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Niagara Street project brings apartment renaissance to edges of city

For more than a century, the Bison Storage facility overlooking the Niagara River has stood as a symbol of Buffalo’s industrial and warehouse heritage, with its imposing concrete-block construction.

But when Angelo Natale is done with it, the seven-story building now dubbed Crescendo Lofts will stand as a symbol of the city’s transformation.

Natale, together with several partners, is converting the century-old “daylight factory” edifice at 1502 Niagara St. into the newest loft apartment complex, overlooking Unity Island and the Niagara River.

It’s a big lift, to be sure, despite its relatively low price tag of $7 million when compared to some of the other redevelopment projects in the region. The building, which is being completely gutted and then renovated to historic standards, is sandwiched between the Niagara Thruway and one of the city’s core arteries, Niagara Street. The project is one of the first high-end redevelopment projects in the industrial neighborhood.

Yet, Natale and his team are hoping to capitalize on revived interest in the area, which is benefiting from $14 million in new infrastructure investments by the city and the growing desire among young professionals for city living. And they view the neighborhood as ripe for the next wave of renaissance in the city.

“When you get into a project in an unproven market, you’re up for some scrutiny and a little bit of skepticism about what you can get for market-rate apartments,” Natale said. “We believe in this area, and there’s some potential in it transitioning to something like Larkinville.”

The new Resurgence Brewery is drawing crowds nearby on Niagara Street, and developers Jake Schneider, Ellicott Development Co. and Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. are all doing other mixed-use projects up and down the street. Ellicott’s project even includes a new Tim Hortons Cafe & Bake Shop, while Ciminelli plans to convert the nearby former Garrett Leather building into apartments.

“We saw some great potential in this neighborhood,” Natale said. “We met some of the neighbors, and they have a really strong block group here. We started feeling better the more we got involved in the project.”

Besides Natale, investors include Bobby Corrao, president of Natale Development; Frank Parisi, former operating manager of Soho for 13 years; and businessman Carl Savarino, who owns Speed Logistics.

Plans call for 41 new apartments, with “executive suites” on the top two floors, and market-rate rents ranging as high as $1,900 a month. The project is close to the Black Rock Canal and Niagara River, giving tenants mostly unobstructed views of the water, downtown Buffalo and Canada.

“The views you’d get from here are unlike any other building in the city,” Natale said. “We thought, with those types of views, even though we’re down on a section of Niagara Street which is transitioning, we can overcome some of the neighborhood deficits.”

Of course, the building is also near the Buffalo Sewer Authority’s wastewater treatment plant on Unity Island, which in the past has created an occasional odorous nuisance in the area. But Natale said that’s a “non-issue.” The developers spent “thousands of dollars on the water side of the building” to block out much of the noise and air from that side, and he said some of the machinery in the plant that had malfunctioned in the past have since been repaired. “I have spent many hours [there] during the summer and not once did I smell anything,” he said.

So far, they’ve had more than 75 rental inquiries for Crescendo, and they’ve started taking applications for leases. And the owners are hoping to attract a new restaurant to the first floor as well.

The project by Natale is part of the builder’s new focus on development, in addition to its home building and general construction businesses. The company already owns the Calumet Building in downtown Buffalo, but is now “looking at a lot of different development areas around the city” after it formed Natale Development and installed Corrao as president.

“It’s more based on our will to do it, and it’s also coincided with the economic vitality of what’s happening in the city,” Natale said. “We’ve got a passion to do more development work, and the economic conditions have allowed us to expand.”

Natale said he and Corrao had been eying the building for more than four years, since they spotted it while driving through the area. But it was Savarino who triggered the project, after he agreed to buy Bison Storage, and then move the business to one of his other buildings. “When Carl called me to take a look at this building, it happened to be the same building we were looking at four to five years ago. It was like meant to be,” Natale said. “We saw it as a jewel. This has got great bones. It’s in an area of Niagara Street which we think is transitioning, and we saw it as a great venture to market-rate housing.”

Started in 1904 and completed in 1907, the 65,000-square-foot factory building was originally used by F.N. Burt Company, which manufactured cigarette cartons and boxes, and later corrugated cardboard packaging. By the early 1940s, Bison Storage had purchased the concrete building and converted it for its own needs, and it remained there for 70 years, until its recent move.

The new apartments will include a mix of 29 one- and 12 two-bedroom units, ranging in size from 700 square feet to 1,400, with luxury finishes and 12-foot to 14-foot ceilings. Rents will range from just under $1,000 to $1,900, putting it at the upper range of new apartment buildings in the city. There will also be a 600-square-foot tenant fitness center in the building, as well as tenant storage for bicycles and other items.

A 4,500-square-foot restaurant is planned for one end of the first floor, where Bison’s offices used to be. It will have glass windows and an entrance on Niagara, and is geared both for the public and for use by tenants to order room service or have private parties. The investors signed a letter of intent with a “well-known restaurateur” from the West Side who plans a bar, sit-down restaurant with wood-fired pizza and a catering operation.

A 1,500-square-foot outside patio for use by tenants and the restaurant is also planned for the second floor, on a low roof area above the lobby, accessible from both a staircase landing and an elevator.

The building also includes an adjacent annex that will be converted into a 28-car, secured and fully enclosed parking area, with direct access to the building’s future lobby area and elevators. That space now has overhead garage doors that will be converted to large glass windows, allowing natural light into a seating area and community lounge.

The most expensive apartments will include one of the indoor heated parking spaces, while other tenants would pay a monthly fee on a first-come, first-served basis. Additional parking is available outside, with 11 spaces on the south side of the building, near the restaurant, or public parking along the street.

The building will also be technologically oriented and “socially connected,” in keeping with the building’s targeted young audience, Natale said. Among the key features will be iPads mounted on the walls of some units, with pre-installed apps designed to display activities, events and nightlife in the community. Similar displays will also be mounted in the lobby on a large-screen television. The apps will also connect tenants to each other. And security cameras in the garage will allow tenants to monitor their own vehicles remotely.

The project, designed by Carmina Wood Morris PC, will be financed in part by historic tax credits against qualified expenses, so “there’s certain restrictions that we have to stick to,” Natale said. Crews are refurbishing or refinishing wood-plank doors and hardwood maple floors, and will install noise-canceling glass in the giant window frames and insulation in the walls to deaden the noise from the nearby highway and the two trains that speed by each day. “We don’t anticipate any road noise being an issue once it’s open,” he said.

So far, progress has been slow, despite winning Planning Board approval months ago. While crews have done some exterior finishes, the windows and some interior rehab, the developers just obtained the permitting approval last month for most of the interior work. They’re hoping to be done and open by April or May – compared to the original plan of this month.

In the meantime, Natale said they’re confident in their ability to lease the units, citing the interest they’re getting already. “Everything is just lining up for us how we expected, and the transition to make this fit into the neighborhood will be exciting,” Natale said. “We’re going to move on a quick basis.”