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Moving-in day nears at Catholic school-turned apartments on Hertel

A longtime former Catholic school in North Buffalo is about to start its new life as a hip new apartment building, even as it marks its 100th birthday in existence this year.

Iskalo Development Corp. is working feverishly to wrap up its $6 million conversion of the former St. Margaret's School on Hertel Avenue into a 23-unit residential building. It already has commitments for most of its units, and expects to lease out the rest by the time it opens on Oct. 1.

The yellow brick facility is dubbed The Cornelius, after a onetime creek that meandered through the neighborhood in the 19th century on its way to the Niagara River.

It's aimed particularly at young professionals and empty-nesters who want to stay in the North Buffalo area "but can't maintain a house anymore," said David Chiazza, executive vice president at Iskalo.

Located at 1391 Hertel, it's also right next to St. Margaret's Church, which "has been fantastic through this whole process," he added. Indeed, two former St. Margaret's students and one former teacher are among the new tenants.

St. Margaret's Elementary School, which closed in 2012, is being converted into 23 one- and two-bedroom market-rate apartments and 2,000-square foot of commercial space. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

The project offers a mix of 14 two-bedroom apartments and nine one-bedroom units, with a blend of special features, high-end finishes and history throughout the three-story complex. It includes a secure and landscaped rear patio with gas grills, within the 48-space gated parking lot, as well as 17 tenant storage units.

Rents range from $1,200 to $2,200 per month, including one parking space.

The front facade along Hertel has been completely redone to be more welcoming and integrated with the commercial street, with large windows on the upper levels. And it features 2,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor along Hertel, for one or two storefront tenants such as a coffee shop, cafe, or clothing store, along with an exposed aggregate concrete public terrace area.

Indeed, officials touted the location as one of the best features, and the justification for not including too many other amenities inside. "We want people to use Hertel," said project architect Colin McDermid. "There's plenty of restaurants and shopping. They'll play outdoors on Hertel."

Iskalo has not done significant marketing yet, but officials say they benefited significantly from participating in this year's Buffalo Living Tour, which brought several hundred people through the Cornelius and other new apartment buildings.

"The response we got from that, and the amount of inquiries we received and the commitments, was really incredible," Chiazza said. "It really exceeded all of our expectations in terms of the turnout that we got."

As a result, 19 units are spoken for so far, with leases now going out to be signed. That leaves only four apartments remaining - including the most expensive one:  a $2,200 per month two-bedroom apartment on the third floor, with 12-foot ceilings and nine-foot windows overlooking Hertel, as well as a double-vanity and two-headed shower in the bathroom.

"It's just such a great spot. It's a spectacular place to live," Chiazza said. "We're in the sweet spot of Hertel. Everything is within walking distance."

Originally constructed in 1917, the St. Margaret's building served as the home for the church itself for over half of its life, with religious services on the second floor, classrooms on the third floor, and meeting or gathering space on the basement level. It included a steeple, a bell, and a set of steps on Hertel mounting from ground-level to the front door.

But it was converted fully to the school's use in 1967, when the new church building that still stands today was constructed next door. In the process, the main entrance to the school moved to the back. So the church removed the iconic steeple and other features from the Hertel side of the building, and put on an addition that concealed or removed the steps, large windows and front entrance.

The Cornelius, which is Iskalo Development's conversion of the former St. Margaret's Elementary School (closed in 2012), into 23 one- and two-bedroom market-rate apartments of which 19 already have contracts. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

The school remained open for several decades, before it closed in June 2012 due to declining enrollment. The church and the Catholic Diocese sold the 30,000-square-foot building to Iskalo in 2014. "We're excited that it's starting its new chapter in its 100th year," Chiazza said.

The new apartments average about 900 square feet for the one-bedroom units and 1,200 square feet for the larger apartments, with the biggest coming in at about 1,345 square feet. A new elevator was also installed.

All units feature eight-foot wooden doors, oversized crown moldings, solid-surface Cambria countertops, stainless-steel appliances, in-unit laundry, a kitchen island with room for four stools, large walk-in closets with wood shelves and bars, LED lighting, USB ports, and soft-closing wood cabinets. They also have olive-green carpeting in bedrooms and wood-toned vinyl plank flooring in common areas.

All of the two-bedroom apartments include two bathrooms and a master suite with a large walk-in closet. Each one-bedroom unit has one bathroom, although three of them also have a half-bathroom or "powder room" because of extra unused space. The two-bedroom units have both an oversized shower with glass doors, as well as deep-soaking shower tubs.

Additionally, five first-floor apartments have walk-out concrete patios carved out of the ground, surrounded by landscaping and a berm for some privacy. Two bedrooms - one each in apartments on the second and third floors - were carved out of a former stairwell that was filled in. And several include columned capitals that remained from the building's old church days.

As part of the redevelopment, Iskalo is returning the building's focus to Hertel, which "brings some vibrancy to the block," Chiazza said. Workers already removed the brick facade that was constructed on that street in 1967, replacing it with a more modern look with the large windows and storefronts, as well as blue awnings, pre-cast concrete columns, and both green and champaign-brown aluminum panels. All the windows were also replaced.

Iskalo also benefited from some unique structural features of the building, particularly its floor height. That enabled the developer to offer high ceilings on all three levels - ranging from 10 feet to 15 feet - but also made some other changes easier.

For example, the first floor was half-subterranean and 15 feet in height, since that level handled not only meetings but even some sports activities for the school.

So instead of relegating that level to some other non-residential use, Iskalo excavated around the building to expose more of it and raised the first floor by five feet, allowing for "proper apartments" but with 10-foot ceilings. Workers also ran plumbing and other mechanicals underneath

"We just put stone in and a new floor on top of that," Chiazza explained.

The developer opted not to pursue hi

The Cornelius, which is Iskalo Development's conversion of the former St. Margaret's Elementary School (closed in 2012), into 23 one- and two-bedroom market-rate apartments of which 19 already have contracts. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

storic tax credits, because it would have had to keep the wide aisles and hallways of the church that would have constrained the size of the apartments. Instead, it's counting on more rental income from better quality units, and also received a $500,000 Better Buffalo grant.

Iskalo also had to deal with the old church bell that remained on top of the building. Officials initially thought of creating a public art display, but decided instead to donate it after Daemen College came along with a request to install the bell in a new student courtyard for use in ceremonial activities once or twice a year. It will be dedicated later this month.

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