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Nonprofit hopes to turn remnants of Fillmore Avenue fire scene into hip housing

A historic century-old East Side complex that was nearly burned to the ground in a fire in October may get a new lease on life, as a nonprofit housing organization is still trying to save the remnants as part of a new mixed-use restoration project.

Less than four weeks after the blaze, the Broadway-Fillmore Neighborhood Housing Services is seeking to incorporate two small surviving structures in the rear of the former Jankowski Cigar Shop site into a new residential building at 595 Fillmore Ave., at the corner of Paderewski Drive. That’s across from the Adam Mickiewicz Library and about seven blocks from the Central Terminal, in the midst of a neighborhood that is already seeing renewed interest among homeowners.

The organization hopes to build six new townhome apartments and a ground-floor coffee shop at the site, in an effort to redevelop the corner of Fillmore and Paderewski and make it more vibrant. The project is part of a larger vision to connect Martin Luther King Jr. Park to the north with Larkinville to the south by enhancing Fillmore Avenue.

“The goal is really to make Fillmore Avenue a main commercial district again, particularly at several nodes,” said Stephen Karnath, executive director for both Broadway-Fillmore NHS and HomeFront, which are working together. “This project just fits within that whole goal.”

Built in 1880, the two-story corner building grew in size and stature when cigar manufacturing shop owner Joseph Jankowski expanded to Fillmore in 1893 with the combined home, shop and rolling floor. It later became a rooming house and was owned most recently by Charles Lawrence III, who inherited it from his grandfather in 2009. But its condition had deteriorated, and it was considered for demolition by the city at various times from 2013 to 2015, despite discussions about making the building a historic landmark and saving it.

The nonprofit purchased the property at the city foreclosure auction in October, hoping to restore and reuse it with the mixture of apartments and coffee shop. But those plans nearly went up in smoke Nov. 9 – the day officials had planned to start taking measurements – when the wooden front part of the building caught fire, causing damage extensive enough that it required an emergency demolition of much of the property even before the housing group took title. Only a rear brick portion that dates to the 1870s and a separate plank-construction section survived.

Now, instead of reusing the historic structure, most of the project will consist of new construction that will be integrated with the two remaining parts. The project entails four units with elevated apartments that will be accessed off Paderewski, a fifth unit in front that will be accessed from Fillmore, and an upper unit in the rear that will be entered from Paderewski. One two-bedroom unit will stretch across the second floor of both old sections, while a handicapped-accessible unit will be in one of the new townhome buildings. Workers will also replicate and update the facade. “It’s still a historically sensitive site,” said Carmina Woods Morris architect Paul Wang.

Three of the units will be slated for tenants who earn 90 percent of the area median income, while the other three will be set at 50 percent, but those will be close to market rate in that area, Karnath said. Karnath said the goal is to attract young professionals “who have good jobs, but not great incomes, who see Broadway Fillmore as the next cool urban space.”

He said it was “close enough to Larkinville” and that the group has plans for more entertainment, residential and commercial space in and around the Broadway Market, using $300,000 it received for that purpose from the Better Buffalo Fund.

The project doesn’t come cheap, but the nonprofit intends to apply to the state Department of Housing and Community Renewal for $790,000 in funding, or nearly two-thirds of the estimated $1.2 million cost, through the state’s Housing Trust Fund Program. However, the application deadline is Dec. 3, putting significant pressure on officials to get everything ready.

The Buffalo Planning Board on Monday voted to support the application with a letter.

Additionally, HomeFront’s board committed $130,000 to the project, using proceeds from the sale of a home on the city’s West Side. And Karnath said the organization will seek Better Buffalo Fund dollars in the next round of the Buffalo Billion-funded program. The project is too small for housing tax credits, though.

“It’s a long shot. It’s trying to put together one of these really complex projects in two weeks,” Karnath said earlier. “It’s going to be difficult to get the state to buy in this early on, while the project is still in pre-development, but we’re going to take our best shot.”

If it doesn’t get the state funding, he said, the group will try again next year, while preserving the remaining structures for now.

“We’re trying to get a lot done in a very short period of time to try to make this deadline,” he said. “It’s tough to put this thing together and expect to get funded right out of the box, but we’re going to take a shot at it.”

The housing organization has already spent $28,000 on selective demolition to prop up those two structures, and another $12,000 to clean them out and secure them with boards. It still has to do temporary shoring, including spending $30,000 to replace the roof of the masonry building that was burned through, and Karnath said some construction work will continue through the winter.

If the financing works and the project receives municipal approvals, he said, work could begin by next fall, with a completion by summer 2017.

“It’s not a fast project, given the money we have to put together to make it work,” he said. “But we will have something to show in the next couple of months in terms of those existing buildings.”