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UNITY PARK II RAZING, REDUCED REBUILDING PROPOSED

Norstar Development USA has a new plan for a housing complex it wants to buy on Ninth Street.

Unity Park II would be completely demolished and rebuilt in a smaller size, under the new proposal for which Norstar is seeking financing.

In November, the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency authorized $4.2 million in tax-exempt bonding authority to finance a partial demolition and rebuilding of the 200-unit project. Approval from the Niagara County Legislature was also required, but it never came.

Legislator Renae Kimble, D-Niagara Falls, blocked the measure from reaching the Legislature floor Jan. 22. She said at the time she objected to James Management Co., the current manager, which Norstar proposed to keep. Kimble said she had received many complaints about James from tenants.

"Our approach to what we're doing now is an entirely new financial scheme," said Richard L. Higgins, Norstar president. "Frankly, our interest in pursuing IDA financing became moot." He said the IDA will not be involved in the new plan "in all likelihood."

"The problem with the financing was the final approval by the Legislature was continually taken off the agenda," said Linda L. Goodman, Norstar's director of project development.

Norstar has rebuilt the Frederick Douglass Towers and the Ellicott Town Center in Buffalo, but Goodman said, "Bureaucracy is more difficult up there (in Niagara County)."

Higgins said Unity Park II has about 70 tenants in its 200 units, while the neighboring Apple Walk housing complex, which Norstar also hopes to purchase, has about 70 vacancies in its 200 units.

"It works pretty well," said Higgins, who said the plan is to move the Unity Park tenants to Apple Walk.

Stephanie Cowart, executive director of the Niagara Falls Housing Authority, said although her agency has no role in Unity Park or Apple Walk, she is in favor of "anything that enhances the neighborhood. I think their plan will do just that."

The Empire State Development Corp., a state agency, owns Unity Park by virtue of having foreclosed on a mortgage. The complex was originally built with state funding, and tenants' rents are subsidized.

Apple Walk is privately owned. Goodman said the general partner, the Finch Group, a Florida company, wants to sell, although lesser partners and Empire State Development would have to approve.

"In showing our commitment to Unity Park, we have a purchase offer in on Apple Walk," Goodman said. The amount has not been disclosed.

The state has designated Norstar as its preferred developer for Unity Park, Goodman said.

"We were going to de-densify it," Goodman said. "There are far too many units there, which is why (more than) half of them are vacant."

The first phase of the original $8.6 million plan called for demolition of six Unity Park buildings and renovation of 40 surviving apartments.

"They were poorly constructed to begin with," Cowart said. "They weren't well maintained, either."

In 1999, city and county inspectors found building code or health violations in a dozen Unity Park apartments, although at the time the city's chief building inspector, Stanley Kinaszewic, said the tenants' housekeeping habits were partly to blame.

Under the new plan, all of the existing two-story townhouses and the only three-story unit will be razed. All of the new townhouses will be two stories.

Goodman said the new Unity Park's size will be perhaps 100 units, depending on demand. "Nobody's going to put back 200," Higgins said.

Although the project's schedule depends on financing, Higgins said he hopes to have the Unity Park tenants move to Apple Walk this year.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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