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A century after it opened as an upscale hotel for visitors to the Pan-American Exposition, a long-vacant building at 170 W. Chippewa St. has become downtown's newest residence for self-proclaimed "urban pioneers."

After more than three years of planning, the Watkins Building officially opened Monday as a six-unit apartment complex. The $479,000 project in the three-story structure near South Elmwood Avenue is being marketed as an ideal setting for young professionals who are eager to live in a historic structure just steps from the downtown core.

Vanessa M. Boone moved from San Francisco to Buffalo a few weeks ago to be closer to her family in Southern Ontario. She works at Robert Half International, a specialized staffing firm, and she requested a transfer to the Buffalo office at HSBC Center.

Boone confined her apartment search to a single Saturday afternoon when she inspected 10 properties.

"I made up mind that this is where I wanted to live. It's a beautiful building in a beautiful city," Boone said as she stood on the porch, clutching a glass of freshly poured champagne after Monday's ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The St. Catharines, Ont., native said she also lived in urban settings in San Francisco and Toronto. She said after visiting Buffalo's West Village -- one of the city's oldest neighborhoods -- that she was impressed with the architecture, the stately trees and the bustling Chippewa district.

"I'm in the middle of Party Central. Granted, I'm usually in bed by 10:30, but a lot of my friends are very interested in experiencing Chippewa," she said.

Monthly rents in the apartments range from $725 to $735, and four of the units already have been leased. The two-bedroom units have new appliances, special security features and off-street parking.

The project resulted from a public-private partnership including the city, Community Preservation Corp., Heart of the City Neighborhoods, the Local Initiatives Support Coalition and Fannie Mae.

"It has been a long project, but one that has been worthwhile," said Cynthia Schwartz, who heads Heart of the City, a not-for-profit development agency that is affiliated with Buffalo Place.

Mayor Anthony M. Masiello presided over Monday's ribbon-cutting. He called the project another step in efforts to foster a 24-hour downtown -- an urban core that offers a heavy concentration of residential development.

Other housing projects are under way at the former L.L. Berger complex, the former Trico complex and the M. Wile & Co. building.

Earlier this month, a Hamburg construction company announced that it wants to spend $11 million to turn eight buildings near Oak and Genesee streets into 90 loft-style apartments. But that project could face a snag: A revised proposal for building a new convention center calls for incorporating the properties into the plan.

Masiello said he hopes that there will be other projects similar to the Watkins Building initiative.

"One block at a time, we're reinvesting in our downtown corridor," he said.


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