Sonny Bonacio engaged in frequent neighborly conversation as he walked along Division Street and Railroad Place between mixed used complexes he has developed in Saratoga Springs.
“What’s going on commissioner? I like the hat,” as he greeted a passing motorist.
One man asked Bonacio who to contact to volunteer to coach Little League, and a woman outside Bow Tie Cinemas asked what time a movie was showing.
In both instances, Bonacio used his iPhone to get the information.
Human interaction is an integral aspect of his development strategy, Bonacio said.
He doesn’t just put up buildings. He constructs multistory neighborhoods, where people can live in close proximity — often in the same building — to a supermarket, retail shops and places for entertainment, dining and snacking.
“It’s been a national push to repopulate the cities. People like to walk. They like to park their car and walk,” Bonacio said. “It’s all about keeping the amenities downtown. It’s not just restaurants and bars.”
Bonacio, who is well known for his mixed-use development projects in Saratoga Springs and Troy, has turned his attention to Glens Falls.
In a joint venture with Galesi Group, he plans to build a six-story mixed-use development on the parking lot next to Glens Falls Hospital.
The complex will include a supermarket and other retail shops on the ground floor, offices on the second floor, and up to 90 apartments on the upper floors.
Economic development, real estate and planning experts say Bonacio’s reputation for quality boosts the city’s status as a renaissance downtown.
“Sonny Bonacio is amazing,” said Mark Levack, a commercial real estate broker who has focused on redevelopment between Glen Street and the hospital.
“I do think Sonny Bonacio has a pretty good feel for what he is doing and has done a lot of great work in Saratoga,” said James Howard Kunstler, a nationally known author who writes about sustainable development. “In fact, he has almost single-handedly rescued the downtown.”
Glens Falls officials have been trying to woo Bonacio to Glens Falls for more than a decade, dating back to the administration of Robert Regan, Glens Falls mayor from 1998-2005.
“These things are always a matter of timing. And I think at the time we were probably a little bit too early,” said James Martin, the city’s economic development director when Regan was mayor.
Martin said developers such as Mike Kaidas, Peter Hoffman and Bruce Levinsky have brought “an incremental gradual improvement” to downtown over the past decade, creating momentum that impressed Bonacio.
Martin said Glens Falls took time to mature as a magnet for redevelopment.
“It’s gone through an evolution, and fortunately it’s been very progressive. In other words, there have been few missteps,” he said.
Bonacio takes fewer risks than many developers, Martin said.
“I think Sonny is a very disciplined developer. He only looks at those projects that are sound and are solid,” he said.
The evidence of Bonacio’s success as a developer can be seen in the handful of his projects within sight of his office on the fourth floor of The Lofts, one of his developments at 18 Division St. in Saratoga Springs.
“Probably, if I would add it all up — probably $250 million,” Bonacio said, estimating the value of his projects within close proximity.
“Yeah — easily,” said Larry Novik, director of business development for Bonacio Construction.
In Saratoga Springs, Bonacio has developed more than 1 million square feet of real estate, the equivalent of about 750 three-bedroom ranch homes.
He also has projects in Wilton, Troy and Schenectady.
Construction of his empire began in 1988 after Bonacio earned a two-year degree in construction technology from SUNY Canton and started his company.
“I was a framer,” Bonacio said. “I started the business in 1988, and we were doing a lot of decks and re-roofs and a lot of small work. And then it’s just kind of grown.”
He moved into downtown mixed-use complexes in the late 1990s.
Bonacio diversified at a time of change in urban development styles.
“America did a great job of destroying its downtowns over the last three generations,” said Kunstler, the author. “By the late 1990s, it was obvious we had to do things differently.”
Kunstler said Bonacio understands sustainable development strategies that combine retail and residential multistory buildings constructed close to the sidewalk.
“All of these principles, and they are principles, were quite well understood by Bonacio, and those buildings that he executed were generally very beneficial to the city of Saratoga,” Kunstler said. “They had the effect of really activating the center of town in ways that hadn’t been the case for many decades.”
Bonacio is community-minded and practices philanthropy in a quiet way, said state Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, who was executive director of Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation from 2002-2008.
“If I had a project that I really needed help with, I could go to Sonny and say, ‘I need your help,’ and he would jump in,” she said.
When First Baptist Church in Saratoga Springs was raising money to re-install a historic clock tower, it was discovered the structure needed a new roof to support it.
“It’s easier to raise money for something kind of cool like a clock tower then it is for a new roof,” Woerner said.
Bonacio donated the labor to put up the roof.
“These guys did all the work,” she said. “We contributed what we could, and they did all the rest.”
Bonacio said he has been successful by thinking creatively and having good employees and managers.
“I have like eight or nine guys (out of about 100) that have been here right from the day that we started,” he said. “We were all framing, so I was on the roof and they were nailing and now they run their divisions respectively.”
The Price Chopper at Market Center in Saratoga Springs is an example of his creativity, Bonacio said.
It is a new, smaller, downtown neighborhood market concept that was the first in the Price Chopper chain.
“It was new for us and it was new for them. So we were kind of designing on the fly with them,” he said. “It seems to be working very well — tremendously well received.”
It is not yet clear who will operate the supermarket at the Glens Falls complex, he said.
Persistence is important in development, Bonacio said.
“That took me 10 years to get the theater back in Saratoga,” he said, referring to Bow Tie Cinemas.
A movie theater will not be part of the Hudson Avenue complex, but might be feasible in Glens Falls at some point in the future, he said.
“You have a great theater in downtown right now,” he said, referring to Aimie’s Dinner & Movie on Glen Street.
Bonacio said experience has given him an understanding of the planning process and taught him to listen and learn from critics.
“After you’ve done them so long everybody kind of knows what you have to do and working with Department of Public Works and staging,” he said.
Bonacio, 47, said he enjoys construction and expects to develop many more projects in the years to come.
“He’ll be driving around in an F-350 at 90 years old, yelling at people,” quipped Novik, Bonacio’s director of business development.
“Make payroll every week.” “We usually don’t give that kind of advice.” “He was the first guy that didn’t get hired because he had a pouch and a hammer. He had a computer — pretty interesting stuff back then (in 1999).” “I still take a lot of pride in shoveling and fixing things. So I am still back on the properties we own an awful lot.” “We’ve been talking about Glens Falls for a lot of years. It just seemed everything lined up on the property on the hospital site.”