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St. Paul's Cathedral hopes apartment project will help pay the bills

Century-old wood-paneled walls, with a quotation etched in one of them.

Historic fireplaces and built-in bookcases.

Skylights from 120 years ago, and leaded glass windows.

These are among the more unusual features in the newly completed Cathedral Commons apartments on Pearl Street in downtown Buffalo.

Now the interim dean and rector of St. Paul's Cathedral across the street hopes the redevelopment of its former Parish House building will generate enough additional income to support St. Paul's initiatives and mission, as it celebrates its 200th anniversary this year.

"That's what this is about, to have money from this go back into our outreach ministry," said the Rev. Will Mebane, during a recent tour with The Buffalo News. "This project has been blessed."

The cathedral teamed up with Schneider Development to complete the $1.6 million renovation late last year, transforming the five-story former office and study at 128 Pearl into a mixed-use building with luxury apartments and one first-floor commercial space. Three of the seven units are already rented.

Mebane and Schneider officials said the project presented some unique challenges, with its very narrow footprint, small size – 10,500 square feet in all – and its location sandwiched between Verizon Communications and Stewart Title Co. The location also required addressing some easement issues with those neighbors – ironic since their properties used to belong to the cathedral in the first place.

“This was a very challenging redevelopment project from the get-go,” said Jake Schneider, CEO of Schneider Family of Services.

More remarkable, perhaps, was the rushed timeframe. The project included federal historic tax credits, whose future was uncertain last year, so Evans Bank insisted that the work be completed by year's end. That was in August, giving Schneider and construction manager RP Oak Hill just over four months to get the job done.

"RP Oak Hill and their subs were working furiously to get this finished," Mebane said. "They had guys working here over the weekends."

Then came the challenge of trying to lease it up during this year's cold and snowy winter. "This is the worst time of year to be trying to lease apartments," Mebane said in the earlier interview, during one of the snowfalls that pummeled the region this year. "The only way I would move in this weather is if I was evicted."

Still, he said the building's location in the heart of downtown and right near Metro Rail makes it appealing for a broad range of potential tenants, particularly those who want easy access to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

The renovated building features four one-bedroom units and three two-bedroom apartments, ranging in size from 850 to 1,350 square feet, each with a different layout. Rents vary from $995 to $1,995 per month. Tenants also get one parking space per unit, in a lot that the cathedral already owns a block away.

The new apartments all feature modern amenities like granite countertops, stainless steel Frigidaire appliances, engineered hardwood laminate floors and carpeting, tile backsplash, walk-in closets, and washers and dryers.

But they also retain historic features such as the marble fireplaces and leaded glass windows, which are original to the building.

And the units overlook the cathedral and Cathedral Park, with added views of downtown, especially from the top floor with its refinished skylights. "It's one of my favorite parts," Mebane said.

The open first floor commercial space, at 750 square feet, is available for lease for $1,000 per month. It has already drawn some interest from some retail stores, a nonprofit, a bank that wanted a satellite office and even a prosthetics company that wanted a downtown sales office, Mebane said.

The project is the latest example of adaptive reuse of an old city structure, but one with religious roots instead of industrial. Designed by E.B. Green and constructed in 1896, the Parish House building had long been used for offices – including the dean's first-floor office, which is now an apartment – as well as for music theory and study rooms.

But it was no longer needed and had become a financial burden for the cathedral. Officials initially tried to sell it but weren't getting adequate offers, so when Mebane arrived nearly four years ago, he convinced the cathedral's lay leadership to take it off the market and try to develop it instead.

Mebane lives in the Apartments at the Hub, owned by Schneider, and said he was impressed to see a Catholic priest give a blessing at the grand opening of that building. The building also features a painting of a homeless woman, which Schneider put there to remind tenants and visitors that not everyone is fortunate.

"I've been to lots of these commercial building openings. You don't see that," Mebane said. "He talks about his work and how he sees it as a vocation and not just a job. So I put it in the back of my mind about asking him to help us."

That help went far beyond what was initially offered. Schneider and his team developed a financial plan for the project, detailed how the tax credits and ownership would work, presented the proposal to cathedral leadership, drew up the architectural designs, and brought in both Evans Bank and RP Oak Hill.

"Of course, my eyes were glazing over," Mebane said. "I had no idea what he was talking about, but I kept nodding."

Then Schneider oversaw the project and began to oversee marketing and leasing.

Yet the church only paid the developer for architectural design and related services, nothing else. "We could not have asked for a better partner than Jake Schneider," Mebane said. "His crew far exceeded what was expected of them ... Next thing we know, he's really co-developing it with us."

That's not to say it still didn't take up a lot of Mebane's time.

"Trying to be a pastor and manage a development project, I missed all of those classes in seminary," he joked.

But now the building is formally owned by a for-profit entity called 128 Pearl LLC, formed and controlled by the church, which provides maintenance and cleaning services under a contract. In all, the church put $350,000 of its own money into the project, as a long-term investment that Mebane hopes will pay off.

"I don't want to say it was simple, because it wasn't," Mebane said. "We had a lot of hoops to jump through, but it has all worked the way we envisioned it."

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