Historic building renovation means more lofts, restaurants, shops downtown
A $25 million makeover is underway inside a historic Montgomery high-rise that will soon boast 88 luxury loft apartments as well as space for restaurants and stores. And it’s all happening thanks to an infusion of millions of dollars from China.
The 12-story Bell Building was the city’s tallest structure when it was built in 1910. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places, but it sat empty for years while other areas of downtown surged back to life.
It was sold in 2014 to a partnership backed by seven Chinese investors who contributed a total of nearly $4 million to the renovation project. Now, it’s buzzing with construction. In return, the investors were put on the fast track to becoming legal permanent residents of the U.S. through the EB-5 Investor Visa Program.
Most of the rest of the money is coming from historic tax credits and a federal construction loan.
It’s a type of project that’s more common in the nation’s largest cities, but it’s easier and less costly in smaller historic cities like Montgomery, said immigration attorney and developer Paul Ruby of American Investor Immigration Funds.
Ruby and AII Funds helped organize the project on behalf of the investors. The EB-5 process mandates that the investment support a certain level of long-term employment, and Ruby said they’ll clear that job creation mark — about 85 jobs — by the time the building opens.
He said the investors have no other ties to Montgomery and don’t necessarily plan to live here. “You can invest in Montgomery and live in Manhattan,” Ruby said.
Inside the Bell Building, several interior walls have been removed on the upper floors to make way for the new apartment spaces. But project manager Frank Hinds of WDG Construction Group said the building’s distinctive marble and tile work will be preserved along with other historic features. The building’s hundreds of windows are getting restored at a cost of about $300,000, he said.
Hinds praised the building’s original structural work as “way ahead of its time” and said it could last another 150 years.
“The people that built this, my hat’s off to them,” he said.
Local architectural firm Ausfeld & Blount designed the building around the turn of the 20th century.
On Hinds’ desk there’s a document he found during the construction process that tells the story of Roosevelt Watkins, who worked at the building for more than 50 years. He died around the time the building went vacant. Hinds said they’re planning to hang the tribute in the new lobby.
Unlike some other recently renovated downtown structures, the Bell Building’s sale was a deal between two private entities with no municipal involvement.
“It’s a great sign for revitalization downtown that the private sector can take on a project like this and that they want to take on a project like this,” said Lois Cortell, the city’s senior development manager. “It used to be a really important building, and you kind of forget it now.”
Janett Malpartida hasn’t forgotten it.
She opened D’Road Café less than a block away in 2015. Since then, other spots have popped up beside her along Montgomery Street including More Than Tours and A Touch of Soul. On the other side of the Bell Building, a Barnes & Noble Café opened its doors last year. A separate renovation project is underway at the Jefferson Davis Apartments across the street.
Malpartida said she regularly gets customers from The Heights apartments a few blocks away and is looking forward to having more people living next door when the Bell Building re-opens.
“I’m doing breakfast. I’m doing lunch,” she said. “I’m doing dinner three times a week. I’m having private events. It’s better than last year because people feel like something is going on.”
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