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Jefferson Avenue project aims to boost East Side

After nearly two years of discussions, a pair of local developers is pushing forward with a proposed residential and retail project on Jefferson Avenue. The project is designed to bring new tenants and businesses to the East Side thoroughfare in a way that copies what is already happening on parts of Main and Niagara streets.

Nick Sinatra and David Pawlik want to construct a pair of three-story mixed-use buildings on Jefferson Avenue, just north of the Johnnie B. Wiley Amateur Athletic Sports Pavilion on Dodge Street and two blocks from the Fruit Belt neighborhood.

Tentative plans call for a total of 84 apartments across the two buildings, with commercial spaces for retail tenants and other small businesses on each first floor. The $20 million project at 1160 Jefferson Ave. would be aimed at a mixed-income population, with incomes ranging from 30 percent to 130 percent of the area’s median income.

The developers hope to capitalize on new activity along a 2.5-mile stretch of Jefferson while spurring more redevelopment along what once was a vibrant commercial and residential district.

In particular, they cite the likelihood that any future spinoff growth from the medical campus would have to go east or north, bringing it closer to their project and the rest of Jefferson.

“This is what we see as a jump-off to many other projects on the east side of Main, both for this team here and to encourage others to look deeper at opportunities east of Main Street,” Sinatra said. “If done properly, this can really be an ignition for Jefferson development.”

The developers are working with People Inc., the region’s largest social services agency, as well as representatives of the neighborhood’s minority business community, such as Herbert Bellamy of Bellamy Enterprises. Beside the residential and retail aspects of the project, the team – citing the proximity of the medical campus – envisions a medical or healthcare component, such as an urgent care center.

Sinatra and Pawlik already own or have under contract much of the land intended for the property. It is currently fenced-in, grass-covered and vacant, except for two dilapidated and boarded-up structures – an orange three-story home and a former auto repair shop. Last month, the Common Council added to this land by designating Sinatra and Pawlik as developers for city-owned lots at 1140 Jefferson Ave.; 338 and 340 Dodge St.; 275 and 279 Southampton St.; 318, 322 and 326 Northampton St.; and 197 Eaton St. Sinatra also owns a third block to the north, which hosts a warehouse for Sinatra’s real estate company materials.

Once approved, officials will work on financing the project through a combination of state, federal, private and foundation sources. Construction could begin in the spring of 2017, with completion in early 2018. The development duo said the project is supported by Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, as well as by Common Council President Darius Pridgen, Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Sen. Tim Kennedy – whose districts all include the project site.

“When the administration saw the potential of this, everyone got excited,” Pawlik said. “We’ve made some very strong commitments to the administration and more importantly to the community about what we want to deliver there.”

“I’m extremely supportive of the project as it has been outlined and I think it’s pretty unique,” Brown said. “In fact, I think this is an exciting model for how urban development could be and should be done. The preliminary work (the developers) have done to reach out to community members, faith-based organizations, and businesses in that community, on the front end of the project, is just absolutely exceptional.”

This is the latest project aimed at an East Side neighborhood experiencing revival after decades of neglect and absentee ownership. Apart from the Wiley Pavilion – the site of the former War Memorial Stadium, or “Rockpile” – and a Tops Markets store at Riley Street, this stretch of Jefferson has seen several million dollars in new investment over the past few years. That includes the new Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library at 1324 Jefferson Ave.; conversion of the old library into the Beverly Gray Business Exchange Center, which will open later this year, at 332 East Utica St.; the Apollo Media Center at 1346 Jefferson Ave.; and the Black Achievers Museum inside another new Pawlik project that is wrapping up at 1490 Jefferson Ave.

Architect-turned-developer Karl Frizlen received approval recently for 30 apartment units at Jefferson and Northland avenues.

And Pawlik and Sinatra previously teamed up for a new $5.2 million independent-living senior housing project at 240 Kensington Ave., with 40 apartments in a three-story former industrial property.

It also follows years of growth along major streets like Elmwood, Delaware and Hertel avenues, and a newer focus on rejuvenating parts of Main, Niagara and Genesee streets. Now, supporters say, it’s Jefferson Avenue’s turn.

“Five years ago, this project never would have been conceived,” Pawlik said. “Now, Jefferson, which has been waiting a long time to see sparked investment, can have the proper investment. We’re looking at this to see how can we play just a little role here to do the right thing.”