Creative Niagara Falls housing project is a solid achievement in neighborhood revival

From The Buffalo News’ Opinion Section; Printed on Saturday, January 23, 2016


Visitors to Niagara Falls, those who vacation and honeymoon at the scenic wonder, may be surprised to know that there are deep pockets of poverty and blighted neighborhoods throughout the city.

But there is a hopeful sign of improvement in a $12 million affordable housing project in and around the 600 block of Walnut Avenue. News Niagara reporter Nancy A. Fischer wrote about the project that combines ingenuity, inclusion and a public-private partnership to take a bite out of blight while adhering to historic preservation guidelines and assisting an underserved community.

In the end, the project has the potential to uplift a neighborhood and spark further improvement. Vibrancy is contagious, and with the right kind of encouragement perhaps more developers will see potential where most see blight.

The 41-unit Walnut Avenue Homes project, on Walnut Avenue and Fifth, Sixth and Seventh streets, is an example of what can be done. The project features seven new buildings and the rehabilitation of the long-vacant Niagara Falls Board of Education Building at 607 Walnut.

Progress is already evident as applications are being accepted for some apartments. Most of those apartments are expected to be completed as early as March. This project conforms to the expectations set by Niagara Falls Community Development Director Seth Piccirillo, who took the job a few years ago with the charge of reviving neighborhoods. Not an easy task when people have been leaving the city. Attracting residents will take effort.

Ben Lockwood, vice president of business development for Housing Visions of Syracuse, is the project manager on the Walnut Avenue Homes project. His vision of neighborhood revitalization as the catalyst for other development is the way forward.

The city, along with Carolyn’s House, a shelter for homeless women and children run by the YWCA of the Niagara Frontier, sought an option that would provide affordable housing while also addressing the blight in the area near the shelter.

So they reached out to Housing Visions, which had experience in this realm, having built a similar project in Lockport.

Residents will be selected based on the ability to pay rent and pass background, sex offender and credit checks.

The project, which will provide a good number of construction jobs, also includes renovating the historically significant Board of Education Building, in addition to revitalizing underutilized, abandoned or vacant lots in the 500 block of Fifth, Sixth and Seventh streets previously owned by the school district or the city.

Piccirillo described this reuse as “in-filling” and pointed out that this type of development saves taxpayers in demolition costs, estimated at a sizable $300,000 for the administration building. The costly project needed tax credits: a $2.15 million state Department of Housing and Community Renewal tax credit was awarded to the Walnut Avenue Homes project in 2014, along with $727,055 in federal low-income housing tax credits.

This is not a huge project. But enough small projects – renovation of South Junior High into housing is in the works – will have a major impact and begin the rebirth befitting the Cataract City.