Sweeping changes to a North End public housing complex could get under way this fall, but before construction can begin, the developer needs to secure $4 million in additional state funding and several city approvals.
The Niagara Falls Housing Authority plans to build 282 housing units in its Center Court complex and in LaSalle during the next three years.
It's the largest public or private housing project in Niagara Falls in two decades, and it's designed to reconnect an isolated neighborhood to other streets in the North End and eliminate large public courtyards between stark apartment buildings that planners believe are indefensible from crime.
"Its look is new urbanism -- where everybody has eyes on the street," said Housing Authority Executive Director Stephanie Cowart. "It's just like any other neighborhood, any other residential street."
The cornerstone of the project is a $20 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's HOPE VI program. The total cost of construction and services will be about $72 million.
During the next three years, duplexes and bungalows will replace 25 barrack-style apartment buildings that now house residents in Center Court. Forty-two homes will be available for sale, and the Housing Authority will work with residents to become homeowners, improve education or train for jobs.
"We look at housing being just one piece of the pie, and we want to fulfill whatever their needs may be," Cowart said. "We have a real interest in bringing the community back."
Construction is scheduled to begin in September on the first phase of the project to construct 115 apartment units. Work to rename streets, secure financing and obtain city approvals is already under way.
The Housing Authority is still waiting to hear from the state's Department of Housing and Community Renewal on an application for a $4 million grant that would provide funding for the first phase of construction.
Linda L. Goodman, director of project development for Norstar Development USA, said the grant decision has taken longer than expected. Norstar, which was hired by the Housing Authority to oversee the Center Court project, applied for the grant in December. Goodman and Cowart said they are confident the Housing Authority will be awarded the state money.
The developer is also seeking approval for the project from city leaders. The City Council will vote soon on a measure to rezone the Center Court property for the new neighborhood. Site plans will be reviewed by the Planning Board on Wednesday.
The City Council and the Planning Board must also approve zoning changes for the Center Court neighborhood. Plans calls for:
Constructing 253 homes in the North End.
Building 25 rental and four market-rate home-ownership units in LaSalle on land already owned by the Housing Authority.
Adding new streets, utility lines and lights at Center Court.
Constructing a 5,000-square-foot community center at the corner of Centre Avenue and 15th Street next to an existing public pool.
Pouring concrete parking pads for each home to replace large parking lots.
Center Court resident Lucille Averhart, 64, said her neighbors are anxious to see work begin. They have waited years for the project as the Housing Authority applied for the competitive HOPE VI grant four times before winning the grant.
The agency spent $277,000 to prepare applications for the project.
"It sounds good, if they do what they say they're going to do," said Averhart, a grandmother who moved to Center Court about five years ago. "These houses are old. They look good for their age."
The low-rise apartments that stretch across Center Court were built in 1943. The buildings, Cowart said, have become outdated, cramped and have inadequate plumbing and electrical facilities.
"Center Court's superblock street plan disrupts the neighborhood grid and cuts the community in two," Housing Authority consultants wrote in the grant application. "The Center Court street plan rendered convenient stores inconvenient, churches and houses of worship were isolated and schools and community centers were made islands unto themselves."
The concept behind the new community is to blend the public housing into the rest of the North End neighborhood and reduce large shared spaces that came with 1940's-era public housing. The developer will extend Calumet Avenue east to connect new homes with existing neighborhoods.
"We're building new streets again to take this internal complex here and connect it back to the neighborhood," Goodman said. "It will just be like driving down any residential area with nicely scaled homes."
While Center Court will undergo a dramatic revision, a larger public housing complex with identical units on Packard Road will soon see exterior renovations to upgrade buildings.
And Cowart already plans to apply for a second HOPE VI grant.
"It is actually creating a new community, not necessarily just public housing," Cowart said. "You can't create a destination for people to come unless you actually do create a destination by investing in housing stock in a community."