Absentee landlords are the bane of small towns. When they lack pride in the city, it shows in their buildings. Sometimes these property owners are slumlords. But not always. They also can be large corporations whose strategies no longer include large buildings on main streets.
The latter describes the empty J.C. Penney building on Astoria’s Commercial Street. In a move that only makes sense in the higher stratosphere of finance, the company abandoned the Astoria store, even though it was highly and consistently profitable over a long period.
The decision to close the store — announced early last year — was an earthquake.
News that Sean Fitzpatrick has purchased the J.C. Penney property is significant for at least two reasons. First of all, it takes the building away from an absentee landlord and puts it in local hands. Secondly, Fitzpatrick’s collaboration with chef Chris Holen of Baked Alaska promises to make the building a new draw on Commercial Street.
This pattern of redemption began some 18 years ago when Liberty Restoration Inc., a local nonprofit, took ownership of the derelict Liberty Theatre. The building was owned by a Los Angeles man who was a lawyer and accountant. Recognizing the importance of taking the building’s ownership local, the Astoria City Council made a $1.3 million grant to assist the purchase and begin the theater’s restoration.
When you see improvement in Astoria’s built environment, it is often because an owner who lives here is investing in the town. That is what’s happened with the derelict Flavel properties. And this upward momentum will be repeated with the Waldorf Hotel, if its would-be developer gains financing.
A small town’s comeback begins when it gains new blood. That happened in 2010 when Sean Fitzpatrick and Anne Carpenter moved here. They began purchasing Astoria apartment properties in 2003. Fitzpatrick and Carpenter have contributed to many aspects of Astoria’s culture while maintaining a significant amount of its housing stock.
Repurposing the J.C. Penney building will be a new and significant chapter in Astoria’s rebirth.