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McCarley Gardens to remain affordable housing under $35 million remake

McCarley Gardens is about to get a $35 million makeover. But this time, the focus will remain on affordable housing and residents will stay.

Developer Nick Sinatra has teamed up with Rev. Michael Chapman – whose St. John Baptist Church owns McCarley – to undertake a complete renovation of the 40-year-old low-rise apartment community just south of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

The overhaul would entail a top-to-bottom rehab of all 150 apartments over a 30-month period, while adding more courtyard space and trees to the complex.

"There's a real opportunity to renovate and revitalize this," Sinatra said. "These units were built in 1978. They're old and they're tired, and they're falling apart."

The project would represent a major investment of public and private dollars. But McCarley will still be an affordable housing complex, with rents subsidized through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. It will also still be owned by the church.

The latest plan is a stark contrast from a failed proposal a few years ago to turn the site into academic and research facilities to support the nearby Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. That plan drew vehement opposition from residents and city politicians who worried that longtime McCarley Gardens residents would be displaced.

No current tenants will be permanently uprooted by the new plan to remake the housing complex, Sinatra said.

"We want to make sure that the residents have a high quality of life, and we believe that the project and the renovation has been well thought out," Chapman said. "We're looking forward to it being a successful extension of the ministry."

Project details are still being finalized, and the plans have not yet been approved. However, tenants were formally briefed on the project over the weekend in a meeting at the church's Dr. Bennett W. Smith Senior Family Life Center.

"We thought it was important to meet with them first," Sinatra said. "There's a lot of skepticism over there, given the history of the site, so they wanted to hear from us first."

Tenants interviewed Monday were cautiously optimistic about the proposal.

"I think it will be great for the people here. Something new pops you up," said tenant Gretchen Delestre, who pays $373 per month in rent for the four-bedroom apartment she shares with her husband and three children. "It sounds awesome."

Resident Anibal Rodriguez said he was skeptical.

"It's going to happen, but will they keep their word on keeping the rents the same and not booting people out?" said Rodriguez, a handyman, who lives with and cares for his mother, a 23-year resident of McCarley Gardens. "I just hope it's for the best."

The redo of McCarley will be the second major ongoing construction project involving affordable housing near the medical campus. Property owners and the development community have pursued projects, including housing, hotels, retail and office space, near the medical campus that seek to capitalize on rising demand for services from the campus' expansion.

McGuire Development Company is working with Mark H. Trammell on a redevelopment of the Pilgrim Village housing complex that Trammell owns north of the medical campus. That site is slated to become a new mixed-income, mixed-use community dubbed Campus Square.

As with McCarley, McGuire and Trammell have promised that all the current tenants will still be able to live in the new facility. But where Campus Square will be a much more dense development, with many more units and retail spaces, the layout of McCarley will remain largely the same.

"What was done over at Pilgrim would not work here. It would displace too many people, who currently live here and have lived here for decades," Sinatra said. "And given the history of the site, it was thought that this would be the best possible development plan for the residents."

Plans for upgrading the McCarley Gardens site include adding new gabled roofs, flooring, walls, windows and blinds in the units, as well as new bathroom vanities, kitchen appliances, countertops and cabinets. Some of the units may be reconfigured and enlarged.

Seven years ago, the church offered to sell the entire community to the University at Buffalo Foundation. UB officials wanted to clear the land so it would be shovel-ready for new academic and research facilities.

But UB backed out three years ago amid community opposition as it had already moved forward with its medical school and other projects elsewhere on the medical campus.

Since then, the church has been working with Sinatra on ideas to redevelop various properties, eventually deciding to focus on McCarley.

Built in 1978 and owned by the church's Oak-Michigan Development Corp. affiliate, McCarley Gardens is spread across more than 15 acres, mostly between Goodell, Oak, Michigan and Virginia streets.

"The goal is not to displace anybody," Sinatra said. "If you live at McCarley, you're going to be moved around on McCarley until the project is done and you move into your permanent home."

The proposed plans by Sinatra's team call for using 15 apartments on a 2-acre side parcel between Oak and Ellicott streets as "swing" units for housing residents temporarily during the renovation. Those are still occupied, so workers will first construct 15 new townhome-style apartment homes in the main block, creating new permanent homes for those residents, while also filling out gaps in the six quads that make up the main campus.

The remaining 135 units would be renovated over time. Workers will install new plumbing, electrical systems and central air conditioning, while switching out baseboard heat for a forced-air system.

More closet space also will be added, and the units will get porches or balconies. There are currently 27 two-bedroom, 94 three-bedroom and 28 four-bedroom units, ranging in size from 700 to 900 square feet, not including full basements.

Plans also include 25 percent more green space, with more courtyards and trees for a "park-like setting" designed to mimic the pocket park feeling of Arlington or Days parks. The roads will be reconfigured with a large traffic circle and new landscaped islands to slow down the cars that often use the community "as a cut-through," Sinatra said.

Ultimately, Sinatra plans to "square off" the entire McCarley community, extending Oak to Virginia and turning the smaller adjacent site - with the 15 older apartments that will be demolished - into a shovel-ready parcel for future development by the church.

Sinatra and Chapman are still working to line up the $35 million to $40 million needed for the project. Their plan calls for using a state low-income tax credit bond issued through the Housing Finance Agency, as well as long-term bank debt and foundation grants. They also hope to get money from the Buffalo Billion’s Better Buffalo Fund. Sinatra has also invested some money, but the church will continue to own McCarley, which is managed by Belmont Housing.

"That was really important for the residents, when we talked to them," Sinatra said. "The community, through the church, will own this property now and for the next 40 years."

Sinatra and his team are working to finish up the plans with input from the residents and surrounding community. Church leaders have already reviewed the proposal, and Common Council President Darius Pridgen – whose Ellicott District includes McCarley – wants to hold a formal public meeting by the end of the month.

After that, officials plan to seek city Planning Board approval in March, making it one of the first big projects up for review under the Green Code. They will also start applying for the state funding.

If approved, Sinatra said he wants to start construction by the end of the year, with a goal of finishing by late 2019 or early 2020.

Besides Sinatra and the church, the team includes Sundra Ryce's SLR Contracting & Service Company, Lamparelli Construction, architects Carmina Wood Morris PC and Cory Haqq's Urban Equity Management Group.

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