtown became empty and funereal, thanks to the fluorescent allure of big-box stores like Wal-Mart not far away.
Things began to change in Mount Morris in 2007. That was when O’Connell quietly began buying up buildings — he now owns 20 — on Main Street. For some he paid as much as $140,000. Others he snatched up for $4,000 at tax-lien sales. Then he went to work. He restored the historic storefronts and interiors, cleaning the tin ceilings. He renovated the apartments on the second floors, bringing in fresh paint, oak and maple floors, new windows, nice bathrooms. He spent about $1 million on the properties, he says, and he expects, when all is said and done, to spend another million on renovations.
The results aren’t hard to spot. In 2011 Mount Morris is, tentatively, blossoming. A roomy coffee shop, the Rainy Days Café and Bakery, with gleaming espresso machines, just opened in one of O’Connell’s buildings. (“It kills me that the old guys in town meet to drink their coffee at McDonald’s,” he says.) So has a barbershop, an antiques store and a gourmet food shop that specializes in products from New York State. A deli is scheduled to open soon. Arts groups, he hopes, are on the way.
O’Connell charges these businesses as little as $100 a month in rent, but he asks for things in return. He’s a longtime admirer of Jane Jacobs — he used to carry her classic book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” around like a talisman — and he learned from her and other urban planners. O’Connell’s leases require businesses to leave their lights on at night, to change their window displays at least four times a year and to stay open one evening a week. “If this place is going to make it,” he says, “it’s going to be a community effort.”
The $100 rents he offers, he insists, are not charity. He makes money, too, as much as $500 a month, from the apartments upstairs. In remaking Mount Morris, O’Connell is revisiting his own playbook, the one he used to rehabilitate Brooklyn’s once-deserted waterfront Red Hook area. It was a project that lasted decades, one that put O’Connell on the map and made him a millionaire many times over. Starting in 1982, the year after he retired from the N.Y.P.D., he began buying run-down buildings in Red Hook, then an area known for its drug addicts and prostitutes. He renovated one building at a time, before moving on to the next. He saw the area’s potential before anyone else did and bought his properties — many from the city, which no longer wanted them — at nominal prices. “You’ve got to buy things right,” he says. “You’ve got to be 15 to 20 years ahead of the trends.”
These days he is Red Hook’s largest landowner. He owns about 25 buildings that house 200 businesses that employ 2,000 workers, as well as acres of undeveloped land. In 2006 a bustling Fairway supermarket opened in an abandoned building he had purchased from the city’s Economic Development Corporation. O’Connell is a gentrifier of a sort, albeit one who loathes most of what we’ve come to think of as gentrification. He likes a healthy mix of light industry, small business and upstairs apartments. Many credit him with keeping Red Hook from becoming a voluptuous horror of luxury condominiums. He’s proud of the fact that he has never flipped a building. “Even when it was fashionable, I never did that,” he says.
O’Connell has his critics, who claim he has bought property inexpensively from the city and has not done enough with it. (“Some things take time,” he replies.) But his critics are vastly outnumbered by his admirers.
“Greg builds relationships with low-income populations, and he doesn’t take quick profits,” says Ronald Shiffman, co-founder of the Pratt Center for Community Development, the nation’s largest public-interest architectural and community-planning organization. “He preserves great old buildings and brings new artisans into them. He likes to get his hands dirty and to figure things out with his tenants. I’ve rarely come across anyone like him in my 40 years working in housing and development.”
Marilyn Gelber, president of the Brooklyn Community Foundation and a former commissioner of New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection, says: “I don’t even associate him with the term ‘developer.’ He’s driven by values and principles.”
O’Connell blushes when he hears encomiums like these. But he’s being forced to get used to the praise. On the day I arrived in Mount Morris, the local Red Hat Society — a social organization mostly for older women — was giving him a lunch to formally announce the town’s Greg O’Connell Appreciation Day, scheduled for May 1. “I guess I oughta go,” he said sheepishly.
Later, when we were back in his truck, he admitted that the recognition made him anxious. “The trick isn’t getting this town going,” he said. “It’s making everything work in the long run.” He worries whether he can bottle the magic one more time, especially in a place, unlike the Red Hook of three decades ago, that lacks a large nearby urban population and any shred of raffish hipster élan. Why would young people move here?
