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Cleanup kicks off West Side housing project

A planned West Side apartment project that’s been more than four years in the making is finally moving forward, as environmental cleanup begins on the former sign-painting site and the site plan goes before the city next month.

Contractors from Benchmark Environmental this week will start excavating and disposing of about 3,600 tons of soil and fill materials at 295 Maryland St., near Allentown, as part of a state-supervised remediation plan, in preparation for redeveloping the property at the corner of Maryland Street and West Avenue. A soil cover and vapor barrier will also be installed on the site.

Former city judge-turned-real estate developer Anthony P. LoRusso is planning to construct a three-story, 44,900-square-foot building with a total of 54 market-rate apartments, aimed at lower- to middle-income residents. The proposed building, if approved by the city Planning Board in February, would include 48 one-bedroom units and six two-bedroom units.

With 628 square feet in the one-bedroom units and 990 square feet in the larger ones, the apartments will rent for $765 a month and $895 per month, respectively, LoRusso said. By comparison, he added, most similar new units rent for $900 to $1,200 per month.

The building will also include adequate parking as well as “green space,” plus a small art gallery for the Allentown neighborhood and community rooms. LoRusso said he had wanted to put a community laundry in the building but nixed it because of neighborhood opposition.

“We’re quite proud of this,” said LoRusso, a former Family Court and City Court judge, who is working with partner Richard Gonzalez on the housing project. “We think it will very much fit into the neighborhood and will be very nice housing.”

In all, the project should cost about $5 million of his own equity and bank financing from First Niagara Financial Group, including brownfield cleanup expenses of between $550,000 and $900,000, depending on what is ultimately needed, LoRusso said. He said he’s hoping to recover about 18 percent to 20 percent of his redevelopment costs, or $1 million, from the state through the Brownfield Cleanup Program, although he has to incur the costs upfront.

“The state helps you a little bit there, but in the beginning you must do it all,” he said. Still, “without that help, I don’t think you can do these projects.”

This is another example of efforts by landlords and developers to capitalize on the newfound activity in the urban core, and the strengthened desire by many to live in or near downtown. The area he’s targeting is just outside of Allentown and near Elmwood Avenue.

And it’s also easily accessible to the burgeoning Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, where 5,000 more people will be working in the next few years as Ciminelli Real Estate Corp.’s Conventus Building, the University at Buffalo’s School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, the new John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital and Roswell Park Cancer Institute’s Clinical Sciences Center are all completed. Indeed, he noted, Metro buses that stop just outside the building and a block away go directly to the Medical Campus.

“There’s very much going to be a shortage of parking there, so they need people who can walk or ride the bus,” he said.

LoRusso has been working on the project, which he has dubbed Casa Serena at Maryland Place – “Casa Serena” means “peaceful home” in Spanish – since early 2010, when he purchased the 1.495-acre property from an affiliate of outdoor billboard firm Lamar Advertising Co. for $35,000.

But he has struggled to overcome several hurdles with the cleanup and financing. LoRusso was aware that the property had a long history of commercial and industrial use. At one time, it was occupied by a highway sign company called Whitmer & Ferris, a small firm with a series of garages and barns on the site that dated back to 1920. That firm, which hand-painted many of its signs, was sold 20 years ago to Penn Advertising, a much larger sign company, which later was bought by Lamar. Lamar didn’t want to stay, however, and moved in 2000 to its current site on Exchange Street, while the existing facilities were demolished.

However, the Maryland Street property was contaminated by solvents, gasoline, hydraulic oil and other residue from years of painting on the site, even though that activity had ceased 20 years earlier. City officials under the Masiello administration had the property tested, and they found problems in the soil down to as much as 4 feet, though the soil wasn’t considered extremely hazardous. Still, it was enough to qualify as a brownfield. LoRusso then hired the same firm to confirm the results, and they worked with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to develop a cleanup plan.

In the meantime, he submitted site plans to the city for his proposed construction project and held three community meetings to obtain neighborhood feedback. The city Planning Board approved the plans in 2011, though LoRusso is bringing them back Feb. 9 for slight amendments to enhance the exterior appearance and add patios.

His plan originally called for low-income apartments, with government subsidies and a requirement that at least 20 percent of the units would be reserved for those within certain financial constraints. But he abandoned those plans and is instead targeting a slightly higher income bracket with no restrictions.

“We think this rate is very affordable for lots of folks,” he said. “The young professionals are heading back to cities. They can’t all move into the higher-end stuff, and we’re going to have a great need for service-type jobs in the near vicinity, and we think this is a great place for those people who work in those jobs.”

This is the fourth apartment project for LoRusso, a 69-year-old Buffalo native who has been involved with real estate for over 30 years.

His first project, 18 years ago, was the 32-unit Elmhurst Place Apartments in North Buffalo, and then he purchased and remodeled the Brent Manor Apartments at 366 Elmwood Ave. from the Episcopal Church 12 years ago. That 112-unit complex has smaller and less expensive units – at 400 square feet and rents of $635 per month – than what is proposed for Casa Serena, but it’s filled. Finally, LoRusso redeveloped a 22-unit apartment building at 10th and Virginia streets, called Casa Shelby, using historic tax credits. In all, he will own 212 units.