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Turning a closed Tonawanda school into low-income apartments

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

Project name: Highland School Apartments

Address: 105 Highland Avenue, City of Tonawanda

Developer: People Inc.

Cost: $10 million

Government assistance: $4.4 million in federal and state low-income housing tax credits, $2.2 million in HOME funds, $76,000 from NYSERDA

Description: Conversion of former Highland Elementary School into 38 units of affordable housing

Completion date: Early 2017

Lowdown: After finally overcoming legal hurdles over zoning, social services agency People Inc. is hoping to open its newest affordable housing project next spring in the City of Tonawanda.

The nonprofit organization is spending $10 million to renovate and convert the former Highland Elementary School into 38 units of affordable housing, aimed at workers or seniors with incomes ranging from 30 percent to 60 percent of the median income. Construction by Krog Corp. as the contractor began in February, and officials hope to start leasing units by early next year.

The new Highland School Apartments will include 35 one-bedroom and three two-bedroom units, ranging in size from 625 square feet to 1,050 square feet, with rents of $450 to $675 per month. Four units are fully handicapped-accessible, while two were adapted for those who are hearing- or visually impaired. It’s located two blocks from a Metro bus stop.

The building also includes two elevators, an office, laundry facilities, a large community room with a kitchen, a TV lounge, a computer lab, an on-site security system, ample parking and green space, and even an outdoor play area for children. Carmina Wood Morris was the architect on the project.

“We’re very happy to be working with the city of Tonawanda on this,” said People Inc. President and CEO Rhonda Frederick. “We’re taking an old dilapidated school and reusing it in a manner that will help residents of the city of Tonawanda and surrounding areas. We’re happy that we were able to use an existing building and help the neighborhood.”

But it wasn’t easy to get to this point. Located at 105 Highland Avenue, the two-story, 40,758-square-foot building was actually constructed in three stages, with the initial part erected in 1938 and additions put on in 1952 and 2001. The school closed in 2009, and was later acquired by People Inc.

Aside from the typical challenges associated with reusing an old building, the nonprofit faced opposition from the Tonawanda Zoning Board of Appeals, which denied its application for variances, despite support from the city leadership. The battle moved to the courtroom several times before People Inc. prevailed.

“They will be very pleased with the product,” Frederick said of community residents. “When it opens, I think everyone will realize what a gem we have.”

The project is funded by $4.1 million in federal low-income housing tax credits, $345,000 in state credits, $2.2 million in HOME funds, a $1.9 million loan from First Niagara Bank, a $1.4 million reimbursement from the state Office of People with Developmental Disabilities, a $76,000 grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency, plus Federal Home Loan Bank of New York funds.

– Jonathan D. Epstein


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