Work is nearing completion to convert the former Washington School in Kenmore to a mixed-use building, including luxury apartments, Agave Mexican restaurant and a just-announced Spot Coffee shop.
Just blocks away, the mostly vacant St. Paul’s School is being considered for conversion into apartments aimed at parishioners.
And when the Roosevelt Elementary and Kenmore Middle schools are closed this summer, it will leave the village with no occupied public or parochial school buildings.
It’s a pivotal time for four of the largest buildings in the dense 1.4-square-mile village.
Neighborhood schools like these are cornerstones of communities like Kenmore, but empty ones are dreaded for the deleterious effects they can have on otherwise stable areas, said Robert Silverman, professor of urban and regional planning in the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning.
“If residents don’t see someone occupying the building, or just making sure it’s maintained so the integrity of the structure is in place, then over time a building like that can fall into disrepair,” he said. “It can eventually have to be taken down or become a blight on the community.”
The school buildings being vacated at the end of this school year as the Ken-Ton School District consolidates are concerns for the village, said Village Clerk-Treasurer Kathleen P. Johnson.
“Certainly, no one wants to see a vacant building anywhere. It’s something that we want to see filled and repurposed to a new use,” she said.
That’s happening at the former Washington School at the busy intersection of Delaware Avenue and Delaware Road, where work to convert classrooms into 21 luxury apartments in one-, two-, and three-bedroom layouts is nearly complete. A 5,000-square-foot addition is extending the existing building out for storefronts along Delaware Avenue.
The three-story building on 1.5 acres was largely vacant, except for a day care center, until Carl and William Paladino’s Ellicott Development Co. bought it for $725,000 in October 2013.
“The village has a lot of stability,” said William Paladino. “It’s got a lot of good businesses. It’s a walking neighborhood. We feel our project will help infill that whole Delaware Avenue main street there.”
The apartments should be complete in mid-April, he said, with the restaurant to open in June and Spot Coffee in midsummer.
“We know the village has been doing a lot to try to improve their central business district there,” Paladino said. “It’s almost – I don’t want to call it Elmwood Village – but it’s sort of the same type of atmosphere. There’s lots of nice shopping and easy access for pedestrians.”
New law allows for new uses
Developers are making use of the village’s new planned unit development law, which allows village trustees to permit new uses for old buildings other than those specified in the zoning code.
After the Ken-Ton School Board in April 2014 decided to close Roosevelt and Kenmore Middle, the Village Board passed the law later that year knowing it would need the provision in order to advance projects dealing with closed schools. It was first used for the Washington School project, but is also applicable to St. Paul’s.
The law gives the village “flexibility to work with developers to hopefully utilize these properties – that are situated often-times in residential areas – to make sure that they can be repurposed and don’t remain vacant,” Johnson said.
The goal is to find a new use for an old building that fits with the surrounding neighborhood, she added. “We want the right fit for the neighbors,” she said.
Larry Bicz, under the name Double Eagle Kenmore LLC and in a joint venture with Vasile Construction Corp. of Rochester, says he has found the right fit for the 50,000-square-foot St. Paul’s school, which was built in the 1930s but closed in 2010.
He envisions a “faith-built community” that will appeal to older St. Paul’s parishioners who want to downsize from their homes and cars, but stay in the village close to St. Paul’s.
“They do not want to leave the Village of Kenmore,” he said of prospective occupants. “People want to be born there, people want to move to the next world there.”
His $5.5 million plan calls for 37 market-rate apartments of one and two bedrooms and a community space in the gymnasium for a development/management office and some services for residents such as yoga and exercise classes. Parking will be shared with the church with one spot for each apartment and 29 for the church, according to design plans.
The school is currently used for religious education classes, parish offices and some community group meetings, but not much else, said Carolyn M. Nye, business manager for St. Paul’s.
“It’s going to benefit the village because, No. 1, it’s going to put it on the tax rolls,” she said. “No. 2, it’s going to take a building that’s grossly underused and make it more viable.”
As part of the arrangement, a new $1 million “great hall” would be built connecting the church with the rectory. The 2,700-square-foot hall would be used as a gathering center for church events such as funeral receptions, as well as classrooms for religious education classes.
Bicz recruited Kenmore resident Sean Pellow of Stieglitz & Snyder Architecture to design the apartments and great hall plans.
Silverman of UB said plans like the one for St. Paul’s and the Washington School are “creative” ways to solve the vacancy problem.
“Kenmore is a dense, walkable community in ways that a lot of other suburbs aren’t and they’re taking advantage of that by developing mixed-use, residential and retail properties out of the old schools,” said Silverman. “That’s attractive to people who are downsizing their households – retired couples, retired individuals and others.”
Bicz, a lifelong village resident who first approached St. Paul’s in 2013, is applying for historic tax credits and a declining 12-year partial exemption from real property taxation. That’s the only way to make the project economically feasible, he said. Options for repurposing schools are limited, he added.
“The only economical way is to figure out a cost-effective, community-pleasing and justifiable way to refit the buildings,” he said. “The ones on side streets wedged in the middle of a community, you’re not going to turn it into a Walgreens. It’s going to be something to do with education, municipal-owned, or residential. That’s it.”
He’s awaiting the Diocese of Buffalo’s approval of the sale but hopes to begin work this summer and have the apartments occupied by winter this year or early next year.
Nye said a public meeting on the plans will be held soon at St. Paul’s.
Johnson, the village clerk-treasurer, said St. Paul’s, located on Victoria Boulevard just west of the village’s business district along Delaware Avenue, is “a central part of the village.”
“We are definitely anxious to work with the developer to see if we can mutually create a project that will benefit the entire community and fit within the character of the community,” she said.
Future of Ken-Ton buildings
Meanwhile, a committee convened last month to chart not only the future of Roosevelt and Kenmore Middle but all five vacant or underutilized buildings in the Ken-Ton district, including Hamilton Elementary, which will also close in June, the Philip Sheridan Building and Jefferson Elementary, which closed in 2013. The committee is composed of village, Town of Tonawanda and Ken-Ton School District officials, as well as district parents and other community stakeholders.
The committee will analyze the debt owed on and value of each of the buildings to recommend which schools the district should sell, lease, mothball or continue to utilize, said Superintendent Dawn F. Mirand.
“We’re in the process of having all of those discussions,” she said.
The district would have to pay off the debt after a building is sold, so the district’s goal would be to sell it for more than the debt so as to not take a financial loss.
Sheridan and Jefferson are probably the most “sellable” because of the relatively low debt of $687,173 and $757,746, respectively, according to district numbers. Kenmore Middle at $7,773,824, Roosevelt at $3,320,644 and Hamilton at $3,026,721 have much higher debt loads and may be more difficult to offload.
The sizable debt on Kenmore Middle is what’s left of the long-term capital debt incurred on the building in 2008 during phase one of the district’s capital improvement project, before consolidation planning had even begun.
Indications are that Kenmore Middle will be maintained by the district for a school-related use. But those decisions won’t be made for a while. “Until the district makes up their mind as to how to best move forward with these individual buildings we’re, in a sense, in a holding pattern waiting,” said Johnson, who sits on the district’s properties committee.
Ken-Ton’s student enrollment dipped from 8,530 in 2004-05 to 6,923 a decade later, according to state Education Department figures. District officials said late last month they expect that downward trend to continue.
“The schools don’t have the enrollment they used to have and so they look at consolidation like they’ve been doing in the Ken-Ton School District and other districts around Western New York,” said Silverman of UB. “That’s the big question — what to do with the old buildings that are no longer being used as school buildings.”