Buffalo officials dragged an affiliate of Sinatra and Co. Real Estate into Housing Court this week over the company's failure to address alleged code violations on a vacant pair of adjacent Elmwood Village houses.
The city's Department of Permit and Inspection Services brought the cases against the developer in September, citing 20 code violations for two houses on Hodge Avenue.
Neighbors were already unhappy about the two houses, even before Monday's hearing before Housing Court Judge Patrick M. Carney. They complained that company owner Nick Sinatra has failed to maintain the two buildings and that the structures have been neglected for at least two years.
"They’re in deplorable condition," said Steve Nassivera, a Hodge resident who moved to the street with his wife 10 years ago and renovated their own home. "You would think he’d want to do the best he could to appease his neighbors."
Sinatra officials said they intend to fix up the houses at 137 and 143 Hodge. During the court hearing, Sinatra Project Manager Timothy Sanders said the firm recently received funding and permits to start repairs. He said the company plans to renovate the houses, not demolish them, and will work to preserve the historic integrity of the buildings.
“It will get done this year,” Sanders told the judge. “We have permits and an asbestos survey. We are working on the property.”
Said Amy Nagy, Sinatra director of development: "It’s an issue that took longer than we liked for resolution, and we can appreciate the neighbors' desire for results."
The two houses are among four in a row on Hodge Avenue that were owned by the former Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo and had been slated for demolition years ago to make way for a proposed new ambulatory surgery center. After that plan changed, the properties were bought four years ago by S&N Buffalo Properties Group, a Sinatra affiliate that also includes Essex Homes of WNY's Phil Nanula.
Two of the four houses were renovated into townhouses and sold, but the remaining two, according to the Housing Court charges, have problems with chimneys, roofs and drainage, exterior walls, "protective treatment," foundation walls, windows and door frames, handrails, guards, trash accumulation, weeds and driveways. They were also cited for overall vacancy.
The judge took no action on the city complaint but told Sanders he will “keep a tight leash” on the project, and ordered him to return March 28 to report on progress. He also urged Sinatra to also hold community meetings to keep neighbors informed.
“I want this project to move along,” the judge said.
Sinatra entered the real estate development arena in Buffalo less than a decade ago with significant backing from Wall Street and the Pritzker family of Hyatt Hotels Corp. He has emerged as one of the city's most active developers, taking on multifamily residential projects of increasing size and expanding into retail and commercial development. He bought and renovated the Market Arcade Building in downtown Buffalo – now his home office – and is working on several projects along Jefferson Avenue.
Elmwood Crossing, the planned $100 million redevelopment of the 8-acre former Women & Children's Hospital campus in Elmwood Village, is easily his largest venture, in partnership with Ellicott Development's William Paladino. That project has brought Sinatra into the spotlight in Elmwood Village.
On Hodge Avenue, the unhappy neighbors say the Sinatra-owned buildings are deteriorating to the point of no return and accused the developer of "demolition by neglect."
"They’re uninhabitable," said neighbor Joel Lippes, who has been particularly vocal in his complaints. "What we have are neglected and run-down, like a scar that doesn’t heal in the neighborhood."
Neighbor Ruthellen Bunis said Sinatra had pledged when he bought the houses that they would be renovated and sold. Said Monte Hoffman, a neighbor who owns three properties on Hodge, including his own house: "I’m concerned that nothing is getting done with them and it just seems to drag on."
Last year, a liberal nonprofit group took Sinatra to task for failing to pay more than $1.2 million in property taxes on a host of properties in the city and Erie County. Sinatra quickly paid his debt, but insisted it was a "business decision" not to pay because he felt the assessments and taxes were too high and unfair, so he was challenging them.