Johnston Building

The historic Johnston Building, built in 1891, located at 122 North Main St. in Woonsocket, is currently being converted into affordable apartments, and leasing of some of the units will begin soon.

Call them the city’s Microloft Men.

Leszek Przybylko and John Messier are the first to test the local market for microlofts – a trendy style of housing the developers and city officials hope will turn young professionals with a hankering for urban living into downtown’s newest residents.

A handful of microlofts – basically some very small, spiffy-looking loft-style apartments – are part of the blend in the developers’ mixed-use makeover of 122 North Main St. They sunk $1.2 million into the once-dilapidated four-story to create a building that will now house 17 units of one- and two-bed loft-style apartments; “flexible” office space that can be leased for as little as an hour at a time; and Lop’s Brewing, the city’s first sit-down microbrewery and a venture that’s already received a good deal of attention.

“The whole concept of this building was that it was going to be a place to play, live – whatever,” Przybylko explained while leading visitors on a tour of the site this week. “Going forward, I think there is going to be a demand for it.”

In the making since 2015, the site will welcome its first residential tenants in a matter of days, the developers say.

The units – typical of loft-style design – feature hardwood floors, exposed brick and ductwork, mixed with more contemporary kitchens and baths. Some are exceptionally compact – as small as as 350 square feet – and are to be rented for about $850 a month.

But Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt says these are exactly the kinds of housing options that stand to reinvigorate the city’s old downtown. They’re an affordable alternative for young people who are just getting established – people who are also looking for fun nightlife activities within walking distance. In addition to having Lop’s Brewing in the same building – the Stadium Theatre, Ciro’s Tavern and Chan’s jazz hotspot are all about a block away.

“This is what they’re looking for,” said Baldelli-Hunt. “There are 20- and 30-year-olds who are working professionals and they’re not necessarily ready to purchase a home.”

Because 122 North Main St. will appeal to a younger rental demographic, Baldelli-Hunt says “this project is very important to Woonsocket and particularly important to our downtown.” She says it will bring in new residents to patronize businesses, helping rejuvenate the area.

Including the developers and the mayor, about a dozen visitors got a first-hand look at the project on Monday, including Peter Gummo and Steve Gummo of TPR2, a fire retardant manufacturing company in Essex, Conn., that is in the process of acquiring the Bernon Mills; Joe Luca, immediate past president of the Rhode Island Realtors Association; City Councilman David Soucy; Zoning Board members Richard Masse and Peter Carnevale; Fire Chief Paul Shatraw; and Planning Board member Roji Eappen.

“So far it looks great,” said Luca. “Definitely, I think millennials are the people who are going to live here. Them, and maybe some retirees who don’t necessarily want to own a house anymore.”

Peter Gummo seemed inspired after his stroll through the building.

“It’s giving us some good ideas for other projects in the city,” he said.

Gummo said he is planning to bring part of his manufacturing business to the historic Bernon Mills on Front Street, a project that also features some mixed-used components. The parcel, for example, includes the former Pierannunzi cobbler shop, overlooking the Blackstone River. Gummo said he was thinking about converting it into a coffee shop.

Ironically, Przybylko said a coffee shop was his first idea for building out part of the first floor of 122 North Main St. But things changed when Sean Lopolito of Plainville, Mass., happened to drive by the site last September.

“He saw the great space,” said Przybylko. “He was very excited about it.”

While the apartments are “two signatures away” from an occupancy permit, Przybylko said, Lop’s may need until early summer to launch. He said the taproom may be an attraction for tenants, but Przybylko thinks it will be a greater amenity for all downtown than for potential lessees.

“It’s a new and very people social activity,” he said. “For us is was more important to have a tenant for the area than for the building. So I think the city benefits a lot more than we ourselves.”

­———

ONE NOVEL component of the development is something Przybylko and Messier call “flexible office space.” Located on a portion of the ground floor, adjacent to Lop’s, the developers have dedicated about 2,000 square feet for lease to multiple tenants in a manner harmonious with contemporary working lifestyles, less tethered to a fixed location.

They envision leasing that comparatively small area to as many as 20 tenants who may need it for as little as an hour – for a conference meeting, perhaps – a day, a week, or longer.

One of the themes Baldelli-Hunt struck is that developers like Przybylko and Messier deserve credit not just for their vision – but for putting their money where their mouth is. With the city as a partner to loosen red tape and make sensible regulatory decisions to back them, private investors can bring new life to old neighborhoods.

Messier, an IT professional, and Przybylko, who has a background in construction, purchased 122 North Main St. at a public auction for about $8,000 in 2015. Not long before that, the 120-year-old building – and some of the people who hung around it – were so off-putting that pedestrians crossed to the other side of the street to pass by rather than get too close, according to the mayor.

But if the microlofts are key to turning a generation of young professionals into downtown’s newest denizens, they were also the most difficult component of the project to sell to city officials.

“It was a fight to get this idea approved,” Messier said at one point.

It was Przybylko who first proposed building microlofts – several years before embarking on the 122 North Main St. project – when he advanced a similar plan for the Stadium Office Building. Amid concerns that a microloft complex could easily morph into just another beehive of rent-subsidized studios, the Zoning Board of Review would not approve the project, and Przybylko dropped his plans to purchase the site.

Since then, the City Council has codified the concept of microloft apartments, so that they are recognized as a distinct type of housing that is possible to build in the so-called “overlay district,” covering most of downtown, with less regulatory oversight.

Microlofts have become part of the common parlance of housing in many other cities, including Providence, where some of the first were erected in the Arcade Building – touted as one of the oldest indoor shopping malls in the country. But in Woonsocket, at any rate, there’s no question that Przybylko and Messier are the microloft pioneers, according to Garrett Mancieri of Gateway Realty, who served as a leasing agent for the Lop’s portion of their development.

There weren’t just the first developers to begin talking about microloft apartments, they’re the first to bring them to the market, said Mancieri.

“I think they get all the credit, to be honest,” said Mancieri. “They’re also the ones who put their money up. It’s difficult to get people to put $1 million in the downtown area. It takes visionaries like them to see what the downtown area can be with projects like this.”

Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo

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