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Downtown Buffalo building on Washington Street being converted to apartments

Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. plans to convert the former University at Buffalo Educational Opportunity Center on Washington Street into 45 apartments and two floors of retail and commercial space, restoring a century-old downtown building to capitalize on the growing desire for city living near transit lines.

The $15 million project, dubbed The Sinclair to harken back to the building’s original owner, will renovate the 86,000-square-foot commercial building at 465 Washington St. into the latest mixed-use structure in the city’s urban core. The effort will combine some of the building’s traditional details and storied past – including a historic staircase and exposed beams – with modern steel and concrete construction.

When complete, the six-story building, which also has a lower basement level with windows, will include 14,000 square feet for commercial tenants on that lower level and first floor, with a mixture of five studio, 30 one-bedroom and 10 two-bedroom apartments on the upper five levels.

The market-rate apartments will range in size from 600 to 1,600 square feet, and will rent from the upper $800s and lower $900s to just under $2,000 per month for the biggest units. Each apartment will include a gas-fired furnace, electric fireplaces, “generous kitchens, and high-level finishes,” such as hardwood, ceramic tiles and quartz countertops.

The largest units, with two bedrooms and two bathrooms, will also have wine refrigerators and their own laundry machines, while tenants for other units will use a shared laundry in the basement. Exposed existing ceilings will showcase the beam pattern of the construction, with heights varying from 10 to 14 feet, while large windows display “beautiful views of the city,” said development project manager Amber Holycross. The developer wants to bring a cafe to a small area along Washington Street on the first floor, and is talking to possible office tenants for the remaining first-floor space, Holycross said

CEO Paul Ciminelli said the firm already has a tenant in hand “for a good chunk” of the office space, “which we’ll be announcing soon.”

Ciminelli bought the yellow-brick and red-mortar structure on 0.2 acres at Washington and Mohawk streets after UB relocated the Equal Opportunity Center to a newly built $26 million facility at 555 Ellicott St., closer to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. The firm paid $2.3 million for the building.

The project joins a growing list of other reuse efforts in Buffalo aimed at taking older commercial and industrial buildings in and around downtown, and redeveloping them for new office, retail and residential space. And it accompanies significant government investment in upgrading streets and landscapes to create a more walkable and transit-friendly environment, in keeping with smart-growth efforts overall.

“One of the things that’s really amazing, when you acquire a building like this and you see all the infrastructure that’s being done around it, with new sidewalks and streetscapes, it really energizes you to see where the city is going and see the buzz,” Ciminelli said during a presentation on the project to the Buffalo Place board.

As with Ciminelli’s conversion of a former factory further up Main Street near Hertel Avenue into the Bethune Lofts, the firm is counting on a mix of tenants to fill the building, from young professionals without cars, to Medical Campus and downtown workers, to empty-nesters seeking to downsize from homes and return to the city. Only three of Bethune’s 87 units are currently available for lease.

And officials believe the project, which doesn’t include its own parking, will benefit from its proximity to the Lafayette Square Metro Rail station, just a tenth of a mile away, and the nearby Mohawk Ramp operated by Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps.

“It’s one of many, many exciting projects in downtown now,” said Buffalo Place Chairman Keith Belanger.

Ciminelli staff chose the Sinclair name, as well as a hat pin logo, in tribute to the building’s past. Designed by Esenwein & Johnson and originally constructed in 1909, the building was the headquarters and production hub for Sinclair, Rooney & Co., a local women’s hatmaker, that had become a leader in the industry.

At that time, seven of the city’s eight milliners were on Washington Street, within about 500 feet of each other, putting them in close proximity to clothing stores J.N. Adam & Co. and the William Hengerer Co. It was later occupied by an operations center for typewriter company Remington Rand, and eventually became home to the UB EOC. It was placed on the State Register of Historic Places last month, and Ciminelli is also seeking a federal designation and historic tax credits for the project.

Besides the commercial and residential space, the building will also include bicycle and basement storage for tenants, as well as a community room. There will also be public restrooms. Trash compactors in the basement will handle garbage “in a clean and efficient manner,” Holycross said.

Construction has started, and most of the work is expected to finish by February 2016, with a spring opening scheduled.