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October 3, 2023 Deal Watch

Prominent Waterbury developer could pay $1M for city to take over massive ruined factory site

Google Maps The Bristol Babcock building in Waterbury at 40 Bristol St.

Prominent Waterbury-based attorney, broker and developer Norman Drubner paid $3 million for a 310,000-square-foot manufacturing complex on 6 acres by the Naugatuck River in Waterbury 37 years ago, planning to eventually build apartments.

Changes in environmental cleanup laws and shifts in the real estate market got in the way, and now Drubner is prepared to pay the city of Waterbury $1 million to take the former Bristol Babcock Inc. property off his hands.

Bristol Babcock was a bustling manufacturer of pressure and heat gauges and other control equipment, with sections of the factory complex in Waterbury’s Platts Mills neighborhood dating back to the late 1800s.

Drubner bought it in 1986 before Bristol Babcock moved to a new headquarters, with hopes to eventually turn it into housing. Drubner sought and received a zone change that would have allowed for multifamily development. 

Cleanup cost, however, proved too steep to justify redevelopment. So, Drubner fenced and mothballed the property. And he stayed current with city taxes. 

Like several other large Waterbury factory complexes, the Bristol Babcock factory at 40 Bristol St. was picked apart by vandals, time and weather, slowly falling apart over time. 

A massive fire in 2015 caused the factory to burn for days, in some sections leaving only a six-story brick shell and piles of burned rubble. 

"After all of these years, I'm happy the city is going to take it over," Drubner said Tuesday. "It's the only way it can be remediated and put into constructive use. It's a very good site. It's a good area. I think the reuse will be successful." 

Drubner, who is the principal of the LLC that owns the Bristol Babcock property, has paid heavily for selective demolition of portions of the structure to make it safe.

Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary’s administration has considered acquisition of the property for years. That would allow the city to secure state and federal grants to clear away blight and pollution and bring the riverside site back into productive use.

It’s a tactic O’Leary has pursued at other large, long-vacant and deteriorating industrial sites in the Brass City. 

O’Leary is asking the city’s Board of Aldermen to sign off on acquisition of the property, a deal in which the city would pay nothing and Drubner would make $1 million available to help prepare the site for cleanup.

Cost to remediate the long-running industrial site will be steep. A 2019 study commissioned by the city estimated cleanup costs ranging between $6.3 million and $13.7 million. 

O'Leary said he believes the true cost lies somewhere in the middle of that range and is achievable with the help of state and federal partners well used to working with the city to clean up past industrial pollution. 

"We have a really good track record of cleaning brownfields," O'Leary said. "We feel we are well positioned to be successful as we apply for these grants." 

Waterbury Finance Director Michael LeBlanc, in a letter to aldermen, said the $1 million contribution from the current property owner will help the city leverage other grants. The city, LeBlanc noted, has already submitted applications for a $350,000 grant from the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments and a $4 million state brownfields grant request. 

The Waterbury Development Corp., the city’s economic development arm, is drafting a $2 million U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant.

O'Leary said he hasn't yet settled on a definitive vision for the site, but he is leaning strongly toward housing, which would benefit from waterfront access along the Naugatuck River.

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