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'Engines of redevelopment humming on the East Side' – and there's more on tap

After decades of neglect, more than $250 million in redevelopment projects are underway on Buffalo's East Side, with more planned or in the works.

From a smattering of projects along a big stretch of Jefferson Avenue to a couple of large ventures along Broadway and Fillmore Avenue, developers, businesses and government agencies are investing significant money in neighborhoods east of Main Street.

It's far from the level of activity seen in other parts of the city, particularly downtown Buffalo, and just a fraction of the $6.5 billion in total development that's happened in the region in the last six years. And there's no guarantee of how much more will come.

But it's more than the East Side has seen in a very long time.

"Across our city, we are continuing to see the positive impact of economic development investment," Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown said. "In another few years, if you drive through the East Side, you will not recognize that section of the City of Buffalo."

A new three-story office building for nonprofits is planned for Jefferson Avenue.

For example:

  • The Buffalo Urban Development Corp., with funding from the Buffalo Billion, other state agencies and the city, is redeveloping 35 acres of the Northland Avenue Belt Line Corridor into a $120 million economic development hub, anchored by the Western New York Workforce Training Center and Buffalo Manufacturing Works. The training center opened in September at 683 Northland Ave., but work continues on the rest of the complex.
  • Developers Stuart Alexander, Rhonda Ricks and SCG Development are spending $50 million to convert the vacant former Buffalo Forge Manufacturing Co. plant at 490 Broadway into a new residential community, with 158 affordable apartments and retail space, and eventually town houses and single-family homes. The team broke ground in November.
  • People Inc. teamed up with developers Nick Sinatra and David Pawlik to construct the Jefferson Avenue Apartments at 1140 and 1166 Jefferson, with 89 affordable units and retail space as part of a $31 million project that will transform two entire city blocks. Construction kicked off in December.
  • Sinatra and Pawlik are also planning a new three-story office complex for nonprofits at 1200 Jefferson, with about 40,000 square feet of space just north of the People Inc. buildings, with at least "three premier tenants."
  • Northwest Bancorp opened a 3,000-square-foot branch at 1228 Jefferson on Jan. 2, as part of the "community benefits plan" that it unveiled when it agreed to buy 18 First Niagara Bank branches from KeyCorp.

A rendering of the Forge on Broadway.

"I think we’re moving in the right direction," Brown said, while acknowledging that "there’s a lot more that needs to be done."

Another stretch of Jefferson has seen several million dollars in new investment over the past few years. That includes the new Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library at 1324 Jefferson Ave.; conversion of the old library into the Beverly Gray Business Exchange Center at 332 East Utica St.; the Apollo Media Center at 1346 Jefferson Ave.; and the Black Achievers Museum inside another Pawlik project at 1490 Jefferson Ave.

Bellamy Commons.

Dr. Fadi Dagher's Cedarland Development snapped up several large properties in the Broadway-Fillmore area, seeking to bring new residential, office, retail and light industrial tenants to two vacant former department stores and an empty manufacturing building. And architect-turned-developer Karl Frizlen and Jason Yots completed their conversion of a mattress factory at 170 Florida St., at Jefferson Avenue, into 34 loft apartments and 3,000 square feet of office space.

"There is positive activity that we are beginning to see on the East Side like we have not seen in decades, and that is beyond the brick and mortar buildings," said Buffalo Common Council President Darius Pridgen, citing the workforce education at Northland. "It is tremendous to see the progress. Ten years ago, when you saw cranes in the air in downtown Buffalo, people were amazed. Now we're seeing cranes on the East Side, and to me, that is a sign of progress."

Pridgen said he "would never have dreamed" that Jefferson would have two bank branches on it – "one built from the ground up" – and also noted the construction of affordable housing by nonprofit organizations as "another step in the right direction."

Ricks agreed. Improved housing could bring in more commercial development and spur greater levels of homeownership on the East Side, she said.

"It’s very important that we not only have rentals but also homeownership as well. We’re losing our kids, because they can’t afford to live in the city, so they’re going to the 'burbs. We need a place for them to live."

All of that is music to the ears of the Brown administration, which has long sought to demonstrate – in the face of criticism from his own supporters – that the city's resurgence isn't leaving behind its lower-income and minority neighborhoods.

"Oftentimes, people ask me, there's great development in the city, wonderful things happening in Buffalo, but what about the East Side?" Brown told the New York State Commercial Association of Realtors group in mid-December. "Buffalo, now more than ever, is a city on the move, and our goal in the city of Buffalo is to build a city of opportunity for all people."

Sycamore Street leads toward downtown on Buffalo's East Side, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Buffalo has already seen major construction and renovation activity in recent years, turning vacant land or empty shells into vibrant new buildings. That's garnered significant attention nationally and even internationally, drawing in more investors from out of town to undertake more ambitious efforts.

It's also driven up the price of real estate, particularly in attractive neighborhoods like downtown Buffalo, the Elmwood Village, Allentown, the Delaware District and North Buffalo. That's made those areas unaffordable for many residents, and less desirable for investors and developers because the higher prices make it harder for them to turn a profit.

But Brown said there's still plenty of properties throughout other parts of Buffalo that can be reused and revived, and at less cost.

"There’s still a lot of vacant land in different parts of the city that provides a tremendous opportunity. There are still legacy buildings that need to be redeveloped. There are still substandard buildings that need to be addressed," he said.

The East Side has seen the least amount of activity, even with the recent uptick. But Ricks, Pridgen and others expect that to change.

"I expect to see a tremendous amount more," Pridgen said. "A city must have its hub moving in the right direction so that the spokes of the wheel are able to enjoy the revitalization. Downtown is humming now, and now it's a pleasure to hear the engines of redevelopment humming on the East Side."

Pridgen is trying to encourage minority builders and developers to get more involved in the action, both in city-backed projects or their own. He said he was also pleased to see traditional development firms partnering with or mentoring smaller minority firms, to bring them up the ladder of experience.

Developer Rhonda Ricks in the Parkview Apartments on Best Street. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Already, Ricks is working on her next project, a $42 million conversion of the former School 44 at 1349 Broadway into 75 apartments. Twenty percent of the units will be reserved for homeless women with children, and Ricks and her partners – Stuart Alexander and SCG – are working with the Community Action Organization to also put a HeadStart early childhood education program in the 114,000-square-foot, three-story building.

"I believe there’s a lot more opportunity, and I believe there’s a lot more coming,” Ricks said. “There’s no place else to go, but on the East Side of Buffalo, because every place else has been developed or somebody owns it. So if you want to get something done, you’ve got to come to the East Side."

The city is now trying to encourage more developers to look eastward by improving streets and sidewalks. Enhancements to Main Street, Niagara Street, Seneca Street, Hertel Avenue and other thoroughfares have previously led to more private-sector investment in those districts, so officials are planning similar street and sidewalk work on Genesee Street and Walden Avenue.

"Our focus right now is to clean up the infrastructure in those areas," Brown added.

At the same time, the mayor said the city is cognizant of the risks inherent in gentrification, which can threaten to drive out residents and tenants who can no longer afford the rising rents, mortgages and taxes if values rise too much, too quickly. He said the city has already invested about $40 million in affordable housing development, creating more than 1,200 new units since 2006.

But others say the responsibility doesn't just fall on the city or the developers.

"We’re just glad that there is redevelopment on the East Side," said Anthony Williams, executive director of the Fillmore Leroy Area Residents, a neighborhood group. "Would a lot of people like more going on in a specific area? Of course. But that’s not how things operate.

"People have to get involved in their own communities and engage that. You can’t count on a Paladino or Sinatra or anyone to do that."

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