MIDDLETOWN – Stripped down to its brick walls and steel beams, the inside of 545 Main Street is almost a blank canvas for new owner, JR Hargreaves.
A lifelong resident of Middletown, who first lived on Ferry Street just a few hundred feet away from the building – Hargreaves has plans to transform a space that for decades was home to an indoor roller skating rink into a mixed-use development combining apartments, office and retail space for small businesses, and a community event space.
After months of teardown, the back of the building that housed the roller rink is now a wide open space with vaulted ceilings that resemble a scaled-down train terminal. Hargreaves sees part of that transformed into a community event space, filled at night for speakers brought in by community groups, musical performances, or startup pitch competitions with the chamber of commerce.
In front of that he sees the open room divided up into smaller spaces that would be rented out as relatively small, but affordable work or retail spaces. Hargreaves said he wanted to provide a “more inspiring” place for people to work, and he felt the high ceilings and steel beams made for a cool aesthetic.
“It’s really just to give people a runway to start a business,” Hargreaves said. “Maybe they can’t be on Main Street, or they don’t want to sign a five year lease. So they can stay here until they can afford a mainstream or bigger office space.”
In front of those spaces would be a teahouse, which Hargreaves said they have already identified a local small business to run. The teahouse would tie the back of the building – the large open space where the roller rink used to be – to the three-story front of the building.
On the left side of the first floor, Hargreaves said he is planning to install four or five office suites – he called them “startup studios” – surrounding an open shared workspace in the middle. On the right side, he sees a few more offices geared toward wellness, businesses like a chiropractor or other providers, he said.
On the upper floors, Hargreaves said he is planning seven one-bedroom and studio “workforce housing” apartments of varying shapes and sizes – some with high cathedral ceilings, others with lofts – which Hargreaves told the Middletown Economic Development Commission at a recent meeting would probably rent for about $900 to $1,300 a month depending on the square footage of the unit.
“You could just graduate college and make $45-50 grand and be priced out of apartments,” Hargreaves told CT Examiner. “Working professionals that make a good living and just want a good apartment, sometimes that’s hard to find.”
Hargreaves said he wanted to change people’s perceptions about the types of apartments that are possible in Middletown’s North End.
“The plan is to show that you can do some cool workforce housing to get young professionals living down here without pushing anyone out,” Hargreaves said. “I think that’s what Middletown is missing is workforce housing units so young professionals who price out of Hartford or New Haven can stay here.”
Even in the basement, previously used for storage and to house the building’s boilers – which Hargreaves’ crew are removing – Hargreaves said he sees possibilities for an agricultural research or education space where people could learn about urban farming, or possibly the technical side of marijuana growing.
Middletown Planning Director Joe Samolis told the economic development commission that Hargreaves is seeking a 10-year property tax abatement for the apartment section of the property. Because Hargreaves plans to lease the lower floor spaces to a nonprofit to manage them, that will already be exempt from property taxes, Samolis said.
Currently, the residential part of the building is assessed at around $160,000, and that will increase to $560,000 once the renovations are completed, Samolis said. The proposed tax abatement would freeze the assessment of the residential property at its current level for the first year after the renovations are complete, and then increase $20,000 each year until the abatement ends in year 11, he said.
The commission voted unanimously to send the proposal to the Common Council for approval.
Hargreaves, who has not been involved in a project like this before, said the idea came to him during the pandemic when his usually busy travel schedule for work stopped and he was spending more time at home in Middletown.
“I was like, man, I want to do something in my hometown. I want to create a space where folks can feel comfortable and have resources to build businesses and stay in Middletown,” Hargreaves said.