He worries about what will happen to this place — where the largest tourist draw is a state park and where the leading industry is agriculture — when he’s not around anymore. He worries he’s not doing enough to demonstrate that his ideas will work in other deserted downtowns. A lot of the big questions about Mount Morris, he fears, won’t be answered for a while.
There’s a funny moment in Martin Amis’s 1984 novel “Money” in which his narrator declares: “Unless I specifically inform you otherwise, I’m always smoking another cigarette.” About Greg O’Connell, it feels safe to say: Unless I specifically inform you otherwise, his cellphone is always pinging. O’Connell doesn’t do e-mail or send text messages. He knows what the Internet is, sort of, but he has never surfed it. “I’d rather get out and drive around,” he says. “I need to look at things and talk to people, see what’s going on. Maybe when I’m older and I can’t walk so well. Then I’ll figure out the Internet.”
Sometimes the phone calls are from his two sons, Michael and Gregory. They work for him back in Brooklyn, and he talks to them daily. Sometimes it’s his work crews, asking about a sticky construction problem. Sometimes it’s his wife, Elizabeth, wondering if he’ll be home for dinner. (Too often, he isn’t. Town meetings are on weeknights.) Sometimes the calls are from young, progressive capitalists seeking his advice.
One of O’Connell’s phone pals is Rob Kalin, the 30-year-old founder of Etsy, the online marketplace where artists and craftspeople mingle and sell their work. Etsy rents 9,000 square feet of work space from O’Connell in Red Hook. (Its main offices are in Dumbo.) The pair hit it off so well that O’Connell brought Kalin — who is short and slim to O’Connell’s tall and burly — up to Mount Morris to talk to local craftspeople. “He’s trying to figure out how to do big things with small businesses, the same way Etsy is,” Kalin says. “He’s a rare kind of guy. He helps people in a way that doesn’t require charity.”
Kalin pauses for a minute and declares, without irony: “Being around Greg O’Connell is what I imagine meeting one of the Founding Fathers would be like.”
O’Connell grew up in Queens, where his father was a police officer and his mother was a teacher. “All my relatives were firemen, teachers or cops,” he says. “I had five uncles living within three blocks of me and maybe 27 cousins.” (Two of his three brothers also became policemen.) He graduated from Holy Cross High School in Flushing. He first saw Mount Morris when he attended nearby SUNY Geneseo in the early 1960s. At the time, tuition was free. “I give Nelson Rockefeller a lot of credit for the state university system,” he says.
He majored in education and was a substitute teacher for a while. Even then, he was drawn to tough projects. “I always liked the bad boys,” he says. “The kids that had some life in them. The trick was to be firm but fair. You know, turn them around.”
O’Connell joined the N.Y.P.D. in 1964. He worked in an elite tactical unit that patrolled high-crime areas during the turbulent late ’60s before being promoted to detective. He worked on the Upper West Side in the years when Lincoln Center was being built and in SoHo just as that area was coming back to life as the art market exploded there in the 1970s and ’80s. The job taught him how to talk to people. And it gave him the opportunity to see and to develop an appreciation for a lot of real estate.
He bought his first building in 1967, a little place on Henry Street in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill. He paid $22,000 for it. He renovated it himself while living in the basement. He still owns it. “I’d wanted to buy a brownstone on the Upper West Side or in Brooklyn Heights,” he says. “I saved for years. I lived with my parents. But they were too expensive for me.” Back then, he says, lending was tight. You needed to put $9,000 down on a $22,000 building.
By the time he retired from the force, in 1981, he owned more than 30 buildings, most in Cobble Hill. He paid cash for almost all of them. “I didn’t find these places through brokers,” he says. “I found them because I lived there.” He slowly expanded into Red Hook. The rough neighborhood didn’t trouble him. “I was a detective, I could handle drug dealers,” he says. “I’d try to talk with them. If that didn’t work, I’d say: ‘I know what you’re doing. I’m going to make a call.’ ”
Marilyn Gelber was a young city planner in the mid-1970s, assigned to survey Red Hook. “I was walking along a deserted street one day and up pulls this pickup truck,” she says. “A nice blue-collar guy in overalls leans out and says to me, incredulously, ‘What are youdoing here?’ He was worried for me. He told me which doors I might not want to knock on. We hit it off immediately. We were both there for the same reason.”
