Downtown-Binghamton Disaster Takes a Bright Turn

How does a construction project have an official groundbreaking and ribbon cutting on the same day? It could only happen in Binghamton, birthplace of The Twilight Zone….

The (second) official groundbreaking for University Lofts on December 18th. Outgoing Binghamton mayor Matt Ryan is center; Stellar 83 Court LLC managing member Larry Gladstone is at left; incoming Binghamton mayor Rich David is behind Gladstone to his left.

Three years ago, the worst fire in the history of downtown Binghamton destroyed a student-housing project, crippled one of the largest office buildings in the region—as well as a historic landmark—and completely shut down a major downtown thoroughfare for what would be a full year. In 2011, the Police Gazette ran a series on the unacceptable—and seemingly permanent—mess the fire had left behind. It had started in the student-housing site, and rumors—including one printed here in the Gazette—swirled about the cause that have never been substantiated by any police, fire, or insurance investigation. The cause remains unknown today.

The street finally reopened—we think partly due to pressure brought by the Police Gazette—but the buildings remained closed and silent. Mark Yonaty of Greater Binghamton Development LLC, owner of the office building—aka the “Press Building”—received insurance money for the damage but found it difficult to lease commercial space in down economic times and sold the property this past August to a company calling itself 19 Chenango Street Associates LLC, which plans to convert all the floors above ground level to residential use.

The gutted section of the University Lofts site where the December 2010 fire broke out. The Press Building, center, sustained damage during the blaze and has been empty since. A new owner plans to convert it to 90% residential use.

Then, finally, two-and-a-half years after the fire—like Pooh Bear budging after being stuck in Rabbit’s hole—the student-housing project came back to life… and quickly. Progress this summer went from zero to sixty in no time and an official ribbon cutting took place December 18th. Immediately after the ribbon cutting, the press was ushered to another location on the site for an official groundbreaking. At this point an explanation may be needed….

The owner of the property, Stellar 83 Court LLC, bought it in 2008 with the intention to convert the L-shaped premises—having entrances on both Court and Chenango Streets—into luxury student housing. Stellar 83 hired PMC Property Group Inc. to be general contractor to handle all aspects of construction and management. Then, in December 2010, the fire broke out. Stellar 83’s insurance company did their investigation, processed the paperwork, and cut a check to… PMC Property Group. PMC, of course, was not the property’s owner, just the contractor—on whose watch the fire occurred—hired by the owner. Stellar 83 had intended to restart work as soon as the insurance money came in, but ended up having to go through a protracted legal battle with PMC, no longer connected to the project, to get any of the money. Earlier this year, a judge finally agreed with Stellar 83, money was released, and work began again.

Binghamton mayor Matt Ryan, left, and Stellar 83 Court LLC managing member Larry Gladstone cut the ribbon December 18th at the section of University Lofts that will be ready to lease in January.

The ribbon cutting took place for the portion of the project fronting Court Street, while the groundbreaking took place at the portion fronting Chenango Street—the area where the fire broke out and completely destroyed everything, including all interior floors and walls; the only thing left standing was the outside wall facing the street. Opening for leasing in January will be 16 units with 42 beds. When the entire project is finished it will offer a total of 195 beds, which will be available to the general public not just students. Stellar 83 plans to have these beds available by July.

The view from one of the new apartments at University Lofts.