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Villa Maria to be converted to senior housing complex

A dwindling student population at Villa Maria Academy in Cheektowaga has opened the door to a $15.5 million senior citizen housing project.

The Felician Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Province plans to convert the high school, which is slated to close in June, to a 75-unit, low-cost, senior housing complex.

The sisters have entered into an agreement with Affordable Housing Unlimited of East Aurora and Savarino Construction Services Corp. of Williamsville to do the overhaul.

Delta Development, the affordable housing arm of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, will manage the housing complex. Trautman Associates, a Buffalo architectural firm, will be the project's designer.

"This is a project that has so many benefits," said George M. Hezel, president of Affordable Housing Unlimited. "It will be good for the sisters, the residents and the community."

Samuel J. Savarino, president and chief executive officer of Savarino Construction, also sees the project as adding value to the neighborhood.

"We'll preserve and improve a wonderful building, offer older residents a way to continue living in the neighborhood, and maintain the Villa Maria campus as a community anchor," he said.

The Villa Maria Senior Living Community, located at 600 Doat St., near the Cheektowaga-Buffalo border, could welcome its first residents in 2007.

Savarino's plans call for the six-story school to be converted to 54 one-bedroom units and 21 two-bedroom apartments.

Monthly rents, which will include heat, will range from $400 to $480. The complex will also offer a large, first-floor common room and a visitors lounge.

Sister Mary Ambrose Wozniak, provincial minister for the Felicians in Buffalo, said the sisters contacted Savarino after a consultant's study indicated senior housing was a prime option for the 1918 school building.

"In a way, it's a continuation of our mission," Sister Ambrose said. "Our foundress established a shelter for women and children in Poland in the 1800s. Now we'll see the school provide shelter for seniors."

"Because we'll be living next door, I hope the sisters will be able to connect with the residents. There's no formal plan, but I would think we'd be able to offer ecumenical services and faith sharing for those who would be interested," she added.

The Felicians announced in December that tumbling enrollments will force them to shutter the private Catholic girls high school at the end of the current school year. There are 130 students enrolled at the academy, down from 225 a decade ago.

Cheektowaga Supervisor Dennis H. Gabryszak said he was hoping the high school, which is a community landmark, would find new life beyond the end of school year.

"That building has been a part of this community for decades, so I'm very pleased they've come up for a great reuse proposal. Senior housing is a good fit for our neighborhood revitalization efforts. It's something we really need," Gabryszak said.

He said not only will low-cost senior apartments keep more older residents in Cheektowaga, they might also bring others back to the town.

"There have been a limited number of affordable apartments for seniors, so this is a significant opportunity for those who have been unable to find something that fits their budget," Gabryszak said.

Prospective residents will have to meet income guidelines to qualify for the apartments.

The developer and the Felicians also anticipate the residents becoming an active part of the neighboring Villa Maria College campus, taking classes, using the athletic facilities and enjoying arts and music presentations.

Savarino also plans to work within state historic preservation guidelines to restore the exterior of the brick-and-stone building to its original state. One of the major efforts will be to replace more than 400 windows, many of them now filled with glass block, with double-hung windows.

The building's heating and cooling system will be replaced by a state-of-the-art, geothermal system to help cut costs and fuel use.

Savarino expects to fund the project primarily through federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits, with additional help from state Historic Tax Credits, and a Town of Cheektowaga payment in lieu of taxes arrangement.

If funding applications are successful, construction could get under way late this year or early 2007. The renovations will take approximately 10 months to complete.


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