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GROWTH ON THE BOOKS
LIBRARY RENOVATIONS COULD SPUR RENEWAL OF AREA DOWNTOWN

Can a trendy new neighborhood be built on a stack of books and a mug of latte?

Maybe not completely -- but those sorts of attractions certainly can help.

That's what people are saying about a section of the city near the Central Library in downtown Buffalo, where some rundown blocks are seeing encouraging signs of new life.

Paving the way is an ambitious four-phase $15 million renovation of the Central Library, with the first phase set for completion next month.

Then there's the fact one of the nation's largest antiquarian bookstores, Old Editions, opened here a year and a half ago.

Add to that the hundreds of people who will soon be moving into this neighborhood -- thanks to at least nine buildings slated to become apartments -- and you have the makings of a new hot spot on the city scene.

Who knows?

Maybe 10 years from now we'll be calling this Buffalo's Book District -- and folks will be clamoring to get in.

"I'd like to see an Elmwood feel or a Queen Street in Toronto feel," said Roger Trettel of Fredonia, who is renovating a building dating to 1876 into upscale apartments. "It's going to take some time, but it can happen."

This section of the city -- home to warehouses and commercial buildings in Buffalo's heyday -- is a wide corridor that follows Ellicott Street for about three blocks north of the public library.

Over the years, some buildings were torn down or fell into neglect. But there are bright spots -- businesses that have hung on, architecture that has been preserved. Trettel's building, for example, is famous for being featured in Charles E. Burchfield's 1930 painting "Rainy Night." Now it's getting a complete face lift.

Another bright spot is Old Editions Book Shop, one of the biggest of its kind. Owners Ronald and Marilee Cozzi took a chance in 2003 when they uprooted their business from Main Street near the University at Buffalo South Campus and moved it to Oak and East Huron streets. "This neighborhood wasn't used very much -- it was neglected in a way," said Ronald Cozzi. "But we're optimistic."

A street-front cafe inside Old Editions has reopened. It was closed earlier this year, but the Cozzis recently hired the restaurateurs behind the Lake Effect Diner on Main Street to cater the cafe, and they're hopeful for its success.

So, can a book-driven urban metamorphosis happen? It has, in other places around the country.

Book-related construction -- new or renovated libraries and the stores and cafes that spring up around them -- has made for positive results in other cities, including Chicago.

There, officials said, struggling urban neighborhoods were selected for library construction and renovation. The libraries drew people, which drew small businesses -- and dramatic turnarounds often happened. "The libraries are like the Marines, they go into a neighborhood first," said Mary A. Dempsey, commissioner of the Chicago Public Library. "And the transformation is completely noticeable within a year."

Of course, the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library isn't building many new branches these days. And the library system has been in financial turmoil since last month, when County Executive Joel A. Giambra ordered its funding slashed to help relieve county budget woes.

Still, the renovation project at the Central Library is off to a good start, even though only the first two phases of the project are completely funded, library officials said. In the first phase, due to be completed by December, the library's ground floor will be renovated to give more of a "big bookstore" feel -- complete with a cafe.

"We want to have fun things for families to do," said Library Director Michael C. Mahaney. "The same way people might go to Barnes & Noble or Borders, shop around and then sit down and enjoy a cappuccino -- people can do that here, and they don't have to buy the books."

Many of the changes in this neighborhood involve residential construction. Nine buildings are currently being renovated into apartments or have projects in the planning stage.

Trettel's project, at Ellicott Street and Broadway, is one of those in the works.

Among the other changes:

The Holling Press complex on Washington Street, about a block from the Central Library, is being converted into 82 apartments by Eran Epstein of E Square Capital. The project will be done by the end of February, Epstein said. The apartments -- all of which have high-speed wireless Internet connections -- are intended to attract a hip crowd in the 22-to-30 age range, he said.

The 1912 Electric Building at Ellicott and East Huron streets was purchased by Iskalo Development this summer and will soon become first-class office space.

A plan for 25 high-end rental units paired with commercial space in an old lumber mill on Elm Street, which most recently was Sensationz nightclub, is also going forward.

Owner Kevin Townsell said that work on the Hager Mill Lofts project will be under way within 60 days and that the work should be done by summer.

Work on creating 28 apartments out of the former Alternative School, located on Oak Street behind Old Editions bookstore, will begin within the next 30 days, according to Rocco Termini of Burke Bros. Construction.

The one-bedroom apartments with rents of $650 to $700 should be filled with tenants by August, Termini said.

Also in the works, for Termini, is Ellicott Commons, a four-building complex between Ellicott and Oak streets at the former Wehle Electric site that will eventually house 58 upscale apartment units plus 30,000 square feet of office space. Termini said he's a big believer in the neighborhood's potential.

"We're concentrating our efforts on the Genesee Village," said the developer. "I think it's turned the corner. I think you're going to see critical mass within the next two years."

e-mail: cvogel@buffnews.com

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