December 5, 2021

Housing plan takes shape

Project moves forward on turning Gillette factory into apartments

A developer seeks to restore the historic Gillette Skirt Factory building — the city’s first concrete block building — and turn it into a market-rate housing complex, in another project that would help revitalize the Homer Avenue corridor in Cortland.

Gillette Skirt Factory Apartments, LLC plans to restore the existing historic building to contain 20 housing units and three commercial spaces. The project would also demolish two multifamily homes, at 159 Homer Ave. and 161 Homer Ave., to create a parking lot with 39 spaces and a proposed parking garage for an additional 13 spaces.

Project coordinator Troy Beckwith, who is also a city alderperson, said the developers have already received approval from the Cortland County Planning Department.

“Next month, we should have our final city approval and then once that’s done we will be submitting plans for a building permit,” Beckwith said.

Because the historic building will need to be completely gutted before the interior renovations, Beckwith’s team will coordinate with the New York State Historic Preservation Office for the review and approval of building restoration plans.

“It’s going to be a beautiful project, because of the character and the history of the building,” Beckwith said. “It’s going to be loft-style apartments, with a lot of high, open ceilings and exposed wooden beams.”

The 116-year-old building was the third and final factory for the original Gillette Skirt Co. Owned by Noah Horace Gillette, the company first began making made-to-order petticoats in 1896. Starting on the second floor of a Clinton Avenue building, the company quickly outgrew its leased space, then moved to the former Cortland Corset Co. at Homer Avenue and Miller Street in 1900.

When the building burned four years later, the company built the city of Cortland’s first concrete block building only a few dozen feet over, at 32 Miller St. behind Hyde’s Diner.

The 22,500-square-foot building has sat vacant for eight years, but has a long history of tenants, reports Cortland County Historical Society’s collections and research assistant Sophia Clough.

“When the Gillette Co. went under sometime between 1915 and 1920, the Newton Skirt Co. took over the building for manufacturing,” Clough wrote in an email. “I am seeing indications that Cortland Overall Co. also used it in 1930, LaFacile Corset Co. around 1935, Carry Co. by 1960, and then of course it was taken over by L. Werninck and Sons at some point.”

Werninck and Sons closed in 2013.

Next up: the Gillette Skirt Factory Apartments, LLC. Beckwith hopes the two-year renovation project will begin by January.

Market-rate housing in the greater Cortland area is a fairly recent development, said Garry VanGorder, the executive director of the Cortland County Business Development Corp.

“We’ve talked about it for some time, but it really was taken to a different level with David Yaman and Housing Visions rebuilt, remodeled the Crescent Corset Building on Main Street,” VanGorder said. The Crescent building was in disrepair, and was repurposed to house family counseling services and market-rate housing units.

In years past, there was not a lot of motivation for developers to build market-rate housing in the Cortland area, because the projects can take a long time to see a return on investment, Van-Gorder said. However, Crescent Commons’ units were leased almost immediately in early 2019.

“They did a good job of market analysis,” VanGorder said.

“If you look at Tompkins County, housing is very expensive. We’re a very short drive from Cornell and Ithaca College, and while there are job opportunities there, housing is cheaper here. There was a realization that good housing could attract good tenants.”

“I think a lot of it was triggered by the fact that Guthrie has taken over the hospital, and there is a big demand for higher rent apartments for the doctors to rent while they’re in town working or getting their doctorates there at the hospital,” Beckwith said.

The Gillette project is one of several efforts to revitalize Homer Ave. corridor, said Eric Mulvihill, economic development specialist for the corporation.

“If this project is successful, it’s going to be a nice cornerstone along with the other efforts that are happening on that end of town,” he said.

Other projects in the area include the Grace Brown House for domestic abuse victims, the development of a linear park toward the viaduct bridge passing into the city of Cortland, the CNY Living History Museum’s ongoing projects, VanGorder said, and connecting the historic village of Homer to the city of Cortland is a vital gateway of improvement.

“The adaptive reuse of a historic property that would have otherwise maybe fallen into disrepair, or not really served as a functional purpose in our community on that end of town, we’re bringing that building back to life,” Mulvihill said. “I think it speaks to the potential and the growing opportunity to re-envision that end of town and put some life back into it.”