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Apartments planned for former School 44

Developers Stuart Alexander and Rhonda Ricks want to renovate former Buffalo Public School 44, turning the 51,000-square-foot building into an 82-unit apartment building that would also offer support services for its residents.

The partners, through SA+A Development and R+A+R Development, are working to line up financing to not only transform the former Lincoln Academy building at 1349 Broadway but also the lower-income neighborhood around it, just northeast of the Central Terminal and west of Bailey Avenue.

"If you go around that community, you will see that a lot of the housing stock there is deteriorating," Ricks said. "Historically, the housing stock was only supposed to be there temporarily, for people who worked in the shipyards and Larkinville. But a lot of the homes are still standing, barely, and a lot of residents want to see something done with the school."

The $26.8 million project appears headed for approval by the Buffalo Planning Board, after members voiced support for the plan on Monday even though they couldn't formally approve it.

Constructed in 1907 and expanded in 1930, the three-story brick building was designed by Howard Beck and includes an unusual smokestack tower, a basement level and a gymnasium. Located on 2.65 acres at Broadway and Person Street, with Krupp Street in back, it stretches across an entire city block.

Plans by architects and engineers at Carmina Wood Morris PC call for 55 one-bedroom, 16 two-bedroom and 11 three-bedroom apartments. The building will be called School 44 Apartments. Each unit will include hardwood floors and stainless steel appliances. "I'm a firm believer that just because you can't afford it, doesn't mean you're not supposed to have it," Ricks said.

Ten of the units will be designated for homeless women with children, and the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Center will provide case management support for people who have not lived in apartments before or in a long time, Ricks said.

She said the developers are also hoping to put in a daycare center and are working with a federally qualified health center to provide medical services onsite. The gym space could be used as a community auditorium, while the building would also include a separate community room, computer room and laundry facilities, for both residents and the neighborhood. The partners are working with an unidentified nonprofit to put in a library.

"It's important to me to provide them with a whole new community," Ricks said, calling the school conversion "phase one" of a larger initiative. "We want the community to be able to use this, as well, because they really don’t have anything there."

The building was constructed in several phases, so the developers will work to overcome different elevations in the middle of floors, ensuring it's handicapped accessible. There's also an interior courtyard.

Additionally, the project would feature an outdoor playground and patio. An 80-space secured parking lot will be repaved and restriped, with new wood and decorative wrought-iron fencing. New lighting, and additional trees and landscaping buffers, also will be added.

"That alone will be a huge improvement," said Planning Board Vice Chairwoman Cynthia Schwartz. "It's a great project."

She said the two developers – who are also partnering on The Forge on Broadway and have undertaken other renovation projects in the city – started looking at School 44 a year and a half ago. Ricks, who had been a compliance specialist on the Buffalo Joint Schools Construction Project, said she saw the impact that schools had on local neighborhoods. The team already has held meetings with the community to lay out their plans.

"Being part of that project, I saw with the decline of our population that these large buildings were being left abandoned in our community," Ricks said. "Now here we have another opportunity to change a community. That's important to me."

Funding would come in part from New York State Homes and Community Renewal, including 4 percent low-income housing tax credits and Supportive Housing Opportunity Program funds, as well as Empire State Supportive Housing Initiative dollars through the state Office of Mental Health. The project will also receive HOME funds from the city, through the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency. All of that is still pending, and may take much of the next year to finalize.

The developers also plan to seek state and federal historic tax credits to help finance the project. "It will be one of those classic adaptive reuse projects that you see much of with old Buffalo schools," lead architect Steven Carmina said.

Crews will restore the windows, which were replaced in the 1980s, with the original historical style, and workers will clean and repoint the exterior facade where needed, in accordance with federal historic preservation standards. Otherwise, "the building is in remarkable shape,"  Carmina said. "It is in the best shape of any adaptive reuse that we have done in the city."

The project still requires additional reviews, so the Planning Board could not vote Monday. Construction is not expected to begin until at least April or May of 2019, and is expected to last about 18 months, pushing an opening into late 2020 or early 2021.

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