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Surge of downtown renters buoys Buffalo’s apartment market

A new wave of millennials and empty-nesters looking for urban living are moving into once-rundown industrial buildings and rejuvenating the core of downtown Buffalo.

The surge, almost all of them renters, has pushed the occupancy rate to 97 percent, according to an estimate from city officials.

The new residents include medical students like Michael Diaz, who rides Metro Rail from his one-bedroom apartment at Hotel @ the Lafayette to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus about a mile away.

Another resident, Tom Akers, 48, bikes to the waterfront from his Fairmont Creamery apartment near the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino. The three-bedroom apartment he shares with his partner features exposed brick walls and ductwork, stainless-steel appliances, 12-foot ceilings and a view of Canalside.

Akers said the airy, $1,800-a-month apartment is in an area where most people didn’t want to live five years ago. Now he can’t imagine living anywhere else.

“I wanted to experience a loft space like you see in the movies, and now I am,” Akers said. “It’s like being in New York City.”

In the past five years, developers have opened 643 apartment units, many of them loft-style spaces. That’s far more than the 409 existing units built before 2000. And it’s more than the 450 units that opened from 2000 to 2009, according to City of Buffalo and Buffalo Place officials. The completion of 294 units now under construction would bring the total number of downtown units to 1,796. What’s more, 520 more units are on the drawing board.

“It’s no longer about demand,” said Debra Chernoff, manager of planning for Buffalo Place, the nonprofit group that manages a 24-block downtown district. “Now, it’s all about supply.”

The newcomers

The new lofts and apartments can be found slightly beyond the Central Business District – from Michigan Avenue to the east, Goodell Street to the north, the Buffalo River to the south and Elmwood Avenue to the west.

Buffalo Place estimates between 1,514 and 1,920 people live in the area.

The population rises considerably when adding those who live near Erie Basin Marina, in Marine Drive Apartments, on Niagara Street, on the near East Side and in the new loft-style apartments or those planned near Larkinville, less than a mile east of downtown.

The most recent Census Bureau estimate found a 50 percent increase in the number of households in the area since 2010. Most of the residents are young, with 61 percent between the ages of 18 and 34.

Less than one in 10 residents is 65 or older, but the new census data shows the effect empty nesters are having. The percent of households with at least one person 60 or older has increased from 12 percent to more than 17 percent since 2010. Two-thirds of all the residents are men.

Despite the increase in apartment units, condominiums remain in short supply, mainly because most developers use historic tax credits and must wait five years before converting apartments into condominiums.

So, condominiums are only found in City Centre, the Avant and Historic Warehouse Lofts.

Developer Rocco Termini said more developers could soon follow suit if the Historic Warehouse Lofts project – now in the middle of its conversion – proves successful.

Queen City Hub

Downtown’s comeback can be traced to the Queen City Hub, a plan from 2003. The plan called for “diverse pedestrian-oriented residential communities throughout downtown.”

The plan built on the ideas of others going back to the 1970s, said Bradshaw Hovey, who co-directs University at Buffalo’s Urban Design Project.

That group, along with Buffalo Place, issued a report in 1993, “A New Downtown Neighborhood in Buffalo.” Around the same time, the city organized neighborhood summits that helped push the idea of making downtown livable again.

“We resurrected the planning function of the city, and did two rounds of meetings in each Council district,” recalled former Mayor Anthony Masiello.

With a megaphone in one hand, Masiello led Saturday morning walking tours of downtown to encourage revitalization.

“We knew we had to attract young people to our city, and find a way to adaptively reuse the existing older buildings. I remember the Berger (department store, now known as the Belesario) was empty for years, and we paid to put a roof on it and were criticized for doing so,” Masiello said. “But as it turned out, Carl Paladino put high-end apartments there, and that really helped jump-start downtown living.”

Bernard Obletz became the first developer to convert an industrial building into apartments with his Lofts @ Elk Terminal project on Scott Street in 2002. Termini followed the next year with Ellicott Lofts, the first of seven he has completed so far.

It started rough, thanks to rowdy Chippewa Street bar patrons, recalled Steve Siegel, an original Ellicott Lofts tenant.

“I remember breaking up fights, having to call the police, a lot of car poppings,” Siegel said.

But continued development and tougher law enforcement turned things around dramatically, he said.

He called the neighborhood much safer. And it remains a place for characters – “we love the characters” – but without the stupid, destructive behavior from others.

The housing goal

The availability of historic tax credits proved to be the next big catalyst because they lowered costs for developers. Restoration projects once considered too difficult because the rents alone couldn’t cover construction costs suddenly became viable.

The Brown administration set a goal in 2014 for 1,300 new housing units in a larger downtown footprint that includes the waterfront. It upped the goal to 2,000 in 2015.

“Part of the Queen City Hub we’ve been working from is to create a 24/7 live-work-play downtown,” Mayor Byron W. Brown said.

“It’s very gratifying to help create a dynamic where developers across the region, across the state and around the country want to renovate and build in downtown Buffalo,” Brown said.

His administration plays a key role in helping finance projects. The city recently tripled a loan fund established with Buffalo Niagara Partnership to help developers overcome funding hurdles. The program can assist six to 10 projects a year. It involves five area banks and the New York Business Development Corp.

The mayor said it’s important the new downtown Buffalo “looks like the rest of the city.”

