Norstar Development wants to start work next spring on the second phase of its redevelopment of the low-income Shoreline or Waterfront apartment complex, after it got the final go-ahead from a key city agency Monday.
Company officials still have to finalize a package of state financing for the $45 million project, before demolition can begin on the old structures. But they've already had conversations with state agencies, and hope to have that buttoned up by March.
"We met with the state last week. They would like to move forward," said Linda L. Goodman, vice president of Norstar Development USA in Buffalo. "We are hopeful we can close on the financing in late first quarter of 2018, and start after that."
Construction of the 18 buildings and 166 new apartments is expected to take up to two years in all, although the Niagara Square Apartments project will open in phases during that time as each building is completed, she added. The first units may be available within 12 to 15 months.
In the meantime, most of the tenants have been relocated under a state-approved plan to other affordable-housing or senior buildings, such as Marine Towers, Pine Harbor, Parkview and Baptist Manor, Goodman said. Some also chose to go with private landlords. Upon completion of the new units, they will be allowed to return, subject to income requirements, she added.
"We're happy that we can provide affordable housing on Niagara Street when everything else is going market-rate," she said.
The project previously won Planning Board approval in 2016, but that expired so Norstar had to come back for a new public hearing after the Green Code went into effect. While there were no major changes to the plan, the affordable housing developer still had to overcome criticism this week from a longtime vocal opponent of the project.
John Schmidt, a current resident of Shoreline and one of the few who has resisted pressure to relocate, complained that Norstar is destroying "much-needed low-income housing" and building too few units to replace them, violating federal law that mandates a 1-to-1 replacement when federal funds are involved.
He also ridiculed the argument by Norstar and the city that there's no loss of units because plenty of additional low-income apartments have been renovated in the city, saying they're not in the surrounding neighborhood as required by law.
"We're losing half the units here," he said Monday. "This is bad for the city. This is bad for downtown. And it's bad for low-income people."
He criticized Norstar for "demolition by neglect," citing a litany of ongoing problems.
"It's about deliberate destruction of a well-thought-out, well-designed set of buildings," he said. "What they're building are chipboard firetraps. They are flimsy."
And he denounced the relocation plan and tactics, calling it "forced removal."
"We are not out to stop the demolition or rebuilding. We want to make sure that it's done properly," he said.
Goodman responded by noting that the federal rules no longer apply, because the Housing and Urban Development subsidies expired after their 40-year term.
She said both the design and the relocation plan were reviewed and approved by New York Homes and Community Renewal.
"HCR is in charge and governs everything that happens on this project. We have to answer to them," she said. "The state monitors everything we're doing."
Planning Board members noted that many of the issues, even if they were legitimate, were simply outside their purview.
"The responsibility of this board is to the site plan and elevations," said member Martha Lamparelli. "I would hope the concerns that have been raised, many of which are valid, can be worked out."
Norstar, in conjunction with the city and New York Homes and Community Renewal, is seeking to revitalize the 1970s-era community to address rampant complaints about the complex and better meet the needs and desires of modern tenants. That means larger but fewer units, with an eye toward serving families.
Originally built under the state's Mitchell-Lama program, many of the existing buildings and 472 units have since deteriorated, as the entire complex "fell into a serious state of disrepair," Norstar wrote in an Oct. 30 letter to the Planning Board. In fact, 89 units in one building were taken out of service in 2004, while the remaining ones "are grossly deteriorated, energy inefficient and are functionally obsolete based on modern living standards."
The overall project calls for the demolition of the 21 original buildings and 383 units, to be replaced by 26 new structures with 214 new affordable apartments. The new mix will include both townhouses and low-rise apartment buildings, with one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments to reflect the variety of housing types in the broader community nearby.
But it's faced heavy opposition from some residents, preservationists and others, who have criticized not only the new project and design - including some historic features and a proposed sculpture - but also the manner in which the company is treating current tenants. The Preservation Board even initially denied the project without prejudice in July 2016, and asked the company to work with the State Historic Preservation Office to come up with a better plan.
Norstar completed the first phase in February at the corner of Niagara and Carolina streets, demolishing five buildings and constructing one new low-rise building and seven townhouse structures. That replaced 89 old apartments with 48 new ones. All are now fully occupied with former Shoreline residents.
In the second phase, plans first call for the demolition of 16 aging buildings on Seventh and Niagara streets. That would be followed by construction of two three-story apartment buildings with 96 units at the intersection of Niagara and the new Georgia Street extension, which was built as part of the project.
The project also includes 16 smaller, semi-detached townhome buildings along Niagara and Seventh streets, with 70 more apartments.
Norstar describes the community as "mixed-income," but all tenants must still qualify through their income. Approximately 20 percent of the units will be aimed at households with incomes at or below 50 percent of the area median income, 60 percent will be reserved for those with incomes at or below 60 percent of the median, and 20 percent will be for those with incomes at or below 90 percent.