Officials break ground on Walnut Avenue housing project

A downtown affordable housing project in the works for over a year is beginning to take shape.

Housing Visions Inc., a Syracuse not-for-profit, broke ground on its Walnut Avenue Homes project, a mixture of infill housing and apartments set to be rented to low- to moderate-income residents in the area around the corner of Walnut Avenue and Sixth Street.

Contractors have poured the foundation for one of the new apartment buildings and are in the process of demolishing another building.

During a groundbreaking ceremony on Tuesday, Ben Lockwood, the director of development for Housing Visions, said the organization is excited to be making progress on the project.

“We’re really quite pleased without he progress of our contractors so far,” Lockwood said. “We’re moving at a good pace.”

Housing visions bought eight properties from the city and school district, including vacant lots, dilapidated houses and the former school administration building on Walnut Avenue. That structure will be remodeled using state and federal historic tax credits.

The project, with an estimated price tag of $12 million, will be funded through city, state and federal grants and tax breaks, with financing to be provided by Key Bank.

Lockwood said that the organization hopes to have most of the construction done by the end of 2015.

“Hopefully, we’ll have a pretty good winter and we can stay ahead of schedule,” Lockwood said.

Housing Visions has partnered with the YWCA and will provide supportive housing for homeless women as part of the organization’s Carolyn’s House program.

Mayor Paul Dyster said the project has the potential to help the downtown area, which has seen significant investment from the city in the form of demolitions, turn the corner by driving further development.

“For the first time in probably a generation people, instead of seeing foundations filled in after a building is demolished, people are seeing foundations dug for new buildings in this neighborhood,” Dyster said.

The term affordable housing can conjure up negative images, but Housing Visions has proven through its portfolio, including a project in nearby Lockport, that they are capable of creating unique projects that benefit the communities where they exist, Dyster said.

“It seems like they are giving a lot of thought to, like, who’s going to live in this housing,” Dyster said.

U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Niagara Falls, and Buffalo, said the project is another sign that the city of Niagara Falls, like his native Buffalo, is experiencing a resurgence.

“This project, I think, will go down as an inflection point where the city needs to realize again its full potential as a great, great urban area,” Higgins said.

State Assemblyman John Ceretto, R-Lewiston, said he was proud to help secure some of the funding that helped to make the project possible. Ceretto noted that everyone needs help at some point in their lives, saying that he at one point took advantage of several government programs while going through a tough stretch.

“Everyone can be vulnerable for the economic turbulence in your life,” Ceretto said.