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Development transfusion expanding to East Side

This was a tough week for naysayers who cling to the view that nothing has changed in Buffalo.

Huge projects on the waterfront, at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and downtown have been on the march. But when LP Ciminelli unveiled a $70 million plan Monday to build 600 apartment units at the former Central Park Plaza in the struggling Leroy-Fillmore neighborhood, it was seen as a major breakthrough.

The Ciminelli project marks the first major private investment into the East Side – and one of the clearest signs, observers say, that a broader transformation of Buffalo is underway.

John A. Ciminelli, the company’s senior vice president, said the decision was influenced by the thousands of new jobs projected for the Medical Campus, the city’s appeal once again as a place to live and work, and the proximity of Metro Rail to take people from the new Highland Park development to their jobs.

“It is a sign that the circle of development is moving out. It was right in the core for a long time, and finally we are getting to the outer ring. It’s a good sign for the inner city,” said developer Rocco R. Termini, who has converted several industrial buildings downtown and in Black Rock, and has restored the historic Hotel @ the Lafayette.

Until now, most of the emphasis has been on a Main Street axis from the waterfront to the Medical Campus, with little investment on the East Side.

An estimated $4.5 billion has been invested in Buffalo since 2012, according to Brendan R. Mehaffy, who heads the city’s Office of Strategic Development. It involves every major developer and many smaller ones, as well as nonprofit developers providing affordable housing in neighborhoods.

LP Ciminelli’s project for the old Central Park Plaza dwarfs others previously completed or in the pipeline for the near East Side. Those projects include:

• Bethune Lofts, a $15 million redevelopment by Ciminelli Real Estate that created 87 loft-style apartments.

• The $20 million redevelopment of the former Sheehan Hospital, now Compass East, for professional and office space by McGuire Development.

• A $24 million conversion of the former Deaconess Center, planned by the Community Action Organization, to build low- to middle-income housing, a community center and new agency headquarters.

• A $20 million student housing project near LaSalle Station, by Legacy Development.

• St. John Baptist Church’s low- and moderate-income townhouses in the Fruit Belt, being built with $22 million in federal funds.

Tuesday, a city-affiliated development agency purchased an 11-acre former industrial property on East Delavan Avenue, including a 300,000-square-foot building, with the hope of returning it to commercial or industrial use. It is one of many idle East Side buildings along the Belt Line – the 15 miles of track circling Buffalo – that city officials say are becoming increasingly desirable for redevelopment.

There are also more big announcements on the way for the East Side, Mayor Byron W. Brown said. “This is the largest investment from a private-sector entity on the East Side to date, and I think this investment will stimulate much more private-sector investment there on a large scale,” he said.

East Side leaders say the Ciminelli development could lay the groundwork for stronger neighborhoods. “I think what Ciminelli is doing is a great thing. It will change the tapestry of the area that has been riddled with problems, including declining housing stock,” said Pastor James E. Giles of Greater Works Deliverance Fellowship on the East Side, and a vice president of Voice-Buffalo.

“My hope is, it will inspire economic development in the area, as well, and provide sustainable opportunities for the people that live there.”

Richard C. Cummings, president of the Black Chamber of Commerce, also said he hopes the development in the Leroy-Fillmore neighborhood, which is 86 percent black, will open the door for more significant investments, including jobs.

“The 600 units are a welcome sight. Up to now, the splash pad at Martin Luther King Park was the only thing that seemed to be happening on the East Side,” Cummings said. “If old traditions are being modified by present-day needs, there will be a major change coming to Buffalo.”

Aaron Bartley, executive director of People United for Sustainable Housing, or PUSH, said Buffalo has a big challenge before it. PUSH has $12 million invested in low- and moderate-income housing projects under development on the West Side.

“We have a chance to do something that all these big cities fail to do when they have had their mini-booms or big booms, and that’s to create neighborhoods that are not entirely homogeneous when it comes to race and class,” Bartley said. “But that only happens when you have community-driven processes that are making sure there is adequate, affordable housing being built in tandem with the kinds of investments coming in.”

Bartley continued, “There is a historic volume of development and construction happening in concentrated parts of the city, but what we need more of are neighborhood- and community-driven development plans to comprehensively invest in ways that address poverty, employment, housing, and recreational and transportation needs. We’re proving that can be done, and that these types of development are part of the narrative of what is changing in Buffalo.”

Developer Nick Sinatra said he expects the near East Side to see more investment along Main Street, where the expanding Medical Campus is located and the Metro transit line runs. He has redeveloped Fenton Apartments just west of the intersection of West Ferry and Main streets, and is developing new apartments around the corner on Main that are due to be completed by fall.

“There is already huge demand for residential housing in the city, and super-low vacancy,” Sinatra said. “It will only get higher because the (university at Buffalo) Medical School is moving downtown, and the campus hasn’t seen its full potential yet.”

Mehaffy also pointed to significant investments in other areas, including the $1.7 billion RiverBend project in South Buffalo; the $13 million Ohio Street parkway project in the Old First Ward, where developer Samuel J. Savarino is planning apartments; School 60’s conversion into apartments in Riverside; and Termini’s conversion of the former FWS building on Elmwood Avenue into the Foundry Lofts.

A convergence of developments have contributed to Buffalo’s resurgence, he said, from the ongoing cleanup of the Buffalo River and brownfields to recognizing the value of preserving the city’s past and adaptive reuse of old buildings.

“There are so many things happening at once in the City of Buffalo,” Mehaffy said. “We are benefiting from national changes in opinion in where people want to live, and the momentum from all these projects feeding on one another.

“Buffalo always had a lot going for it, but there was a lot standing in the way of Buffalo becoming the city it can be. Now we are in the position of building the city again.”