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October 24, 2023

Waterbury to acquire a massive brownfield, two deteriorating downtown commercial buildings

Google Maps 21 West Main St., Waterbury

Waterbury’s Board of Aldermen, on Monday, signed off on Mayor Neil O’Leary’s plans for the city to claim a massive crumbling factory complex and to pay $4.47 million for two prominent but deteriorating commercial buildings in the heart of the city’s downtown.

Local businessman, attorney and developer Norman Drubner has agreed to pay the city $1 million to take control of the crumbling and burned 310,000-square-foot complex on 6.6 acres near the Naugatuck border. The property previously hosted the Bristol-Babcock manufacturing company, as well as smaller associated properties. 

Drubner is the principal of the limited liability company that owns the properties.

Mayor Neil O’Leary told aldermen the city is unable to legally force Drubner to spend any money cleaning up the property, and the $1 million offer was best achieved after sustained negotiations. Still, claiming the property, along with Drubner’s $1 million, will allow the city to secure millions more from state and federal agencies to clean and repurpose the blighted site along the Naugatuck River.

The city will apply for a $2 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to begin cleaning the site. A 2019 study commissioned by the city estimated total cleanup costs of between $6.3 million and $13.7 million at the Bristol Babcock property.

O’Leary’s 12-year administration has made a practice of claiming challenged sites and using state and federal dollars to pay the lion’s share of costs to rescue or repurpose them.

The administration’s move to buy the 62,690-square-foot, six-story commercial building at 21 West Main St., and an attached two-story, 23,034-square-foot building at 24-30 Bank St., is another example.

The mixed office-and-retail buildings, broken into eight condominium units, are 76% vacant and deteriorating due to lack of maintenance, O’Leary said. Some condo members aren’t paying fees. And nobody wants to invest as a part-owner in the failing condo association, he said.

The purchase deal involves current owners paying back taxes and fees, which will bring the city’s real cost to purchase the properties to about $3.6 million, O’Leary said.

Waterbury recently received a $7 million grant through the state Bond Commission, which will cover that cost, as well as help the city pay for repairs.

O’Leary, speaking during Monday’s Board of Aldermen meeting, recounted a tour of the building and visiting a top-floor office without carpeting and with moldy walls due to water intrusion. Some repairs should immediately be made to the roof, he said.

“That building cannot afford to go through another winter without work to it,” O’Leary said.

The proposals did not pass without challenge.

Republican mayoral candidate Dawn Maiorano and former aldermen Lawrence V. De Pillo voiced opposition to the purchases and insisted the buys should not be made in the waning weeks of a current administration. These decisions should rest with the next mayor, they argued.

Maiorano said the downtown buildings are “in decent shape” and that repairs should be the responsibility of the current owners.

“Why are we expecting to do a job that, according to the mayor, professional developers don’t even want to do?” Maiorano asked. She also claimed to have heard an alderman voice concern of retribution should they not vote with the mayor.

De Pillo criticized the administration’s use of tax dollars “to be in the real estate business.”

“They buy high and sell low,” De Pillo said, raising criticism of several past city acquisitions.

The biting criticisms touched off a heated response from O’Leary at Monday’s meeting. He accused Maiorano of playing politics by offering criticism without a shred of homework.
O’Leary said the city is talking with two “very interested” potential tenants for the West Main Street and Bank Street buildings. He accused critics of having nothing to offer but opposition.

“Dawn Moiarano says we are not a real estate development company,” O’Leary said. “Oh, but we are. That’s what’s called visionary when you have buildings that need a little extra. … What should we do, leave the building empty and let it deteriorate until it isn’t worth anything?” 

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