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$5.7 million OK’d for loft apartments at Niagara Falls site

NIAGARA FALLS – A former school building shuttered for years is another step closer to gaining new life.

A state agency recently approved $5.7 million in funding for the Niagara City Lofts project, which would turn the former South Junior High School into 61 loft apartments.

CB-Emmanuel Realty, a Queens-based firm, has been making efforts to redevelop the crumbling building at 561 Portage Road, having first announced its plans in June 2013. With a major piece of funding in place, work on the more than $20 million project is expected to start in earnest later this year.

There will be 49 one-bedroom units, 10 two-bedroom and two studio lofts in the building, which will also have a community room with a computer lab and a common laundry area.

In addition to the lofts, the project also will include about 18,000 square feet of commercial space.

Earlier this month, New York State Homes and Community Renewal’s Housing Trust Fund Corp. voted to award the project $5.7 million from its Low-Income Housing Trust Fund program.

The developer and project supporters have described the units as “workforce housing,” aimed at employees of places such as Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center and Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel. The housing would be marketed to prospective tenants who are younger and likely starting out in careers in the city.

Rents will range from $475 to $800 per month. Ten of the units will be market-rate.

In order to qualify for the 51 “affordable” units, household income must be at or below 60 percent of the area median income. That means a one-person household will have an income limit of $28,440; a two-person household, $32,520; a three-person household, $36,600; and a four-person household, $40,620.

Supporters say the project will help prevent what would have been a costly demolition paid for by the city, and it will mean that the property will generate taxes for the first time.

The estimated demolition cost was about $1.2 million, said Seth A. Piccirillo, the city’s director of community development. Years of neglect, leading to decay and water damage, left the former school seriously deteriorated, Piccirillo said. “The building is completely rotting,” he said.

CB-Emmanuel officials have previously said they have already spent $500,000 on the project, including $33,000 in roof repairs.

The project is receiving low-income housing tax credits through the state, and expects to receive historic tax credits, though the latter have yet to be approved, Piccirillo said.

The private funding being put into the project totals roughly $13.7 million, according to a project summary document provided to the board of Housing Trust Fund Corp., which listed the total project cost at $22.3 million.

Other funding sources, according to the document, include state funds previously awarded to the city through the Restore New York program, as well as a $585,000 developer’s fee and $152,500 from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

The city was awarded $5 million through Restore New York in 2009 for site redevelopment, but only $2.1 million of that funding is being allocated for this project, according to the document. It was not immediately clear why the funding amount differed from the original pledge.

As another element of the project, a fund for improvements at properties in the neighborhood, as part of a “community benefit agreement,” will be established. It will be administered by Niagara Falls Neighborhood Housing Services.

The school closed in 1987 and was used as a community center as recently as the mid-1990s. There were several redevelopment proposals made for the property prior to this one, but none came to fruition.

The sale of the building by the Niagara Falls School District for $66,000 was approved by voters in December 2013.

In October, the City Council approved a tax agreement for the project, which will see the city bring in about $377,000 over 15 years, Piccirillo said at the time. Under the agreement, CB-Emmanuel will pay 6 percent of the rent that it receives for the apartments.

Ben Upshaw, a principal in CB-Emmanuel, said in an email that he hopes construction will begin this fall.