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Unity Park work to start Housing complex project under way after years of delays

Plans to demolish and rebuild the vacant Unity Park II housing complex on Ninth Street have been in the works for so long that it came as a surprise -- a pleasant one -- to some residents that crews will begin working this week.

"That is beautiful. I'm sure that is something the community is going to embrace wholeheartedly," said local activist Jennifer Phelps, whose mother has lived near the complex for more than 20 years. "There are a lot of longer-term residents in this community, and they saw [Unity Park] coming up as a viable place and then deteriorating."

Norstar Development USA of Buffalo -- which was chosen by the state in 2001 to redevelop the site -- recently finalized a $9.8 million financing package of private and public money to raze the 198-unit complex and replace it with 40 modern townhouses.

Now, after five years of paperwork and bureaucratic hurdles, the title for the land has been signed over to Norstar, and the eyesore is about to come down, said Linda L. Goodman, Norstar's director of project development.

The Rev. Stanley Gordon Smith, pastor of St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church across the street, said he's so supportive of the project he would offer to help tear down the buildings.

"I'm just looking at it as a very positive image thing, both for the church and community," he said.

The large complex was built in the North End in the early 1970s as low- to moderate-income rental housing, as Unity Park II will be.

Since the original buildings were condemned by the city a few years ago, almost all the boards have been ripped off the doors, vandals have stripped the insides, and some units have been damaged by fire.

It's a place Phelps said has become known for attracting "unsavory individuals."

"I walk my niece to the school bus stop across from it. Every time I walk by it my heart sinks," said Phelps, community outreach coordinator for the Niagara Falls Police Department's Weed and Seed Program.

Goodman said she is ecstatic to be able to move forward on a project that is needed and deserved.

The new Unity Park II will be built on the five acres closest to Applewalk, another subsidized rental community owned by Norstar on Ninth Street. The remaining 21 acres of the site will be cleared and available for later development.

The new townhouses will come in one- to five-bedroom units in smaller, less-dense groups than the current Unity Park. Several will be handicapped-accessible.

"It's modeled after a new community style of living, and the idea is to create a sense of community and a sense of ownership," said Jeff Albert, project designer for Foit-Albert Associates, the project's architect. "We're hoping residents can form a microcommunity where they can avoid the older version of public housing, where it's dense and there's no sense of privacy."

Albert, who began designing the complex in 2001 after meeting with its residents, said that sense of privacy will be created through private backyards and front entrances. He said the current complex has a lot of "dead spaces" where walkways are tight, people can hide and the buildings are very crowded. The new setup will have a common green space and a more open layout that is easy to walk around as well as being safer.

The complex also will include a playground and a 1,200-square-foot resident center, where a kitchen and meeting room will be available to hold birthday parties and gatherings. That building also will house administrative offices and a laundry.

The design gained the project an additional $1 million tax credit under the state's Green Building Initiative, Albert said.

About 29 families were moved to Applewalk in 2004, and they will have the first right to move back into the newly built units. Otherwise, tenants will be required to be below 60 percent of the average median income.

The Niagara Falls Housing Authority, which chose Norstar to redevelop its Center Court complex across the street from Unity Park, was the nonprofit partner to Norstar in its application to the state.

"We're interested in creating neighborhoods that are safe," Housing Authority Executive Director Stephanie Cowart said. "It fits so neatly in with our plans to revitalize the area."

The Housing Authority recently received a $20 million federal HOPE VI grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to aid its $80 million initiative to replace Center Court with 282 new units across the street from Unity Park II and in LaSalle. Norstar will oversee, build and manage those units as well.

Construction of the HOPE VI project will begin next September and conclude in early 2009, while the new Unity Park will begin this spring and be complete by the end of 2008.

Niagara Falls Police Superintendent John R. Chella agreed there is reason to hope for a more stable neighborhood when the dilapidated units come down.

"There is a 'broken windows' theory that if a neighborhood has a broken window, a criminal element enters and thinks, 'We'll do what we want because they don't care about their neighborhood,' " Chella said. "As Unity Park stabilizes itself, I think the quality of life will improve there."

One of the major delays for this project was when HUD rejected the developer's request to transfer the low-rent subsidies given to the former complex to the new 40 units. HUD denied repeated requests because the new complex would not be replacing all 198 units.

The bulk of the financing eventually came from the state's Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which gave the project $1.9 million, a low-interest loan and federal tax credits worth $6.8 million.

Niagara County Legislator Renae Kimble, D-Niagara Falls, began pushing for improvements at the complex nearly 13 years ago, when she received complaints from her constituents. She said she is impressed by Norstar Executive Director Richard Higgins for finding private financing to replace those HUD subsidies.

"I am pleased about the fact that he was persistent in coming up with an alternative plan," she said. "He understands that the situation was grave and the community just could not deal with it anymore.

"I think once it's demolished, that will be a moral victory for the community and that there is finally some progress on the horizon."

e-mail: gfranklin@buffnews.com

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Fast facts on the planned Unity Park II townhouse development:

Location: Ninth Street, Niagara Falls

Developer and owner: Norstar Development USA of Buffalo

To be demolished: 198 units on 26 acres; work to start this week

Planned units: 40 townhouses on 5 acres

Cost: $9.8 million

Construction start: Spring 2007

Completion: Scheduled for the end of 2008

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