By Nancy Fischer, News Niagara Reporter
Reprinted from The Buffalo News
NIAGARA FALLS – A $12 million affordable housing project in and around the 600 block of Walnut Avenue is creating a vibrant buzz of activity in what was once an abandoned area of the city.
The 41-unit Walnut Avenue Homes project – on Walnut Avenue and Fifth, Sixth and Seventh streets – features seven new buildings and the rehabilitation of the long-vacant Niagara Falls Board of Education Building at 607 Walnut. Applications are already being accepted for some apartments and most are expected to be completed by March.
“A few years ago I went down to Seventh Street at dark and you didn’t feel unsafe, but you felt like there was no light. It was just dark and there was nothing happening. That’s not where someone is going to invest,” said Seth Piccirillo, director of Niagara Falls Community Development. “We hope that this will start to re-engage the neighborhood.”
Ben Lockwood, vice president of business development for Housing Visions of Syracuse, which is the project manager, said, “Our vision has always been on neighborhood revitalization to be the catalyst for other development. We strive for people to drive down the street and say that’s the nicest building. There’s no connotation that it is affordable housing. We want things that meld into the neighborhood and are complementary and lead other people to improve their properties. We want to encourage other people to invest in their neighborhoods.”
Piccirillo said the city, along with Carolyn’s House, a shelter for homeless woman and children run by the YWCA of the Niagara Frontier, sought an option that would provide needed affordable housing and also address the blight in the area near the shelter. They reached out to Housing Visions, which had built a similar project in Lockport and has worked with 12 cities and created more than 1,100 units of affordable housing across upstate New York. The company has been in business for more than 26 years and recently has begun to expand into Pennsylvania.
“This is not public housing,” Lockwood said. “It is a public/private partnership. It’s a good way for the private market to come together for the public good.”
Lockwood said the Walnut Avenue housing project is “tax credit housing” and is designed to provide affordable housing. Unlike public housing, residents’ ability to pay rent is very important.
He said there is a property manager office on site and residents are subjected to income verification, leases are signed with clear provisions and there is background, sex offender and credit checks to ensure good tenants.
“Poor does not equal bad tenant. Bad tenant equals bad tenant,” said Lockwood. “Due diligence is very important.”
The Walnut Avenue housing project also includes gutting and renovating the historically designated Board of Education Administration Building as well as the revitalization of underutilized, abandoned or vacant lots in the 500 block of Fifth, Sixth and Seventh streets, which had been owned by either the school or the city.
In addition to the apartments there also will be amenities including a resident community center, a computer lab, off-street parking, washer and dryer hookups and green space.
Piccirillo said other than Carolyn’s House the area had not seen any new investment in a long time. He said they hope this project spurs other new development in the area.
The plan to develop unused properties rather than tear them down is called “in–filling,” Piccirillo said. He said this type of development saves taxpayers in demolition costs, which was estimated at $300,000 for the administration building, as well as the additional cost for asbestos removal. At the same time the city is able to preserve and revitalize an existing, historic, neighborhood structure.
“All these properties were not collecting any taxes,” Piccirillo pointed out.
The administration building is still under construction and should open in the spring, but some of the apartments in the seven other buildings are ready this month. The apartments will be made available based on income.
Lockwood said renovating the administration building is harder than building new housing, but stressed the historic building adds to the “fabric of the neighborhood.”
“There’s a certain stature to the building. You couldn’t possibly replace it with something as good or better,” he said. He said the renovation will be a historic conversion with a lot of common elements like the trim and other things that make it unique being preserved.
“There is a need for safe, affordable housing in this area of Niagara Falls,” Piccirillo said. He noted that the apartments are within walking distance of two of the city’s largest employers – Seneca Niagara Casino and Niagara Falls Memorial Hospital – as well as nearby shopping.
The 41 units include 12 one-bedroom units, 11 three-bedroom units and 18 two-bedroom units. Five of these units have been adapted for people who are mobility-impaired and three are adapted for those who are hearing- or vision-impaired.
In addition there are another 13 units that are specifically designated as long-term housing for those who are victims of domestic violence and their families. Support services will be provided in a partnership with the YWCA of Niagara,
Kathleen A. Granchelli, director of the YWCA, said they hope to move “graduates” of the nearby Carolyn’s House into these apartments in March.
”Since we had just been involved with a great partnership with Housing Visions in Lockport – ‘Canal Homes’ – we knew it made a lot of sense to have this kind of collaboration in Niagara Falls,” Granchelli said.
She said Carolyn’s House has had the support of the community and been so busy over the past 11 years, that officials knew they would have to have a second project of supported permanent housing for the women who were ready to move on from transitional housing.
Piccirillo said a school referendum in 2013 overwhelming supported the sale of school buildings and properties.
The city sold several properties to the developer to create the footprint for the Walnut Avenue project.
From vacant to vibrant
A $2.15 million state Department of Housing and Community Renewal tax credit was awarded to the Walnut Avenue Homes project on April 16, 2014, as well as $727,055 in federal low-income housing tax credits.
“This is a great example of how federal funding, provided by the Community Development Block Grant Program, HUD Resources, can support efforts to breathe new life into our city neighborhoods,” Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said at the groundbreaking ceremony in December 2014. He credited the project for turning vacant land into a vibrant property.
Mayor Paul A. Dyster, at the same groundbreaking agreed, adding, “Not only are these properties back on the tax roll, they will actually become an asset to the neighborhood for the first time in a generation.”
Piccirillo said, “The tax credits made the project financially viable for these buildings, especially the old administration building.,”
Now, instead of vacant lots and deteriorating residential and administrative buildings, there are bright new apartment buildings, smartly designed to fit into the existing neighborhood and, unlike older homes in the area, many of these apartments are handicapped-accessible with easier-to-reach counters and cupboards. The new apartments also have wood laminate floors, freshly painted walls, large rooms and granitelike countertops in galley kitchens with new appliances.
South Junior up next
In addition, jobs have been created in the multimillion dollar housing project and construction workers on the scene were proud to be part of the changes being made by the city.
“I have lived in Niagara Falls all of my life and it’s nice to finally see some nice buildings going up,” said Colin Woodfine, a laborer for Aerotek who was painting walls in the new apartments.
“This is a big enhancement to the community and I just hope they keep going with it,” said Terrence Lidge from LA Painting of Syracuse. Lidge is originally from Niagara Falls and called the new apartments “uplifting” and “a big plus.”
And instead of blight in this area, the city and school district are returning these former city- and school district-owned properties to the tax rolls. A total of $16,119 will be collected in the first year and by year 15, a total of $21,269 in annual school and city taxes will be collected on these properties, Piccirillo said.
“This is ready to go. It went from idea to project in the time line we said it was going to – and that’s significant. And now we are going to have people moving into this area in 2016,” Piccirillo said.
He said the next housing project will be South Junior High on Portage Road, which also was approved for sale by referendum by the school district.
Another developer, CB-Emmanuel Realty, also has been awarded tax credits to renovate the building with 64 apartments and office space. The old school building has been vacant for 15 years and the cost to demolish it, rather than rebuild, had been estimated at nearly $1 million, according to Piccirillo.