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City to review apartments planned for former Church of the Ascension

The Episcopal Diocese of Western New York is hoping its proposal to convert the former Church of the Ascension into affordable senior housing will get a green light from the Buffalo Planning Board.

The Diocese and its affiliate, Episcopal Community Housing Inc., are seeking a series of city approvals to renovate the historic church at 16 Linwood Avenue and 67 North St. into 28 apartments. The $7 million project includes construction of a four-story addition on the 0.58-acre site where an expanse of lawn currently sits.

The proposed new units – including 25 one-bedroom apartments and three two-bedroom units – are aimed at people ages 55 and over who are living on a fixed income. Eligibility would be set at 50 percent to 60 percent of the area median income. The diocese is seeking state low-income housing tax credits to support the financing.

The apartments would be constructed in the basement of the 19,377-square-foot Medina sandstone church, as well as in the existing parish house designed by E.B. Green, and in a 17,184-square-foot cultured stone addition to be built on the west side of the property.

The one- and two-bedroom units would range in size from 600 to 950 square feet, with 16 apartments in the addition, two in the church and the rest in the parish. The church basement would also contain tenant and bike storage.

The existing church sanctuary would be reserved for a community use to be determined by the diocese.

The project was first proposed nearly three years ago, in 2014, but the plan fell through because the National Park Service demanded design changes. By contrast, this time, they've already received approval from the Park Service for a historic preservation project. That's important, because the building is already designated as a national, state and local landmark, and the diocese and the nonprofit are seeking state and federal historic tax credits to help support the project.

But they may still face pushback from within the Linwood neighborhood and from local preservationists, who have already criticized the design and questioned if it's the best plan for the neighborhood. The neighbors said they preferred to see market-rate housing and no new construction on the property, and also cited parking as a concern. Church officials said they are limited in making any more changes because of the historic nature of the property and the existing Park Service approval.

The project requires site plan approval, an area variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals for building setback and a "certificate of appropriateness" from the Buffalo Preservation Board, as the church dates to 1872 and is located in the Allentown Historic Preservation District. Officials are also seeking tax breaks from the Erie County Industrial Development Agency.

The Preservation Board has scheduled a public hearing for their next meeting on Nov. 16. The Planning Board will review it on Nov. 6, with a public hearing, but can't make a final decision until the Zoning Board rules.

The deadline for applying for the state housing tax credits for this year is Dec. 5, but the developers can't apply for those until all local approvals are in hand. The process of obtaining the state credits can take months, so construction is not expected to begin until at least late next year, said project spokesman Phil Pantano. Once it begins, work would last about 12 months.

"The project is incredibly important to the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York and to its efforts of continuing its mission of service to others at that location," Pantano said. "The Diocese is not a private developer. They don't view this project as a money-making initiative."

The historic building has been vacant since January 2015, when the 164-year-old congregation moved to the Church of the Good Shepherd at 96 Jewett Parkway, where it shares space.

The property will still be owned by the diocese, but the redevelopment will be led and managed by the community housing division of Episcopal Church Home & Affiliates. Founded in 1984, that division owns or manages 203 apartments at four properties, including Canterbury Gardens in Wheatfield, St. Paul’s Place in Angola, St. Mark’s in Buffalo’s Riverside neighborhood and Shaarey Zedek Apartments in Amherst.

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