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Bell Tower Lofts ring in new housing option in North Buffalo

More than five years after an arsonist's fire ravaged an old stone church in North Buffalo, the surviving bell tower has gained new life in its residential neighborhood – as the centerpiece of a new apartment building.

The novice developers behind Bell Tower Lofts are preparing to open their 26-unit complex at 375 Colvin Ave. next month, starting a fresh chapter at the historic site. Where parishioners and congregants once prayed, young professionals and empty-nesters will now call home.

The tower of the North Park Baptist Church is all that's left of the Italian Renaissance Revival-style brown stone edifice that graced the corner of Colvin and Tacoma avenues for a century. The rest was demolished four years ago – over the opposition of preservationists – after years of neglect, water damage, mold and finally the April 2012 fire.

Sam DeFranks Sr. and Jerry Williams, owners of Apollo Dismantling Services in Niagara Falls, agreed to save the tower as a remnant of that rich history. Now it's incorporated into the center of their new project – albeit in direct contrast to the modern, suburban look of the rest of the building, with its facade of red brick and alternating cream and beige siding.

The stone tower rises high above the three-story apartment building, which wraps around and hides the tower's base within its plaster walls. Except for the view from the street, the steeple's face is visible only in a small lounge area on the second floor, where the sealed upper portion of an arched doorframe is exposed to tenants and guests, with a porthole window above it.

The tower is closed off and windows are boarded up, as conditions inside pose a safety hazard. Crews found broken stairs and a lot of pigeons inside when they first got in.

But DeFranks said his company's goal is to continue restoration work and ultimately light the tower from underneath "so it's a beacon in the neighborhood."

"We kind of just use it to preserve some type of history in the North Buffalo area," said Sam DeFranks Jr., the property manager and developer's son.

The disconnect has evoked some questions and criticism. But that's deliberate, said the elder DeFranks, who grew up in North Buffalo.

"That was the idea. We didn't want to put up a building that looked like the church that sat here," he said. "Everybody thought it would be a perfect blend of old and new."

Meanwhile, Apollo this month started marketing the apartments for rent, with the first tenants able to move in Oct. 1. Officials already have received dozens of inquiries and sent out applications, but no leases are signed yet.

The original bell tower rises above the new Bell Tower Lofts on Colvin Avenue at Tacoma. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The $4 million project features a mix of apartment sizes and layouts, all handicapped-accessible, with an elevator in the building. First-floor units open directly onto the street, like townhouses, while apartments on the upper two floors open into a long central hallway.

There are 15 one-bedroom units, ranging in size from 850 to 980 square feet, and renting for $1,200 to $1,500 per month. There are also 10 two-bedroom apartments of 870 to 1,100 square feet, available for $1,600 to $1,800 per month. And there is one three-bedroom, two-story apartment at the corner, with 1,500 square feet and a $2,200 rent.

Apartments feature open floor plans, with brown woodlike vinyl flooring throughout the units, stainless-steel Kenmore appliances and white cabinets in the kitchens, solid-surface countertops, tall islands with space for barstools, and in-unit laundry machines. The upstairs units also have metal Juliet balconies.

Property Manager Sam DeFranks Jr. stands in the open kitchen and living space in one of the units at the new Bell Tower Lofts on Colvin Avenue at Tacoma during a tour. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Bedrooms have large walk-in closets with metal shelving, while the bathrooms include spacious showers with rain-style shower heads, as well as ceramic tile flooring and backsplashes. Two-bedroom apartments have two bathrooms with shower tubs, while some one-bedroom units and the three-bedroom apartment have one and a half bathrooms.

The building also includes two gated parking lots, accessible with a key fob. Tenants can enter from both the lots and the street, and have intercoms in their apartments.

Bell Tower Lofts is just one of a series of new redevelopment projects in North Buffalo that are converting old commercial, industrial, school and church buildings into apartments. Developers like Paul Iskalo, Rocco Termini, Nick Sinatra and William Paladino are seizing on the growing popularity of the neighborhood and its increasing retail and restaurant activity, especially on streets like Hertel and Colvin avenues.

"We thought it would be a great opportunity," DeFranks said. "You don’t see this type of opportunity that often in the city when you're on the corner of a major neighborhood to be able to do a great infill project."

DeFranks acknowledged the neighborhood skepticism about the project at the outset, especially from those who wanted to preserve more of the church. Parking worries also were a concern, prompting the team to cut back from 40 units to allow for the larger lots.

"I don't think we're really going to be a burden on the neighborhood like everybody suggested," he said. "I think it looks better than the church."

The original bell tower has become a point of interest in the second floor common lounge area inside the new Bell Tower Lofts on Colvin Avenue at Tacoma. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Built in 1926, the church building was home to multiple religious denominations over its life, starting with North Park before Temple Emanu-El synagogue bought it in the 1930s. It later became home to the Korean United Methodist Church, which vacated in 2006.

After the fire, Apollo was hired to demolish the building but DeFranks and Williams saw an opportunity and bought the property from the Korean church. Planning began more than two years ago, and construction started last November.

This is the first ground-up development venture for the two partners, whose traditional specialty is taking buildings down, not putting them up. The duo worked with Sutton Architects and S.M. Hayes Construction Services on the project, which was privately financed, with no tax breaks or other government incentives.

But DeFranks said he and his company have done more preservation and restoration work than demolition, including in many downtown buildings "that might once have been a candidate for demolition." So the Bell Tower Lofts project was not so far afield.

"We've modified and adapted our business to grow with Buffalo and its renaissance of bringing back the old to the new," he said. "Our business had to get conditioned to change. I've got more excavators sitting than I ever have, and I have more people working on interior renovation projects than I ever dreamed I'd get to."

And, he added, he would do it again, "if the opportunity came about."

"I learned a tremendous amount doing a project like this," DeFranks said. "It's great to do something in the neighborhood that you grew up in."

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