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Renovated Factories Transcend Their Pasts As They Become Places To Call Home


July 10, 2009

It's the ghosts in the closets that speak to Lance Jay Robbins, the new developer of the historic Colt Gateway project in downtown Hartford.

I know the feeling.

Robbins, who heads a company called Urban Smart Growth, is an expert at re-purposing former factory and mill properties around the country and transforming them into residential living space. The Los Angeles-based developer hopes to complete the $120 million restoration of the former Colt factory complex, which calls for 238 apartments in three separate buildings.

Even with government incentives for developers who tackle such projects, there are, he says, easier ways to make a buck than taking an old factory or mill and turning it into apartments and condos.

"If you look at the base statistics, the price per square foot is higher than it is to build a new building," says Robbins, 62.

And, he adds, you never know what types of materials toxic or not may be lurking in the ground.

But Robbins confesses a love for "knotty problems."

Renovating buildings such as Colt and Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket, R.I., a recent mill makeover that Robbins says is a model for Colt "is about passion as much as it is about the bottom line."

Channeling History

Hearing Robbins talk about re-purposing old buildings is a lot like listening to a preacher on a pulpit. He frequently uses the word "transcendence" to describe such ventures.

A similar feeling of passion four years ago drove me to move 27 miles down the road from a charming cottage in bucolic South Kent to a renovated mill in the gritty city of Torrington.

The Warrenton Mill was the last working wool mill in Torrington. Built in 1908, it recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. The mill ceased operation in 1982, after having manufactured items such as military uniforms as recently as World War II. In 1985, the structure was turned into residential living space.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Warrenton Mill represents a period in history when the textile industry was the fulcrum of economic development in many of Connecticut's cities. The condo documents describe the mill's architectural design as "an airy, multi-story structure, which is a fine example of 19th and early 20th century mill design."

But as transportation and raw materials costs rose, and foreign competition intensified, Warrenton Mill, like so many other mills and factories in the Northeast, became obsolete.

Uplifting Experience

With its 15-foot ceilings, brick walls and light streaming through soaring windows, Warrenton Mill now is home to a number of artists, writers and others interested in creative pursuits, as well as business owners and blue collar workers.

What draws people to a structure like a rehabbed factory or mill is a trinity that Robbins calls "height, light and God." The transcending of history through re-purposing is, he explains, the God part.

Something about the space where I live does seem almost sacred.

I wonder about the lives of the people who made their living from the mill and kept their families clothed and fed through their employment there. As maudlin as it may sound, I also sometimes wonder about lives that may have been lost or irrevocably changed because of on-the-job accidents.

During pragmatic moments, I feel good knowing that I am living in a re-purposed building, and not creating any new footprints in the environment. I even have entertained the notion that converting the state's factories to dwellings like mine could help solve the problem of declining open space and provide affordable housing opportunities.

Well, not so fast. The reality is that rehabbing old factories and mills requires considerable financial resources.

First of all, "mills weren't designed to be lived in," Robbins points out. Fire exits need to be created. "Sometimes you get a gem, but by and large, with the mills, it's just going in and trying to carve up space." Getting natural light into the units is also challenging, he says. Because the spaces are so large, "you can't get light to the back of the apartment," which can create a dark and dim "bowling alley" effect.

While the challenges of a historical rehab are almost endless, perhaps one of the most difficult, according to Robbins, is windows. "Little engineering marvels" are needed so that a person can actually open a window without Herculean effort.

Diversity In Community

Re-purposing a historic building isn't the only thing that Robbins hopes to achieve in his projects. He also aims to build a sense of community.

Creating common areas in a building is one way to bring people together and create a synergy among residents. And even when they are a highly diverse group, they share the history of their home.

At Hope Artiste Village, a group of residents gather to do tai chi; another group of dedicated exercisers practice pole dancing.

When I come home to Warrenton Mill after a long day at the office, I truly come home. But there is more to it than that.

As Robbins puts it, "Good architecture takes you beyond where you are."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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