One look at the view was all it took. When Bruce Nelson climbed up to the rooftop of the former Municipal Light and Water Plant in Watkins Glen to see the deep blue waters of Seneca Lake spreading below, he knew he had found his next project.
Since that day two years ago, Nelson has not only converted the historic structure—originally built in 1905— from a gutted shell into a fully occupied four-apartment residence with an in-house art gallery, but has taken his lake-inspired vision and run with it.
Twelve newly constructed condominiums right next door are slated for completion in late spring, taking the Water Works Center project to a level that even local government representatives had not anticipated when they first approached Nelson.
“We’re extremely fortunate to have attracted Bruce Nelson as a developer in this county, where this is actually his third project (in addition to the recently restored Montour House and Broadway School in Montour Falls),” said Schuyler County Administrator Timothy O’Hearn. “His vision for the potential of the property exceeded ours.”
Taking over a failed attempt by another developer to breathe new life into the building with the help of a Restore New York grant, Nelson brought the experience of some thirty years in construction and a decade in property development, as well as additional, private funding to bear.
“Historic preservation is a niche, a little risky,” he said. “A lot of people think, oh, I can get this building so cheap, but they don’t know what they’re getting into, and next thing you know they’re broke and the job just collapses. But if we do it right, these places will be here long after we’re gone.”
Nelson, who works out of Vestal, certainly hopes that the new condos will stand the test of time alongside the water works building. “The property goes much farther than the historic building, so what were we going to do, have a giant parking lot?” he laughed.“We wanted to do something with it, have some fun.”
Developer Bruce Nelson above the project at the old Municipal Light and Water Plant on Salt Point Road.
And so he did, playing with the lakeside’s challenging but attractive topography. Each sixteen-foot-wide condo sits with its back just yards away from a shale wall, the top half of the building poking up above street level like the tip of an iceberg. A wooden footbridge from Salt Point Road leads up to the front door into the mid-section of each home. Two floors down, level with the lake, a glass door opens to a tiny patio bounded by the bottom of the rock face—according to Nelson, the perfect shady place to cool down on a hot summer day.
The opposite, eastern wall of the condo, is made almost entirely of glass and stainless steel, showing off views of the lake from every one of the three split levels. A rooftop patio, a main level deck, a Juliet balcony in the master bedroom, and direct access from the ground floor to the lakefront further blur the lines between inside and outside.
The condos are available in two different sizes, 1,867 and 2,102 square feet, and three interior design schemes with such sunny names as Santa Barbara, Del Rey, and Charleston.
“As far as features go, no corner was cut,” said project manager Michael Hill, proudly pointing out Delta plumbing and Kichler lighting fixtures, hardwood floors, custom cabinetry, a glass light shaft between two floors, and a pass- through bar to the rooftop deck.
Starting at around $375,000, the condos will officially launch onto the market in May, though two units have already been sold.
“Our target demographic is people who are looking for an active lifestyle on the lake,” Hill said. “We’re providing something that to this point the Finger Lakes region has been unable to deliver. With homeowner’s association dues covering maintenance, your biggest burden is to figure out how to enjoy 600 feet of lakefront.”
Some local teenagers fishing off the side of the development’s large dock on a recent sunny day had the right idea. In addition, each condo will have its own boat slip, separated from the buildings by a single-track railroad, on which short freight trains crawl by a couple of times a week.
But the Water Works Center is only the beginning. As part of Project Seneca, it represents the vanguard of an ambitious partnership between the county, the villages of Watkins Glen and Montour Falls, and private investors such as Nelson. Set to spend $200 million in order to generate $1 billion worth of investment around the lakefront and canal, they hope to further heighten the attractiveness of an area that already draws some two million visitors a year with its well-known state park, racetrack, and wineries.
The Water Works project is a clear visual expression of what true potential the Seneca lakefront offers for development,” said Rebekah LaMoreaux, CEO of the Watkins Glen Area Chamber of Commerce. “We enjoy partnering with Bruce and his team, as he is a true visionary.”
Nelson, for his part, is happy to work with the community. “That’s part of what we do with historic preservation,” he said. “The buildings are part of the local fabric.”
He has issued a standing invitation to the public to come see what is new at the Water Works Center (www. waterworkscondos.com) every second Friday of the month from 6 to 8 p.m., and this month that open house will be on April 11.
And judging from Rebekah LaMoreaux’s reaction to the views from the rooftops, his visitors might be inspired by the same enthusiasm that first got Nelson involved in the project: “Wow!” she said. “It’s stunning, breathtaking, beyond my imagination!”
First-time contributing writer Olivia M. Hall is a freelance writer and anthropologist based in Ithaca, NY. Her stories and photography have appeared in such publications as the Vegetarian Times and Edible Finger Lakes.