It’s move-in day at Woolworth Apartments.

New tenants in the brand-new downtown Riverhead apartment building were hauling an assortment of personal possessions into their new abodes this morning.

“It’s like college dorm day,” a grinning Mike Patern, 24, said as he carried boxes into his one-bedroom apartment. “It’s very exciting.”

The Southold native, who had been living in Aquebogue, said he liked the unit he picked because it’s spacious and he liked the layout. “It was the largest square footage and I like how the kitchen is kind of separated,” he said, surveying the collection of boxes, tubs and crates piled on the apartment’s floor.

He’s looking forward to living downtown, being closer to work — he’s a salesman at LaCorte Equipment in Calverton — and also to living in a brand-new space.

Being the first tenant in the apartment was something all the new move-ins said they were excited about.

“I love it, I love it, I love it,” Mary McPherson said of her new place. McPherson, a residential counselor with Catholic Charities who also works as a home health aide for Utopia Home Care, said she was moving out of an apartment in Aquebogue. Her landlord is selling the house, she said.

Mary McPherson of Riverhead was among the first tenants moving into the new apartment building today on East Main Street.

When I knew they were going to build these apartments I was like, I knew there was only 19, so I took that chance,” McPherson said. “When she called me I was so excited.

Twelve tenants were picked through a lottery process subject to income and credit requirements.

Rebekah Wise, a 25-year-old graphic designer from Southampton said when she read about the apartment lottery on Facebook, she kept it to herself.

“I didn’t tell any of my friends who maybe would also be trying to move out of their parents’ house,” Wise said. Though she lived in college dorms for four years, this is her first apartment.

“I’m very excited to be moving in here,” Wise said. “It’s so nice.”

Matt Cho

Her neighbor across the hall, Matt Cho, 25, summed up his feelings about his new digs like this: “It’s brand new, I’m the first one to live here and it’s right above the gym. You can’t get much better than that.”

Maximus Health Club is the main tenant on the first floor of the building, which opened last year, soon followed by Goldberg’s Bagels. Riverhead Flower Shop is in the process of moving from its current location down the street, owner Peggy Kneski said. She hopes to be open for business in the new location before Valentine’s Day. One storefront remains available.

Eddie Kneski, son of Riverhead Flower Shop owner Peggy Kneski, moving plants into the storefront where the shopkeeper plans to have open by Feb. 14.
Eddie Kneski, son of Riverhead Flower Shop owner Peggy Kneski, moving plants into the storefront where the shopkeeper plans to have open by Feb. 14.

Tenants in the apartments, which start at $895 for studios, $1,133 for one-bedroom and $1,528 for two-bedroom units, have an on-site laundry facility, free parking and discounted membership rates at Maximus.

Seven apartments are still available in the mixed-use building on East Main Street named for the iconic five-and-ten-cent store, which went out of business in 1997, when the chain closed 400 retail stores across the country. The ground-floor space was subsequently leased to Swezey’s Department Stores, which used it as a furniture showroom. The building owner, Riverhead Enterprises, sold the site to Apollo Real Estate Advisers in 2006. Apollo, then the town’s designated downtown “master developer,” unveiled plans for a multiplex cinema there. But when the real estate market imploded in 2007-2008, Apollo’s plans were scrapped and the company put the property on the market for sale.

The building, which once had offices on the second floor, was vacant for 16 years before Woolworth Revitalization LLC purchased it in 2013 for $2 million. The developer has since spent $5.5 million to renovate and develop the space with the 19 second-story apartments above 25,000 square feet of commercial space on the first floor.

Michael Butler

Woolworth Revitalization managing partner Michael Butler said this week his goal was to undertake a total renovation while keeping the Woolworth memory alive. The front and back facades now look like they did in 1955, with a new window and front canopy to match the originals. The stone sign on the outside that says “Woolworth’s” remains intact in its original location and the building’s art deco lobby was carefully restored and is now the entrance to the apartments, Butler said.

Butler was joined Thursday by building architect Martin Sendlewski and representatives of general contractor WJ Northridge Construction Corp. as well as town, county and state officials for a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the second-floor lobby to celebrate the apartments’ completion and grand opening.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter presented Butler with a ceremonial $75,000 check, representing a N.Y. Main Street grant obtained for the project by the Riverhead Community Development Agency.

Woolworth Revitalization LLC managing partner Michael Butler, center, holds ceremonial check representing NY Main Street grant obtained by the town community development agency.

Walter thanked Butler for “taking a chance on the Town of Riverhead.” He said the rental of 12 of 19 apartments before he even cut the ribbon shows that the project will be successful. Noting that 48 workforce housing apartments at Summerwind were fully leased, Walter predicted a third pending workforce housing proposal, Peconic Crossing, “will also fill up quickly,” which, he said, is demonstrative of the excitement people feel about downtown Riverhead.

“When I first came to Riverhead, I had a good feeling about it,” Butler said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “Since that time, we’ve seen the Suffolk Theater finish up, we’ve seen the bike shop move in across the street. Little by little, we’re getting there.”

“You ain’t seen nothing yet, baby,” the supervisor quipped.

State Senator Ken LaValle agreed. “Projects like this are a spark for downtown revitalization. It’s all coming together for Riverhead,” he said.

The developer retaining the building’s original architectural details is so important, County Legislator Al Krupski said.

“This structure was an icon for many of us in this generation,” Krupski said. “Revitalizing something of historic significance – that is real downtown revitalization.”

In addition to the N.Y. Main Street state grant, the project received $250,000 in county funding to subsidize infrastructure as well as a 75 percent property tax reduction and a state mortgage tax exemption on a $4.35 million mortgage refinancing.

Apartment applications can be downloaded on the developer’s website.

Top photo caption: A smiling Mike Patern carries a box into his new apartment this morning. RiverheadLOCAL photos by Denise Civiletti.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.