The student-housing developers behind a new planned project at Main Street and Hertel Avenue have been eyeing Buffalo for more than five years because, they say, it's been underserved by outside companies and much of what exists right now is not good quality.
David Freeman, owner of Provo, Utah-based DFFusion Investments, said there's a need for better residential options in the city, particularly for the graduate students he and his partner are targeting at University at Buffalo and other area schools.
"I've watched Buffalo for many years. There are so many students in this market," Freeman said, after the Buffalo Planning Board Monday evening approved modifications to his original plan and extended his authorization to start work.
"It's been very underserved by student-housing providers from outside the area. I've noticed a large majority of the students are living in substandard housing, especially around the South Campus."
That's what he intends to change. Freeman, a student-housing builder and operator for more than 30 years, is spending $30 million to redevelop the former Keystone Corp. industrial complex into off-campus housing for 321 graduate students. He's teamed up with partner Justin Earl, also a veteran of student-housing, in a new firm called Blackfish Investments that will own the Buffalo facility.
The project at 2929-2939 Main entails a mixture of studio, one-bedroom, two-bedroom and even three-bedroom apartments, as well as a fitness center, plus some commercial or retail space. The apartments would be fully furnished, with utilities and Internet access, and the building would also feature a design and amenities for the students centered around "study and success," said Freeman, who compared it to a "co-working space."
"It's designed around collaborative study and work," he said. "Most graduate students graduate with a product or business, so we're trying to accommodate a collaborative-type environment where students will not only study but develop new ideas."
The location is attractive because of the proximity to both the Metro Rail and bus lines, as well as the social life on Hertel, he said. The site is located near the LaSalle Metro Rail station, the William Price development and McCarthy Park.
"We believe location is extremely important," he said. "We feel very good about the location that we're in. It serves the needs of the students, and accommodates the kind of clientele that we want to serve."
Freeman said many universities today are building larger graduate housing to accommodate families, but most graduate students are single, and they're looking for "purpose-built" housing. Graduate housing is also different from undergraduate, where students typically share an apartment or suite with as many as three others.
He said they're trying to "keep it reasonably affordable," with the studio and one-bedroom units renting for about $1,100 to $1,200 per month, while the two-bedroom apartments will go for $850 per person, since those are more likely to be shared. He said the developers won't discourage undergraduates from renting, especially upperclassmen, but they're not pursuing them as a market niche in this case.
Plans call for demolishing parts of the 4.49-acre, multi-building manufacturing complex that are more deteriorated while reusing and redeveloping two remaining structures along the southwestern boundary and building a five-story complex. There would be about 212,000 square feet of residential space in all, plus about 1,500 square feet for accessory retail and commercial use.
Freeman said he and Earl began targeting Buffalo two years ago after forming Blackfish. They received zoning variances and initial Planning Board approval for the Main Street project last July, with an extension in January, and they obtained approval for some modifications Monday.
Specifically, they will replace fiber-cement panels with copper- and gray-colored aluminum panels on the facade; increase the amount of interior green space for landscaping; lower the building height by four feet to 65 feet; raise the site four feet on one end as part of the environmental cleanup; eliminate balconies from the north and south facades, but retain recesses to break up the building's appearance; and change some of the lighting. Parking will remain at 230 spaces, contrary to the application, which incorrectly cited an increase of 53 spaces, according to project attorney Marc Romanowski.
"In this case, an already improved project has been further improved by the changes brought to us," said Planning Board Vice Chairwoman Cynthia Schwartz.
The developers plan to start the environmental cleanup work on the former industrial site in the next couple of months, followed by active construction. Freeman said they hope to open by August 2020, in time for the start of classes that year.
"We love Buffalo," Freeman said. "With the growth of the Medical Campus downtown, there is a need, especially for the older graduate-type student, the more serious student."