December 6, 2021

Developer adapts projects to economic times

The 'ability to envision'

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Real estate developer David Yaman is shown Friday outside Upstate Rheumatology in Homer. Yaman, who owns the building, is tackling three redevelopment projects in Cortland and Homer and is investing more than $23 million into revitalization.

Developer David Yaman is no stranger to adaptation.

He turned the Cortlandville Crossing indoor mall into a strip mall, his office was once a 10-acre Smith Corona factory and he’s turning three of Cortland County’s biggest troubled spots into centerpieces for a community’s future.

And if Cortland wants a future, it must learn to do the same, he said.

“We cannot demand we stay the way we were based on trends,” Yaman said, pointing out how Main Street was changed to a one-way street 50 years ago to fight the retail flight to Cortlandville rather than downtown evolving to meet trends.

“I’ve been in business a long time,” Yaman said, 40 years, “and that’s given me a better ability to envision what can happen.”

That vision led him to buy the former Buckbee-Mears facility in Cortland, to redevelop malls and factories, and to turn an old garage in downtown Homer into a medical office.

The building his Yaman Realty Services office is in, at the Cortland Commerce Center on Route 13 in Cortlandville, was previously a 10-acre factory that was initially redeveloped by Cortlandville businessman Karl Ochs, who bought it from Smith Corona in 2001. Yaman bought it in 2009 and continued the work of improving the building and filling it with tenants.

Now, Yaman is tackling three redevelopment projects in Cortland and Homer, investing more than $23 million into revitalization. The larger two — a $16 million project refurbishing the Crescent Commons complex on south Main Street in Cortland and a $5.5 million renovation of a Homer Avenue plaza in Cortland — are in neighborhoods facing serious challenges. The third, a $2 million replacement for a burned building in Homer, is in a more upscale business district, but at the moment is just a giant hole in the ground.

It’s important to match each site with the needs of the community, he said. “I wouldn’t do it if there was not a market for it.”

In the 40 years Yaman has been in property development, he has seen Cortland evolve from an industrial economy with a retail-oriented downtown to a community based on education, technology, tourism and a bedroom community for Syracuse and Ithaca.

Downtown’s onetime retail stores are now business space, residential space, restaurants, bars and entertainment venues.

It’s important to capitalize on those trends, he said, not to fight them.

“In all of those cases,” said Garry VanGorder, executive director of the Cortland County Business Development Corp., when referring to three redevelopment projects, “those are examples of his (Yaman’s) ability to envision productive reuse.”

Yaman isn’t alone in doing that, VanGorder said, noting modernization work on the Bailey Place building at Main Street and Groton Avenue, the $7.2 million, seven-building Mc- Neil & Co. refurbishments, and work on the Fiorentini building and Marketplace Mall on Main Street.

Those all happened before Cortland received $10 million in downtown revitalization initiative funds meant to draw tens of millions of dollars in public and
private investment.

It’s a shift from Yaman’s youth, when he worked with his father to develop scores of houses and an entirely new neighborhood around what is now Yaman Park. The newer projects are about adapting what’s already here for the next generation.

“It’s important that a community always looks at how to reuse older buildings,” said Rich Cunningham, president of Thoma Development. “But not every building works for reuse. The Homer Avenue plaza would not work for housing.”

Cunningham said the Crescent Commons project goes a long way in addressing complaints about the lack of market rate housing, complaints he has heard from both employers and individuals. And the day care programs the YWCA will offer are a critical need for any community.

“I don’t really see any other better way to revitalize a community like ours than to take these beautiful older buildings and repurpose them when they are either vacant or not being used in a way that positively impacts the community,” said Yaman’s son, Jamie Yaman, principal broker with Yaman Real estate.

David Yaman hopes that the work he is doing will encourage other area developers to do the same, recognizing community needs and acting on them.

But for that to happen, people need to learn to think more like Yaman: to see opportunity where others see blight. And a lifetime of experience has shown him that what worked in the past may not work today. What works today may need to change tomorrow.

“Who knows what will work 20 years from now?” Yaman said.

Three projects, one future

Three of David Yaman’s latest projects all involve redeveloping older spaces for a new generation. That involves more than just a bit of plumbing and paint. It requires an understanding of what a community needs.

Ames Building

The three-story former Ames building at 21-23 S. Main St. in Homer burned in September 2016, killing one and leaving a giant hole where once a 19th century building housed David Ames’ law office, Homer Coiffeur and apartments.

Yaman’s plan would create commercial space on the first floor with upper floors used for apartments. It would, he envisions, complement Homer’s historic environment.

Yaman drew up two designs for the site, the first one the minimum he could do for Homer at the lowest cost, without adhering to any historic codes.

The second would be more architecturally pleasing and matches the environment, which includes the John B. Briggs building across the street, which Yaman owns and now houses the First National Bank of Dryden’s Homer branch.

Yaman expects to use $120,000 of a $240,000 state grant to help with the $1.7 million project, returning the rest because that grant was based on commercial space on the first two floors, instead of just the ground floor.

Homer Avenue Plaza

The $5.5 million 172-174 Homer Ave. plaza project would house several nonprofit agencies in nearly 65,000 square feet of space. The Cortland YMCA owns the plaza and Yaman hopes to complete the sale in the spring.

Yaman, who is donating his services, noted that the plaza’s original use, as a neighborhood shopping center, has no practical application today and the only way to salvage the space is to repurpose it.

The Seven Valleys Health Coalition plans to open an indoor, year-round farmers market. The YWCA would consolidate its day care program there and start a shelter for homeless and abused women. Cornell Cooperative Extension of Cortland County would move there, and the Cortland County Historical Society would have exhibits. The plaza’s only current tenant, a Dollar General store, would remain.

Yaman compared it to the redevelopment of Armory Square in Syracuse, a neighborhood once filled with factories and warehouses that all went into disrepair.

The developers bought economically irrelevant buildings and made them useful. Armory Square now contains upscale apartments, restaurants and hotels.

Crescent Commons

The 149,000-square-foot Crescent Commons complex would have 103,490 square feet for commercial space on the first floor and 45,185 square feet for market-rate apartments. Yaman expects tenants to move in by the end of the year.

The former Crescent Corset factory, listed on the state register of historic places and the national register of historic places, had been left derelict for years — no heat and a leaky roof.

“Another year or two and it would be beyond the ability to maintain,” Yaman said. “If left to demise, it would be a blight on the neighborhood.”

Housing Visions, a Syracuse-based nonprofit housing agency who is assisting Yaman in the rehabilitation work, bought 10 houses across the street in 2007 because its mission is to stabilize neighborhoods to support low-income populations.

Adam Megivern, executive director for the Cortland Downtown Partnership, said the Crescent Commons project would create residential and commercial space at a walkable distance from Cortland’s downtown.

“It’s logical to build on the city’s strengths,” Megivern said, citing that Cortland’s downtown is compact and walkable, with businesses, stores and cultural attractions right next to each other. “That’s why it’s great to create more housing since there is a demand for it.”