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‘Transformational’ project proposed for SUNY Buffalo State neighborhood

A developer plans to knock down dozens of dilapidated houses over the next five years and build student housing for 750 college students adjacent to SUNY Buffalo State, a project that city and college officials predict will transform the neighborhood.

Apartments for 300 students, in the first phase, could open by September 2016.

When completed, the project would cost between $75 million and $90 million and occupy nearly an entire city block.

“This is going to be a transformational project that will clearly benefit the college, but at the same time benefit the community,” said James Swiezy, president of Greenleaf Development of Buffalo.

Plans for the block – bordered by Grant, Rees, and Bradley streets and Rockwell Road – will be presented soon to the city’s Zoning and Planning boards.

The privately financed project would begin with 75 apartments – primarily three- and four-bedroom units – in two five-story buildings that would open in September 2016 for the fall semester. Retail would be on the first floor.

The entire project calls for 750 beds in 200 apartments in five buildings over five years.

“We are very positive about the plan and support it very strongly,” said Mayor Byron W. Brown. “We would very much like to see this project go forward. It shows that the development interest we’re seeing and development itself is extending to all areas of the city.”

Buffalo State has also signaled its approval.

“We are optimistic that the project will not only help us meet our student housing needs, but will also be a catalyst for further revitalization near the college’s Grant Street entrance and throughout the city’s West Side,” said Michael LeVine, Buffalo State’s vice president for finance and management.

Swiezy cited support from Brown and Buffalo State College President Katherine S. Conway-Turner as critical to the project.

Swiezy began assembling the 40 or so properties on the block several years ago. About 15 of the older cottage-style and 1940s-era single-family homes have been torn down. The remainder – many of them condemned, including several used by the Buffalo Fire Department for training – will meet a similar fate.

The college owns three of the parcels and will swap them with the developer to build an alumni visitor center next to the campus.

The second phase will be similar to the first, with the third slightly smaller, Swiezy said.

Swiezy said the apartments would be marketed and tailored to students, with rents he called “competitive.” A fitness center and computer lab are also planned.

Buffalo State currently has 2,612 beds in 11 residence halls on campus.

Retail establishments would likely include coffee shops and restaurants. How well the developer rents retail space in the first phase would determine if it would be part of the future phases.

Kideney Architects, which designed the new Conventus building on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, drew preliminary plans for the mixed-use, contemporary building.

Its concepts show a steel frame, concrete slab and glass on the first floor, and a wood frame on the top four floors. Public art would also be included.

Swiezy, who has developed downtown apartment projects, expects the project to open the door to more development on Grant up to West Ferry Street. The area is experiencing significant changes largely due to the influx of immigrant-owned businesses.

“There are so many things we can do even after this project is completed to build on and make this more representative of a college community,” Swiezy said.

Brendan Mehaffy, who heads the city’s Office of Strategic Planning, praised the project for its “street appeal that will pull people to the area and add vibrancy, be a real stabilizing force and create opportunities off-site for other potential development.”

People United for Sustainable Housing, better known as PUSH Buffalo, offered conditional support to the project.

“A project that meets Buff State’s growing need for student housing could be a benefit to the West Side, but the devil is in the details, and the developer will need to build strong relations with community stakeholders to ensure its success,” said Aaron Bartley, director of PUSH Buffalo.

The nonprofit organization has become a force in improving the West Side through community organizing and strategic alliances.

“Every project of this scale presents challenges related to design, management and workforce standards that are best worked through in partnership with the surrounding neighborhoods,” Bartley said.

Dan Erickson, owner of Ink Assassins Tattoos and Piercings at 429 Grant, said the new student housing would help revitalize the area.

His business is about four blocks from where the project is planned.

Erickson said the area seems to have slowly improved in the five years his business has been on Grant.

“It would be good for businesses,” he said of the project. “It would create more foot traffic.”

Swiezy said he hopes to get shovels in the ground as soon as the project gets the city approvals it needs and hears public feedback.

“We are looking forward to sharing our ideas, and are eager to hear what the neighborhood and community groups have to say,” Swiezy said.

email: msommer@buffnews.com