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Buffalo native plans upscale rental units for seniors in city core

A California senior living company whose co-founder is a Buffalo native is planning to demolish the former Nazareth Home on North Street and put up a 95-unit assisted-living facility for those who want to age in place in the city’s core.

Westmont Living, which has focused on the West Coast, wants to plant its first corporate flag in the East with a new facility in its president’s hometown. The 20-year-old firm believes it can fill an unmet need in Buffalo for upscale senior rental units that are close to the city’s resurgent downtown and entertainment districts.

“We just like the idea of being in the center of Buffalo, versus suburban locations, where we keep the residents engaged in the community and activities, and close to families that live in the city,” said Andrew Plant, who grew up in Buffalo and still has close family here, including his mother.

La Jolla, Calif.-based Westmont has a contract to purchase the former nursing home in Allentown from Uniland Development Co., which bought the two-story building last year for $1 million from the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. The 63,661-square-foot complex at 279-291 North, which sits on 2.94 acres just east of Symphony Circle and includes a parking area at 298 Summer St., was built in 1950 and closed by Catholic Health System in 2007. The purchase is expected to close midyear.

The existing building is not seen as having significant historic value or appeal. “Most people have looked at the building and don’t find it to be of an exceptional quality,” said Paul McDonnell, chairman of the Buffalo Preservation Board.

So Westmont intends to knock it down and erect a new three-story facility, with about 95 studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom senior apartments. The apartments will include a washer and dryer in each, with full kitchens in the one- and two-bedroom apartments. However, the building will also have a full dining room on the first floor, serving three meals a day, with all food prepared in-house, Plant said.

“Food is the No. 1 activity, so having great food is very important to residents,” he said. “If someone wanted to fix their own breakfast or that sort of thing, they could avail themselves of that, but practically speaking, most residents dine in our dining room.”

Westmont on North will also include a theater and fitness center, as well as Wi-Fi throughout. And it’s close to Kleinhans, Shea’s Performing Arts Center, the restaurants and shops of Elmwood and Delaware avenues, and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

“It’ll be state-of-the-art, all the services folks expect if they were at a nice hotel or if you were on a nice cruise ship,” Plant said. “We think we have the best location, because we’re near that vibrancy and just very accessible.”

Extensive, full-time nursing services will also be available, plus rehabilitation space for physical and occupational therapy. The facility will be licensed for assisted-living care, but can also handle independent residents or those with minimal needs who may need more care in the future. That facilitates the concept of “aging in place,” Plant said.

“If someone needs additional services over time, we bring the services to them, versus having someone have to move to receive services,” he said.

Plant said the facility will employ more than 50, ranging from housekeepers, bus drivers and a maintenance director to a general manager, other administrators and nurses, Plant said. His half-brother, Bill Reich, will be part of the management.

Company officials and architects have been working for weeks with city planners, the Preservation Board and local neighborhood groups to shepherd the project to approval, after Reich overcame initial fears and even opposition from the Allentown Association over the demolition proposal. Designs for the new building also have been tweaked a couple of times based on their feedback.

For example, the original plans called for a shingle look, but the current design “will certainly have a brick facade, and be designed to fit within the area,” Plant said. The cost hasn’t been finalized, but will be “upwards of $20 million.”

Those changes continued after a Preservation Board meeting last week, but the project now has the support of the Allentown group.

“I think they’re on the right track,” McDonnell said. “I’ve got to give credit to Bill Reich. I think he really wants to do the right thing. He was very forthcoming.”

The board’s next regular meeting is Feb. 4, but the project also needs other municipal approvals, including from the Planning Board. Once approved, Plant said, “we will proceed as fast as we can,” but work will probably take about 18 months, pushing completion to the end of 2017 or early 2018.

The new project is a significant geographic departure for Westmont and Plant, even as it’s a return home. The Cornell University graduate moved to California 30 years ago and got into senior living “early on in my career.” That led to the formation in 1996 of Westmont with Michael O’Rourke, the company’s other principal owner.

Today, Westmont builds, owns and operates independent, assisted-living and memory care communities, but it’s centered on the other side of the country, with nine communities in California and two in Oregon.

With its San Diego-area headquarters 2,600 miles away, what made this project work was Plant’s local roots and knowledge of Buffalo, including from frequent trips back.

“It’s absolutely far, but if I wasn’t from there and didn’t have family and connections, we wouldn’t consider it,” he agreed.

Reich, who invested with Westmont 20 years ago and has owned other property in Allentown, became interested in what senior services were offered locally, and “collectively we decided that there’s a need that’s not being met in the city itself,” Plant said. He noted that while the new Canterbury Woods at Gates Circle has garnered significant attention, residents there must buy into the community, rather than rent.

“Not many people 80 years old are looking to buy a condominium,” he said.