A sprawling former Southtowns convent that at one time housed several hundred Catholic nuns is slated to become a mixture of market-rate apartments, townhomes, retail space and an assisted-living facility after a team of new owners took control of the property this week.
The former Immaculate Conception Convent property at 5272 South Park Ave. was acquired Wednesday by Nick Sinatra’s Sinatra & Company Real Estate, Ontario Specialty Contracting owner Jon Williams, and the Nanula family’s Nanco Inc. The group paid $1.25 million for the 18.5-acre wooded property, which sits next to Hilbert College along South Park Avenue, at the corner of Sowles Road in Hamburg.
The two buildings and landscaped grounds, formerly occupied by the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse, was home to the order of nuns for more than 80 years, but has been vacant since the sisters moved across the street to a new, smaller convent at 5229 South Park.
Sinatra, Williams and the four Nanula brothers plan to gradually convert the entire property into a blend of residential, medical and retail uses, re-using the existing 175,000 square feet of building space while also constructing a series of 20 to 30 new townhomes for local residents. The final cost hasn’t been determined, but could easily be $25 million to $50 million, with hundreds of construction jobs, said Phil Nanula.
“We’re really excited about the piece,” said Nanula, president of Essex Homes of Western New York, who joined with his brothers Anthony, Paul and Steve on the project. “It’s a big piece, and it affords a lot of different options in how it can be developed.”
With large swaths of undeveloped land, two large buildings, and one single-family rental home, the property is likely to be developed in pieces and stages over time, Nanula said, starting with the main 116,000-square-foot building, since it’s already standing. The large structure has a chapel in the center, with three-story wings with basements to the right and left. It’s separate but connected to a 58,000-square foot assisted-living care facility in the rear.
“It’s a beautiful building. It’s very impressive,” Nanula said. “The sisters were very meticulous about keeping records and keeping the building in good maintenance. So they provided us with a lot of information to ramp up quickly.”
The developers have started putting together a team of architects and engineers to evaluate the building and its best uses, although he declined to identify them because contracts have not yet been signed. The building is “too large to do at once,” so they’ll probably choose part of it to focus on first, Nanula said.
Overall, though, they are planning a combination of rental apartments in the main building, while seeking to lease the rear facility to a healthcare company that specializes in assisted-living. “The existing building is well-suited to that type of subdivision,” Nanula said, projecting an initial cost of about $10 million for the first section of the main building.
Meanwhile, the corner of the property at South Park and Sowles, because of its location at an intersection with a traffic signal, will probably be marketed as a good site for someone else to lease for a retail store. “It’s well-suited for a Walgreens or CVS or something of that nature,” Nanula said.
Another piece of property a little further away from the corner but still on South Park could also be promoted as a second retail or rental property, he said. And the single-family home, which has been rented but will soon be vacant, will be re-rented for the same use, possibly after some renovation, he added.
Finally, the “outparcel” portion of the property along Sowles from South Park toward the Hilbert College entrance has “a pretty good amount of land there” for townhomes, he said. The property would still have to be subdivided and properly zoned, and the structures haven’t been designed yet, but Nanula pointed to Essex Homes’ nearby Villas at Brompton project as a guide. That development, started in 2008, has 48 townhomes, half sold and half leased. Units range in size from 1,500 to 2,000 square feet, with two-car garages and full basements, and leases range from $2,000 to $2,350 a month.
“There’s a need for that type of product in that neck of the woods,” he said. “That would probably be representative of what we would want to build there.”
Because of the complexity, no ground-breaking date has been set, but Nanula also noted that the retail space and townhomes are independent of the main building, and both the retail and assisted-living opportunities will be listed on the market shortly. “We’re still analyzing what we want to build, so we’re not ready to put a shovel in the ground yet,” he said.
For the nuns, meanwhile, the sale closes a chapter in their history, while satisfying their desire to ensure respect for the property’s legacy and also a good use for the future. The religious order has been operating in Western New York since 1898, but the original building on South Park dates to 1928, when it was the original site of Immaculata Academy. That school built a new building next door in 1954, and Immaculata Teacher Training School opened in 1957, becoming Hilbert in 1964.
“Our congregation is grateful that now our former home will become home for our brothers and sisters in the Hamburg community,” said Sister Ann Marie Hudzina, the general minister of the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph. “We hope that their new home may nourish their lives, hearts and spirts as well.”
Nanula said the developers are talking with the nuns about a name for the project and whether there would be a continuing relationship between the sisters and the new tenants. “We want to continue to work with them on this project,” he said. “They were very selective on who they would sell this property to. Everybody had to be screened by them.”
The developers already committed to restoring the grotto that the nuns used for worship, and making it available for use by Hilbert students. They will also preserve stained-glass windows in the former convent chapel, and will remove pews and religious items from the chapel, to be donated by the nuns to missions in Nicaragua. “They have these beautiful solid-wood doors that can be reused in the project, and we’re going to try to keep those details alive,” Nanula said.
The sale proceeds, meanwhile, will be used to provide care for aging nuns, while supporting the order’s missions in health care, parish ministry, education, social services, and peace and justice, according to a press release from the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo.
The complicated, multi-part deal is the latest venture in which Nanula has partnered with either Sinatra or Williams on a real estate project. Williams and the Nanulas have partnered on development properties outside of Western New York, and also own a parking lot at the corner of Perry Street and Michigan Avenue in downtown Buffalo. Sinatra and the Nanulas, through a venture called S&N, bought a 50-unit apartment building in San Diego, and are also looking at several other projects. They also teamed up with contractor Sundra Rice on a $9.4 million project to buy and convert an 88,000-square-foot brick warehouse at 1665 Main St. in Buffalo into the Midtown Apartmeents, with 60 units slated for completion by the end of next year.