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Allure of downtown lifestyle is fueling a once-unlikely demand for apartments

Those living, working and playing downtown know it is the only place to be. As word spreads, developers are scrambling to keep up with demand.

The City of Buffalo has finally reawakened in areas that were moribund for decades. Estimates show a 97 percent occupancy rate in new downtown apartments, mostly young people and empty nesters who recently raved about their cool, rehabbed digs in an article by News reporter Mark Sommer. He wrote about the new apartments and lofts filling as soon as they open in 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, the not-for-profit entity that manages downtown, estimates that between 1,514 and 1,920 people live in the area, with many more living in the Marine Drive Apartments, around Erie Basin, on Niagara Street and on the near East Side. Less than a mile east of downtown, buildings are being converted to loft-style apartments, adding to the community growing at Larkinville.

Earlier this month saw the grand opening of 500 Seneca, a 325,000-square-foot mixed-use project in the old Burt warehouse in Larkinville. Its 98 apartments have exposed brick walls and plank floors and rent for $850 to $2,000 a month.

The Census Bureau estimates a 50 percent increase in the number of households in the area since 2010. There has been a sea change from the way downtown and its edges were viewed when then-Mayor Anthony M. Masiello led Saturday morning walking tours, megaphone in hand, in an attempt to encourage downtown revitalization.

Gone are the days when the city needed to hire a marketing consultant – that was in 2004 – to spark interest among developers. They are now rushing to create the kind of living spaces prospective tenants demand, with such bells and whistles as airy loft spaces, rooftop patios and in-house coffee and bicycle shops, along with high-end appliances, plenty of storage, in-unit laundry and, sometimes, coveted parking.

The 2003 plan for revitalizing downtown, called the Queen City Hub, set the framework. Historic tax credits, which Buffalo developers have been particularly adept at utilizing, helped make financing costly rehabilitation projects feasible.

Mayor Byron W. Brown set a goal of 1,300 new housing units in a larger downtown footprint, including the waterfront, back in 2014. With so much going on, the goal was increased to 2,000 the following year.

The city recently tripled a loan fund established with the Buffalo Niagara Partnership to assist developers in getting past financial obstacles that could delay downtown housing. The program can accommodate six to 10 projects a year, and involves five Buffalo-area banks and New York Business Development Corp.

The mayor has set another admirable goal of inclusiveness that would see residents across the socioeconomic scale living in downtown Buffalo. Brown is working hard to create a 24/7 live-work-play model. He announced in his Feb. 5 State of the City address that Tops Markets is interested in opening a grocery store on Ellicott Street, and the deal is done for AMC Theaters, the nation’s second-largest movie theater chain, to open an eight-screen movie theater at the former Market Arcade Film & Arts Center.

So much is going on now in downtown Buffalo that any list of projects risks leaving out some major new development. It’s a pleasant problem.