O’Connell learned primal development lessons in Red Hook. He pushed for tax abatements. He learned to challenge the assessments on buildings. He discovered how to find grants to help him with the work he had already begun. And after achieving a lot of what he wanted to do there, he began thinking about Mount Morris, a sweet little town he remembered from his college days.
There was a house in Geneseo he admired, too, a colonial on 57 acres. “I’d ride past it all the time on my scooter back when I was in college,” O’Connell says. “It belonged to a judge. I’d say to myself, ‘I want to own that house someday.’ And 25 years later I bought it.” These days he spends about half the year in Brooklyn, half in Geneseo.
IT WAS STILL SNOWING FURIOUSLY OUTSIDE: it was a snow-globe sky. We were sitting in Just a Cut, a cozy hair salon located in the first building O’Connell bought here. The owner, Janeen Pellicane, snipped a man’s hair while listening to us gab. O’Connell explained why he, with his real estate business, the O’Connell Organization, bought buildings in Mount Morris so quickly. “To really make an impact, you have to have critical mass,” he said.
Outside of the Just a Cut window, a truck glided by, laying down road salt. O’Connell grinned. He’s a major investor in American Rock Salt, a rock-salt mine that is the area’s largest private employer. This snowy winter has been good to him. “I invest in people, not businesses,” he said. “I don’t know about rock salt. But I’ve known the guy who owns the company since college.”
About rock salt, though, he’s learning. “We can’t compete with the prices from Chile,” he said. “So we bid to be an emergency supplier, because cities can run out of road salt. When that happens, we’ll run a hundred trucks down to New York City.”
O’Connell kept gazing out the window. The western side of Main Street still worries him. There’s a storefront church there and some social-service buildings and a bank. It’s the side of the street that’s still mostly dark at night. “My big hope,” he said, “is to see this street come alive. I want to see people wandering around, holding hands, looking in windows.”
On a frigid winter day, this vision seemed almost a flight of fancy. And you wonder if O’Connell’s nostalgia for his college haunts had got the better of him. There’s not a lot to attract people to Mount Morris. But O’Connell has thought this through, and there are embers of light that he hopes to coax into warming flames. Nearby Letchworth State Park, whose vistas have given it the nickname “the Grand Canyon of the East,” is a potent local draw: it attracts almost three-quarters of a million visitors each year. Sixty-two percent of those people pass through Mount Morris, and the village needs to slow more of these people down as they drive through. Two of the Finger Lakes — Conesus and Hemlock — are nearby. They’re havens for sportsmen and -women.
About 140 people in nearby Dansville lost their jobs a decade ago when Foster Wheeler, an engineering and construction company, shut its plant there. But Kraft Foods makes Cool Whip and Lunchables less than 20 miles away in Avon, halfway between Mount Morris and Rochester, and Barilla operates a pasta-making plant in Avon as well. Both have increased production in recent years and provide solid local jobs.
The area is horse country too, O’Connell points out. He’s taking advantage of that fact by placing hitching posts behind a few of his buildings. (It’s fun to imagine O’Connell, the lumbering giant of Queens, on a horse.) But he wants more going on. He’s thinking about festivals and arts events. Maybe hire an ice sculptor to work on Main Street in the winter, someone who can carve wood there the rest of the year. “You know,” he says, “a family can still buy a nice house here for $50,000 to $60,000.”
O’Connell’s back isn’t what it used to be. He’s not climbing scaffolding anymore. But he’s far from ready to retire. “I don’t really have hobbies,” he says. “I might see a Bills game once in a while.” He has purchased a few buildings in two nearby villages, Dansville and Perry. But he says, “My wife would kill me if I did another town.”
His wife, he says, already complains that he doesn’t see enough of his two very young grandkids. “You know what?” O’Connell says. “She might be right. But when they can walk and talk and wear overalls, I’ll kidnap them.” He extends an arm down Main Street. “I’ll put them in the truck. I’ll show them everything.”