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Former Cell Science Center may become housing

Town of North Elba gets option to buy, seeks developer to convert for University Games, then residents

The former W. Alton Jones Cell Science Center is seen here Friday evening. (Enterprise photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

LAKE PLACID — The town of North Elba has inked a deal with a local property owner that could pave the way for a new affordable housing complex — if a developer agrees to the price and use restrictions.

In an agreement brokered by Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism CEO Jim McKenna and Chief of Staff Mary Jane Lawrence, the North Elba Town Council on Wednesday agreed to sign an option agreement with PEG Enterprises LLC, which owns the former W. Alton Jones Cell Science Center on Barn Road. This contract will give the town the “exclusive right” for the next 10 months to purchase the property or to transfer that option to a developer.

It will also give the town the ability, for a few months after it’s finalized, to negotiate with potential developers — and to ensure that if the property is used for athlete housing during the 2023 Winter World University Games, it would be used solely for affordable residential housing afterward.

There have already been “a couple” of developers who have expressed interest in the property, according to town attorney Ron Briggs, who declined to offer more details at this time citing ongoing negotiations.

The main Cell Science Center property was assessed at $3.1 million last year, according to property records. An adjoining piece of land coupled with the main property was assessed at $250,000. The proposed sale price outlined in the town’s option agreement is set at $5.5 million.

Town option

The deal signed Wednesday was months in the making.

In advance of the meeting, McKenna and Lawrence brought in an architect and planning group to put a proposal together for the former Cell Science Center, according to McKenna.

“The goal was really to look at it from a point of view of it being an athletes’ village, but more importantly, that it could be the community long-term housing this region needs,” he said.

“We had to find a way to make sure it would not be converted to a hotel, motel or short-term rental, and it would have to hit that income range,” McKenna added. “We figured the best way to do that was to have the town get involved, so they could develop an agreement with a potential developer.”

“That income range” is the range identified as needing the most housing in a recent housing needs assessment study commissioned by the Lake Placid-North Elba Community Development Commission. The study showed that people making less than $35,150 per year had the most housing need. The town’s option agreement says that whoever develops the property would be required to rent “not less than 66% of the total housing units developed at the site,” with a rental term not less than six months, at a rate “not to exceed 150% of the average median income for Essex County.”

The town has “no financial exposure at all,” McKenna said. According to the contract, ROOST paid the $5,000 fee attached to this option agreement on behalf of the town.

If the town doesn’t ultimately transfer the option to a developer, then PEG Enterprises LLC retains the property, according to McKenna.

This deal marks progress in a plan set in motion years ago, in advance of Lake Placid’s successful bid to host the 2023 World University Games. The goal was always to use the games as leverage to secure funding that could bring the local sports venues up to modern standards, while working to improve long-simmering issues like the affordable housing crunch, according to McKenna.

“The process has started,” he said.

The hope is that physical construction will be underway by spring 2021.

Council OKs deal

The North Elba Town Council agreed to the deal following a nearly hour-long executive session Wednesday. In a meeting notice sent four hours in advance of the session, local media outlets were told no action was expected to be taken. This appears to be in line with the state’s Open Meetings Law, which, according to a 2006 opinion from the New York State Committee on Open Government, requires municipalities only to provide advance notice of unscheduled meetings “to the extent practicable.”

Following the executive session, town Supervisor Jay Rand made a motion to sign the agreement, and the council voted 5-0 in favor, according to town documents. The deal is expected to be put on file with the town clerk’s office.

“We’re very excited about the possibilities it does offer. It’s a beautiful piece of land. It would provide a great location for athlete housing for the World University Games with the long-term purpose of long-term rentals. With all of the talk about housing, it’s a good step forward,” Rand said. “The whole package has a tremendous amount to offer the community.”

Property details

The owner of the property, PEG Enterprises LLC, has been registered with New York State’s Division of Corporations since 2004. PEG Enterprises LLC is registered with both the state and Essex County Real Property under a 2512 Main St. address in Lake Placid. The owner of that building, which houses the Adirondack Trading Company, is Gregory Peacock, according to property records. As of 2007, PEG Enterprises LLC included Peacock as well as J. Patrick Barrett — who died last year — and Edwin Weibrecht, who owns the Mirror Lake Inn. Peacock’s signature was on the town’s option agreement. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.

The Reynolds Group LLC was the real estate broker involved with the agreement, according to the contract.

The more than 34-acre property — along with its 50,000-square-foot main building, several outbuildings and tennis court — was purchased by PEG Enterprises LLC in August 2007. PEG purchased it from Upstate USA Inc., a biotechnology company that was later sold to Serologicals Inc., before becoming a division of Millipore Corporation and closing its Lake Placid operation in the mid-2000s.

Though the property was listed for $5.9 million by local real estate company Merrill L. Thomas at one point, it sold for $3.45 million in 2007.

Before being purchased by Upstate USA, the property was owned by the Essex County Industrial Development Agency. The facility once housed the W. Alton Jones Cell Science Center, a nonprofit research and education center that was later renamed the Adirondack Biomedical Research Institute of Lake Placid. It also housed Upstate Biotechnology Inc.

At one point in the 2000s, North Country Community College was considering relocating its main campus to the property from Saranac Lake. The college had an option to buy the complex but never executed the deal, which faced opposition from many locals and, by extension, members of the Franklin County Legislature and Essex County Board of Supervisors.

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