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Higgins: Perry complex needs rehabbing, not razing

Scrap your plans to tear down those rows of empty, rundown apartments in the Commodore Perry complex, Rep. Brian Higgins is telling Buffalo’s housing agency.

Instead, give developers a chance to renovate the apartments that can be rented to low- and moderate-income tenants, and perhaps provide some market-rate housing, too, he said.

“It could be not-for-profits, private developers, could be partnerships. It could be a group of developers,” said Higgins, D-Buffalo. “These guys understand the market and know what works. You are looking at unique housing. Let’s just see what happens.”

Higgins will hold a news conference at 10:30 a.m. Monday to announce his plans for the deteriorating housing complex that sits less than a mile from Canalside. While the six towers and some of the low-standing apartments are occupied, more than 300 of the oldest apartments are vacant, some for more than a decade.

“This needs to be taken care of right away,” Higgins said. “We can’t just let this property in such proximity to the downtown core deteriorate as it is. I can’t accept this blight in my city.”

Higgins has no formal role over the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, which owns the complex, but as the congressman whose district includes the area, he could influence the federal government’s significant financial support of the agency.

The congressman had not discussed his idea for the Perry apartments with the housing authority.

“This is the first I am hearing that Congressman Higgins is interested in Perry,” BMHA Chairman Michael Seaman said when asked about the Higgins proposal.

[Gallery: Life in the Perry Street apartments]

Mayor Byron W. Brown, who controls the BMHA board through appointments, declined to comment on Higgins' proposal.

But at least two developers agree that the vacant apartments, which some nearby residents refer to as a ghost town, could be redeveloped.

“I think this is a great idea,” said developer Nick Sinatra of Sinatra & Co. “They are good brick structures. This is a great location.”

Focusing on 172 units

Based on a consultant's report, the BMHA concluded that renovating the vacant apartments would be too expensive and instead is looking for state or federal funds to knock them down, and to help rebuild low-income housing as part of a larger mixed-income neighborhood.

But Higgins said he recently toured the Perry homes with a couple of developers, and he believes the development community would jump at the chance to rehabilitate some of the vacant apartments.

Higgins is asking the housing authority to seek a request for proposals, a strategy similar to when developers were asked to submit proposals for reusing the Children’s Hospital buildings that soon will close on Bryant Street.

The Commodore Perry apartments consist of three sets of apartment complexes that, at one time, totaled 1,000 apartments. Today, there are about 740 units. The three sets are:

  • Six high-rise buildings built in 1956, containing about 326 apartments, nearly all occupied.
  • Row house apartments built in 1956. A majority of 84 are occupied.
  • The original flat-roofed, row house apartments built in 1939. These are in the worst shape. Initially, there were 634, but many were demolished in the late 1990s, leaving about 330. Almost all are vacant.

Higgins is talking about rehabbing 172 units in the 12 empty, flat-roofed buildings on 12.8 acres of land between Louisiana and Hamburg streets at the southern end of the Perry complex and adjacent to a 7.5-acre swath of vacant BMHA property abutting South Park Avenue.

The shuttered Perry apartments. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

He estimated redevelopment of the 172 units at about $33 million.

Higgins said he envisions a mixed-income housing development, with lower-income affordable housing as well as perhaps more expensive market-rate units created on the campus as well.

And while Higgins said he also would consider other ideas for redeveloping Perry, he questioned the wisdom of a football stadium in the Perry neighborhood. The area has been identified as a possible site for a new football stadium for the Buffalo Bills, but team owners Terry and Kim Pegula so far have shown little interest in building a new stadium in the city or anywhere else.

BMHA plans

The housing authority has been working for the past decade on redevelopment plans for the full 41-acre Perry complex, agency chairman Seaman said.

Those plans call for retaining the six high-rise buildings and demolishing 300 to 400 low-rise brick apartments, and then replacing them with new housing and related amenities. Demolition costs are pegged at $10 million, while combined demolition and redevelopment costs have ranged from $44 million to $200 million, depending on the extent of the plan.

The agency at one point received a federal planning grant for the Perry redevelopment project, and now is hoping to receive money for the demolition and redevelopment from a housing fund that New York State recently approved, Seaman said. The agency also hopes federal redevelopment funds could become available.

Despite the agency’s desire to move forward on its demolition and redevelopment plan, Seaman said the BMHA is open to discussing the congressman’s proposal for Perry.

But any plan must be done in coordination with the City of Buffalo’s Office of Strategic Planning, which has been working on a broad housing plan for the city, Seaman said.

A view from 2016 of the circa-1936 row houses in the Perry Street apartments, most of which are vacant and boarded up. Click on the photo to view more images from the complex. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

Two developers contacted by The Buffalo News, who did not tour the complex with Higgins, said they liked the congressman’s proposal. One is Sinatra; the other is Dennis M. Penman.

“It’s an idea whose time has come,” Penman said. “It’s in a very good location.”

Both developers spoke of creating a mixed-income development with low-income and affordable units as well as more expensive market-rate apartments. Some commercial development also could be included, Sinatra said.

Perhaps some new construction could be mixed with renovating existing buildings, the developers said.

Private developers, unlike the BMHA, would qualify for low-income tax credits for low-income housing as well as historic tax credits for market-rate units, Penman said.

Higgins visit

Higgins said he has been hearing for two decades that the boarded-up row houses at Perry, which can be seen from the I-190, need to be demolished. He decided he wanted to see for himself.

“I was curious and had developers from Buffalo take a look,” he said.

Higgins would not identify the two developers who toured the vacant housing with him, but he said they found the brick buildings structurally sound and worth saving.

“Why are we talking about demolition?” Higgins asked.

The buildings are less than a mile from Canalside, as well as the Metro Rail line, making them accessible to downtown and the University at Buffalo medical school opening soon on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, he said.

“This could potentially be one of the most exciting preservation projects in a long time,” Higgins said. “The bricks are good. Those are solid buildings. Why waste $10 million to knock them down?”

Higgins said it will cost less to renovate the existing units than to demolish them and build new.

The shuttered Perry apartments. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

That conflicts with a study conducted several years ago for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that concluded the price tag for renovating the existing shuttered Perry units was about the same as it would be to demolish the apartments and build new ones.

Sinatra, one of the local developers supporting Higgins’ plan, agreed with the congressman that renovation is generally less costly.

“I would have to look into it, but on paper, it is cheaper to do rehab than knock down and build new,” Sinatra said.

The ghost town

Residents who live in the Commodore Perry complex describe the shuttered buildings that Higgins is referring to as a ghost town.

Higgins said he hopes the BMHA will issue a request for proposals soon, so that renovation work could begin in 2018.

There’s no downside to requesting proposals, he said.

The financially struggling BMHA would get fair market value for sale of the 20 acres of property, and 172 apartment buildings, Higgins said.

What’s more, as a private development, he said, the project could generate property tax revenue for Buffalo and Erie County, which he pegged at $1.75 million and $580,000 annually, respectively.

“They’ve had decades to do something about the property, and nothing has happened,” Higgins said of the BMHA plans for the Perry site.

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