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Building Buffalo: Bird Avenue church condo project

Building Update is a regular feature highlighting progress on development projects throughout the region.

Project name: Cornerstone Lofts

Address: 340 Bird Ave., Buffalo

Developer: Michael Pietrocarlo and Mark McGroarty, through 340 Bird Avenue Inc.

Cost: $2.5 million

Description: Church conversion to condos

Completion date: Fall 2017

Lowdown: A vacant former church on Buffalo’s West Side is poised to undergo a renovation and conversion to condominiums, in a bid to jump start the sluggish market for buying apartments in Buffalo.

Two Canadian investors, who bought the former Bethlehem Presbyterian Church in November for $375,000, want to transform the two-story brick church into 12 condo units, bringing new life to the century-old building. They’ve submitted initial papers to the Buffalo Planning Board, with more pending.

The project, dubbed Cornerstone Lofts, includes a mixture of one- and two-bedroom units, with six on the lower level and another six on the upper level that will be two-stories each by using the church steeple space. That includes one “feature” unit with two bedrooms and a den, which will be the largest condo. The units will range from 700 to 750 square feet on the lower level and from 1,350 square feet to 1,700 square feet on the upper level.

All units will be entered directly from the outside, using either existing doors to the building or by lowering some of the large windows about 18 inches to create a doorway. There’s no common area or common corridor.

The Toronto-based developers, photographer and entrepreneur Michael Pietrocarlo, who owns the building, and veteran condo developer Mark McGroarty, realize that “the condo market in Buffalo is relatively untested,” Pietrocarlo said. So pricing was “the elusive question.” The duo are using local developer Jake Schneider’s Historic Warehouse Lofts conversion on Ellicott Street as a benchmark, so prices for Cornerstone will similarly range from $225,000 to $350,000.

The redevelopment would largely take place “within the confines of the existing church,” although workers will be changing some windows and putting in a rooftop patio on top of a small rear block section, said attorney Marc Romanowski, who is representing Pietrocarlo and McGroarty. A single-family frame home on the property will either be moved or demolished, and replaced with fencing, green space and parking.

The total development cost is expected to run about $2.5 million, including about $1.7 million in renovations as well as the purchase price and other expenses.

The developers met March 30 with over 20 neighbors at a community meeting arranged by Niagara District Common Council Member David A. Rivera. “They were all very supportive,” Pietrocarlo said.

The project requires Planning Board approval and a zoning variance for density. If approved, the duo hopes to start by late July or early August, with completion in fall 2017.

McGroarty, 66, has spent almost 40 years in real estate development, renovating historic properties in Toronto and Charlotte, N.C. He converted a century-old former medical school building in downtown Charlotte into Settlers Place, with 36 condos ranging in price from $350,000 to $1.1 million, and a 12-unit condo project in that city called Crillon, with prices from $1.2 million to $4.5 million. He’s currently transforming a Toronto church into 43 condos, called the Union Lofts.

Pietrocarlo was vice president of the board for the Toy Factory Lofts in Toronto during its transition to condos, and was involved in managing the building. But for the 41-year-old photographer, who was born in Buffalo and grew up in Niagara Falls, the Cornerstone project represents a return to his hometown, where his mother still lives. “To see the renewal and renaissance that the city is experiencing now is something very special, and it was something I was very interested in being a part of,” he said.

Built in 1909, the 11,600-square-foot historic church sits on 0.33 acres at the corner of Bird and Hoyt avenues, about one block from the Richardson-Olmsted Complex on Forest Avenue. The building features its original slate roof, woodwork and stained glass windows. There’s a parking lot on Hoyt, with 13 spaces.

The property was owned by the church and the Presbytery of Western New York from 1893 until September 2008, when it was sold for $130,000. Since then, it was occasionally used only as an event space.