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Editorial: Plan to seek a private developer to rehab Perry site is worth exploring

Rep. Brian Higgins has come up with a plan whose good sense is beyond dispute: Instead of continuing what seems like the never-ending effort to demolish and replace vacant buildings within the sprawling Commodore Perry housing complex, bring in developers who may be interested in rehabilitating them for use as subsidized or market-rate housing.

What could be the objection, as long as it takes into account the needs of those who remain in substandard housing?

The time is right for such an approach which, if successful, would return a dozen existing buildings to productive use, rather than reducing them to rubble and starting over. Buffalo is on the upswing and developers are finding fewer buildings to reclaim in the city’s core neighborhoods. On an informal tour of the complex, Higgins brought unidentified developers who, he said, pronounced them to be structurally sound and worth preserving.

And another developer – Nick Sinatra, who did not accompany Higgins on the tour – pronounced the proposal “a great idea,” saying, “They are good brick structures. This is a great location.”

Sinatra also disputed previous assessments that concluded there would be no financial advantage to rehabilitating the structures. “I would have to look into it,” he said, “but on paper it is cheaper to do rehab than knock down and build new.”

But no one is requiring the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority to sell the more than 300 vacant apartments in the Commodore Perry complex, which is less than a mile from the booming area of Canalside. Higgins’ proposal is merely to test the market by inviting developers to submit bids to purchase the buildings, then to renovate them.

The idea demands no commitment beyond evaluating the ideas. If the BMHA likes what it sees, it will receive fair market value for the property, money that can be used to improve its other properties.
The BMHA has been focused on razing the apartments, based on a consultant’s report that renovations would be too costly. It then wants to rebuild low-income housing as part of a larger, mixed-income neighborhood.

But that effort is going nowhere. It has been at least 10 years since the BMHA promised residents that buildings would be razed and rebuilt. It’s time to consider a different approach that respects the needs of residents and the intolerable reality of a decrepit urban ghost town.

With Buffalo in the midst of an economic renaissance and developers scrounging for buildings to renovate, this is an idea that, on paper, at least, makes great sense. It’s worth examining.

The Perry apartments include three complexes that once totaled 1,000 units. After demolitions in the 1990s, about 740 units remain, and Higgins’ approach is to rehabilitate 172 of them. They are contained in 12 empty, flat-roofed buildings on 12.8 acres of land between Louisiana and Hamburg streets at the southern end of the complex.

This much is indisputable: To allow this largely vacant mini-city to continue to deteriorate is a tragic waste of a valuable resource in a city that is on the rebound. It’s a ghost town. Something needs to happen, and with Buffalo rebounding, this is the time.

So far, Higgins’ proposal has attracted mostly silence. The BMHA board was unaware of the idea until a reporter mentioned it – perhaps not Higgins’ best strategy – and Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown has offered no comment thus far. The mayor controls appointments to the Housing Authority’s board.

Unless some better approach is already in the works, Higgins’ proposal at a minimum merits an enthusiastic “Why not?” There is no downside to examining the possibility of rehabilitating existing buildings rather than going to the significant public expense of tearing them down.

It’s a no-brainer. The BMHA should get on board and get moving.

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