At Last The Bulova Condo Project Proceeds

The big brick eyesore in Sag Harbor, the former Bulova Watchcase Factory, finally, after many fits and starts, got its final approval from that village to go ahead a few weeks ago. It will become a 65-unit condominium complex and I imagine that the developer, Cape Advisors, after all they have been through, will start work on this just as soon as they possibly can.

Sag Harbor is notorious for giving just about anything new proposed in that village a very hard time. They certainly did not spare the rod when it came to Cape Advisors in 2006. That is when the developer first approached the Village. In other towns, a thorough investigation of a project might take one or two years. This one took five, due to no fault of the developers.

My own opinion is that I think it’s wonderful that the Village of Sag Harbor gives everything a hard time. The Village is frozen in a time long ago, although that is not the time the town is famous for. It is frozen in about 1950. It’s a summer resort town from that era looking proudly back to the time around 1845 when the town was one of the four great whaling towns in America—the others being Nantucket, New Bedford and Lahaina, Maui. The mom and pop stores of the 1950s still sit on Main Street. You put a quarter in a mechanical horse in front of the 5 and 10 and it gives any six-year-old a great ride. Anything too chic or too big gets fended off. It’s great.

The Bulova Watchcase Factory Building is another matter. It went out of business in 1981. And since it is four stories high and looms in many ways over the town, its abandoned hulk has been a cause for concern and many attempts at its restoration, as one thing or another, have been shot down by the Village.

In the 1990s, for 10 years, all the crap that the watchcase factory spilled into the ground got cleaned up, paid for mostly, I believe, by Bulova. It was a superfund site during that era. Then around 2000, inspectors went in and declared that the factory building was quite sturdily built and good to become whatever anybody wanted. I recall one attempt was made to make it into a giant art studio but that didn’t work out. I recall another developer who wanted to put housing there who came and went.

It was in 2006 that Cape Advisors came to the Village with their plan to turn this building into condominiums. I think Cape Advisors expected a process that might last a year. The Village has a population of about 3,000. Another 150 or 200 people in apartments didn’t seem to me to be such a big deal to get that hulk fixed up. Wrangling went on. The Village wanted some of the apartments to be affordable. Cape Advisors resisted, but eventually agreed to put $2.5 million into the Sag Harbor Community Housing Trust fund so the Village could build such units elsewhere. And in late 2008, when all the I’s were dotted and all the T’s crossed the bottom fell out of Wall Street and Cape Advisors announced that their financing had evaporated. The Village had just waited too long. Cape Advisors walked.

A lot of soul searching went on in Sag Harbor after that happened. There was the big factory again, still all boarded up, still with the scaffolding out front, and perhaps another 10 years would pass.

It then came as something of a pleasant surprise about three months ago when Cape Advisors said they had put it all back together, had their financing back and couldn’t we please go forward? They wanted to make just one change in their application. Something to do with timing.

In the original approval, it had been agreed that Cape Advisors would not pay the $2.5 million into the fund all at once. They would pay about $582,600 on getting a building permit, then five more payments of $194,200 when the first five units received certificates of occupancy, and then five more payments of the $194,200 as units 10 through 15 received certificates of occupancy.

The change asked for was that the payments be made upon actual sales to buyers and spread out over the sale of all 65 units. There is some variation on what’s paid when, but in essence, the whole $2.5 million payment would be completed upon the sale of the last unit.

The proposal came to the Village on September 27, with its approval Cape Advisors’ David Kronman announced that financing may be secured within two weeks. Done.

A Village Trustee who voted it through had this to say:

“I think I am speaking for all of the board when I say this was not a completely easy decision to make. We were all concerned.”

 

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By the way, calling the building the Bulova Watchcase Factory is something of a misnomer.

The factory was originally built in 1881 by Joe Fahys who, at that time, had another big watchcase making factory in New Jersey. Their motto was “dust free.” The watchcases had lids that clicked shut. They kept the dust out. Fahys was one of the most famous watchcase making firms in the country at that time and their building a big factory out here was a real feather in the cap of the local businessmen’s association in the town. Sag Harbor had been big business from about 1800 to 1849 for whale oil, with many whaling ships at Long Wharf. After 1849, when many whalers left for gold in San Francisco, the town struggled to provide employment for its residents. The watchcase factory was a big help.

When I moved here in 1956 as a teenager, that factory was still going strong. It had continued on under Fahys until 1931. In 1937 part of the factory was leased to the Bulova Watch Company. By the time I got here, the factory was still humming along and much of the town was working for Bulova (or Grumman or Sag Harbor Industries) in their factory here. There were blue collar workers in hard hats carrying lunch pails. There were assembly lines inside the factories. I once watched the assembly line at work. I swore I’d never do work like that, standing all day at a conveyor belt as things came by. It didn’t seem a good way to live a life, if I could help it.

As we all know, Sag Harbor was “discovered” by the New York City well-to-do in the 1970s. As much of the Village, even with the blue collar workers, was abandoned at that time, the town now truly began to come alive—even as all the factories closed up and moved to North Carolina or Japan or China. Soon the town became the vibrant tourist town it is today.

Interestingly during the early days of the run for the Democratic Nomination for President in 2004, I discovered that the frontrunner, Howard Dean, grew up summering in East Hampton. I soon got the opportunity to talk to him about it, and he told me that his family was descended from the well-to-do Joe Fahys, who built the watchcase company. Many family members still lived in our area, including his mother, who lived off James Lane in East Hampton and was very proud of him. He recalled family picnics out here.

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