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Buffalo Planning Board OKs Pierce-Arrow building project

Renovation of the historic but long neglected Pierce-Arrow Administration Building in North Buffalo took a big step forward Monday night, as a key city panel gave a conditional green light to plans to convert it into more than 100 new apartments.

A downstate development firm and its Buffalo-based representative want to renovate the 123,099-square-foot office complex at 1695 Elmwood Ave. into the new Pierce-Arrow apartment building, with 107 units throughout the three-story brick and stone facility. It’s the latest transformation of a historic property in that neighborhood, after three successful previous renovations of nearby buildings by developer Rocco Termini.

The city Planning Board approved the $30 million project by developer Read Property Group of Brooklyn and Joseph Hecht, a North Buffalo investor who owned the building from 2005 until he sold it this year to Read.

Plans by Flynn Battaglia Architects and Studio T3 Engineering call for a mixture of one- and two-bedroom apartments at the Pierce-Arrow, with some two-bedroom loft units on the second floor, where ceilings are 19 feet high. There will not be any retail or restaurant space, but tenant amenities will include a fitness center and small lounge area with Wi-Fi.

“There will not be any bars or breweries in the building,” Hecht said.

The restoration of the long and slender property – which does not include the main manufacturing building behind it – includes a $4 million proposal to convert a pair of secondary industrial buildings at 1721 Elmwood into a new indoor parking facility for 64 vehicles for the new residential tenants. There’s also 26 existing parking spaces, plus 31 more proposed spots in the rear and front of the building that city officials had suggested, giving the building 120 spaces in all, or more than enough for one space per apartment.

But the outside parking in front of the building was still a source of concern for Planning Board members, who wanted to see landscaping and screening along Elmwood instead.

Board members and one self-described preservationist who lives nearby urged Hecht to reduce or eliminate the cars in front.

Hecht said he hopes to accomplish that by putting an addition on to the secondary parking building to accommodate another 22 cars. But because the complex has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975, such action first requires approval from the State Historic Preservation Office, which is still pending and uncertain.

“I have the same concerns as you do,” Hecht said. “We believe they will be willing to accommodate us on that front, but I can’t promise it yet. … You can approve the project and we can move forward, or it stays the same eyesore. I can’t have my hands tied. I’ve got to work with what I have, and it’s costing me a lot of money to do it.”

In the end, the board approved the project, but required Hecht and Read to come back to the Planning Board with either a complete redesign of the area in front of the building or simply a more pedestrian-friendly plan for it, depending on what SHPO decides to allow for the back building.

Besides final approval from SHPO, Read and Hecht are also seeking to have the project included in the state Brownfield Cleanup Program. Those two clearances would allow the project to qualify for lucrative state and federal historic tax credits, as well as brownfield tax credits.

Hecht noted that plans call for preserving many historic elements, such as marble on the first floor and a former fireplace – likely in the old president’s office – that was just rediscovered behind a solid wall. “This building is big enough that we keep on finding new things,” he said.

He said officials hope to start demolition work by January or February, with construction work beginning by March.

“When it’s done, everybody who drives by will say, wow,” Hecht said.

email: jepstein@buffnews.com

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