“We want to have residents who might be on fixed incomes, middle-income people and upper-income people who find it attractive to live in downtown Buffalo,” Brown said.

Whites make up 68 percent of Central Business District residents, followed by Latinos, 16 percent, and blacks, 13 percent. Families live in just two of every 10 households.

The recent influx of residents brought higher incomes. The median household income is $43,676, according to the Census Bureau, up from $17,045 in 2010. The percentage of people making over $75,000 nearly doubled between 2010 and 2014.

The Medical Campus

Diaz, the University at Buffalo medical student, has lived for the past three years in the Hotel @ the Lafayette.

Like a lot of other downtown residents, he works and studies on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

“The building is absolutely beautiful, and it’s a very exciting space to live,” Diaz said of the Hotel @ the Lafayette.

Metro Rail, he said, provides easy access to the Medical Campus, “especially when it snows.”

Diaz enjoys his favorite food destinations – Tappo, Deep South Taco, Big Ditch Brewing Company and (716) Food & Sport among them – but said that a grocery store remains an urgent need.

“If a supermarket was coming in, I think downtown Buffalo would be a much more exciting place to be,” Diaz said. “But overall, I absolutely love living where I do.”

The mayor said in his recent State of the City speech that Tops Markets has expressed interest in opening a grocery store on Ellicott Street.

Place to live and work

Josh Zaccarine, 33, lives in Ellicott Lofts, where he runs Axis2Design from his upstairs space.

“People say they close their door to end their day, and I just walk down a spiral staircase,” Zaccarine said. “It’s really been a dream of mine to have a space like this.”

The Alden native likes his apartment’s industrial aesthetic.

“It’s an iconic space, with the brick paired with the hardwood floors, exposed ductwork and top-of-the-line stainless steel kitchen,” he said.

He enjoys downtown’s walkability. He frequently counts the cars around Tappo and Big Ditch to gauge the area’s popularity.

“You can literally see the change with the amount of cars in the street, and the parking lot filling up. It gives a sense that there are a lot of people on the street,” Zaccarine said. “It wasn’t like that when I moved in five years ago.”

Katie Ambrose, who grew up in Hamburg, had lived in New Jersey and worked in New York City before deciding to return home.

She lives in AM&A’s Warehouse Lofts and works in the Hotel @ the Lafayette, where she co-owns the upscale Groom Service Beauty & Dry Bar.

“I never thought I would move back to Buffalo,” Ambrose said. “But I started coming back in my late 30s, and realized how amazing the city was. I fell in love with the city.”

A professional photographer, Ambrose also uses the loft for photo shoots.

“It’s a great place for an artist because it’s very industrial, and the ceilings are tall,” Ambrose said. “I just feel like I’m in New York City, really.”

The empty nesters

Al and Andrea Scibetta, who own Copier Fax Business Technologies, moved to nearby Ellicott Commons two years ago from Williamsville.

“We always wanted to try to live in the city, and once we moved down here, we have loved every minute of it,” Andrea Scibetta said.

Terry Licata Braunstein – known for the “Talking Proud” commercials – lives in the Antonio on Pearl Street with her husband, Dr. Steven Braunstein.

“We are in the greatest location. You walk out the building and you have Main Street and the train right behind us. It’s got everything at our disposal,” Braunstein said.

Well, almost. Braunstein wishes the apartment had a rooftop patio to be able to sit outside and grill, and a grassy area where she could walk her dog.

She also wishes she knew her neighbors.

“The only time I see people is coming off the elevator, or in the underground parking,” Braunstein said. “We’ve been here a year, and all we say is hello. Everyone is in a hurry.”

A 15-by-40-foot art nouveau banner on the side of 465 Washington St. advertises the spring opening of the Sinclair building, which will have 45 one- to three-bedroom units starting at $850.

“It’s our first foray into downtown,” said Dennis Penman, executive vice president of Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. “Our business plan is to do more residential, and to be transit-oriented.”

The new apartments will have granite countertops and restored windows, or new ones made with the same profile.

Penman said the Sinclair’s location a block from a light-rail stop is a draw, especially with people commuting to the Medical Campus.

“It’s pushing Buffalo to job and lifestyle opportunities that really haven’t existed here before,” Penman said. “The Sinclair anticipates millennials, but we’re also seeing a significant amount of empty nesters. I think there is finally traction here.”

‘It’s just terrific here’

Michael Campbell, 68, moved into the Belesario – the former flagship L.L. Berger department store – four years ago with his partner from the West Side.

From his window, Campbell can see the lights at night from the Hilton Garden Hotel, which opened in October 2014. It shows how far downtown has come, he said. He’s excited about plans for the grocery and a movie theater planned for the Theater District.

“I know I almost sound like I work for the Chamber of Commerce, but I think it’s just terrific here,” Campbell said.

Restaurateur Richard Hamilton lives with his wife and teenage son in the Antonio, a short walk from the Central Library.

Hamilton came to Buffalo four years ago, recruited by Delaware North to be vice president of food and beverage worldwide. Now he owns Deep South Taco on Ellicott Street.

“It’s the best,” he said of living downtown. “I walk to literally everything I do, even in the blizzards. When everyone felt bound in, we walked two blocks to a steak restaurant,” Hamilton said. “This reminds me of when I was 20, and living in Paris.”