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Apartments proposed for two former Catholic schools

The wave of converting former churches and schools into apartments, offices and other uses will pick up two more examples this week, as architect Karl Frizlen has projects in South and North Buffalo on his drawing board.

Frizlen, president of Frizlen Group Architects, plans to convert the 42,000-square-foot former St. Teresa’s School in South Buffalo and 26,000-square-foot St. Rose of Lima School in North Buffalo into a total of 57 one- and two-bedroom apartments. The projects will be considered Wednesday afternoon by the Zoning Board of Appeals, and then by city planners.

They follow his earlier proposal to do the same for St. Thomas Aquinas School at 432 Abbott Road in South Buffalo, which was approved by the city in December.

In his latest initiatives, Frizlen wants to put in 36 apartments at St. Teresa’s, located at 17 Mineral Springs Road, and 21 at St. Rose of Lima, at 500 Parker Ave., with roughly an equal split between one and two bedrooms. Rents would range between $900 and $1,000 per month at St. Teresa’s and from $1,000 to $1,200 per month at St. Rose.

Frizlen is buying all three church schools from the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, paying about $340,000 each for St. Thomas and St. Teresa and $325,000 for St. Rose. The three churches date back to the 1910s and 1920s. The redevelopment involves only the schools, as “they have pretty active congregations,” Frizlen said.

But the buildings are on the church campus, so the land will be partitioned to separate them while the three-story buildings are retrofitted. The buildings have generally been empty for six to eight years, with only sporadic use of their gyms, but school activity ceased long ago.

“We’re trying to contribute to these neighborhoods, to save these buildings, so they’re not a burden to the current owner and not a burden to the neighborhood,” he said.

From apartments to commercial offices, medical facilities to entertainment venues, former religious facilities are being converted by developers into new and sometimes innovative uses. Consider living in luxury in a former gym, entering data or holding meetings where parishioners gathered for prayer, or being treated for an injury where students once learned the Bible.

It’s not new but it is becoming more common. Changing demographics and financial fortunes have combined to put a host of former churches and schools on the block, as their longtime former owners finally seek to unload costly real estate and hulking edifices they no longer need. That’s particularly the case in the city of Buffalo, as parishes and schools have merged.

The churches and neighborhoods want to see the buildings repurposed rather than torn down. And developers are increasingly seeing opportunities and benefits in reusing the original buildings, especially in areas where there isn’t much available land to assemble for new projects.

“They’re beautiful buildings, and it’s sad to see, but they’re getting their second life,” said James Dentinger, president of McGuire Development Co., which converted the former Evangel church at Maple and Ayer roads in Amherst into the Pediatric & Adolescent Urgent Care facility.

For one thing, the church, school and related buildings, often dating back to the early 20th century or further, are solidly built, with masonry facades, stone or brick archways and towers, and beautiful cathedral ceilings. The stained-glass windows, mahogany woodwork, arched ceilings, unique nooks, ornate architectural detail and other unusual spaces also can be incorporated into the new apartment or office space, making for one-of-a-kind artwork and amenities that “you’re just not going to get into a new construction brick-and-mortar building,” said David E. Pawlik, president of CSS Construction.

“When you’re in your unit, you’re looking above you and you’re looking at mahogany woodwork and stained glass,” said Pawlik, whose firm converted the North Park United Presbyterian Church at 700 Parkside Ave. into The Lofts at Warwick. “The type of care that the craftsmen in the early 1900s were constructing cannot be duplicated today. So why not take the beautiful craftsmanship and use modern technology and make it a place for people to live?”

Location is key. “Many of these buildings are nestled nicely within well established, stable neighborhoods,” said David Chiazza, executive vice president of Iskalo Development Co., which is preparing to convert St. Margaret’s School on Hertel Avenue into apartments and storefront retail space. “We don’t have to convince a prospective renter that they should live there.”

The challenge lies in making such jobs work, particularly financially. The costs of a conversion are often higher than other projects, especially when considering how to make a historic, sprawling open area into modern, energy-efficient space. The project has to meet current building codes, including for sprinklers. And the resulting leases still must be affordable.

That’s why they often depend on the use of historic tax credits and other innovative techniques. “These are not easy projects. There’s a lot more involved than in any kind of regular restoration or new construction, because the whole financing model is rather complicated,” said Frizlen, whose firm’s offices are located in the former Annunciation School at 257 Lafayette Ave., another project he retrofitted.

Additionally, seeking state and federal tax credits requires patience, as developers work with the state Historic Preservation Office and National Park Service for approval on all the work. Otherwise, plans can fall through.

And unexpected expenses inevitably crop up. “It’s a really challenging, but rewarding process when it’s done right,” Dentinger said. “But you have to understand your costs when you go into it, because you run into a lot of surprises along the way and you want to make sure you’re prepared for that.”