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New East Side historic designations come with incentives for homeowners

Preserving historic properties has gained momentum in a neighborhood not widely known for homes worth saving.

It's happening in the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood.

"Along Fillmore, this neighborhood has houses as grand as anything you see on Richmond Avenue, or anything you see in other parts of the city," said Jessie Fisher, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara, a nonprofit organization.

The Buffalo Common Council in May designated the neighborhood a local historic district, making it the second East Side area with the designation after Hamlin Park.

Then in November the National Park Service certified a portion of Broadway-Fillmore as a local historic district, making it possible for homeowners and commercial property owners to use state and federal historic tax credits when making improvements.

Now, Preservation Buffalo Niagara, along with other community partners, is seeking to have that certification extended to another swath of Broadway-Fillmore adjacent to Memorial Drive. The efforts are the latest attempt to preserve a neighborhood affected by poverty, absentee owners and demolition.

"It's impossible to tell the story of Buffalo without Broadway-Fillmore, and the story of immigration that's centered in this neighborhood in such a huge degree," Fisher said. "Yet this neighborhood is in danger of being lost and wiped off the city map.

"The fact we have this district says the history of the neighborhood is important and the community itself is important," she said. "Now there are additional tools we can help to bring revitalization, investment, home ownership and businesses back into this neighborhood."

The organization has focused on informing homeowners about new opportunities for the newly certified area.

"We want people in the neighborhood to understand what the incentive is, and how to do tax credits," Fisher said. "We want them to take advantage of these credits and not be concerned when they go to get a building permit."

'A big help'

The tax credits come as welcome news to Bangladeshi, Burmese, Vietnamese and Arab immigrants among others who have moved into the East Side.

Shah Ali, who was born in Bangladesh and came to Buffalo seven years ago from New York City, plans to use the 20 percent tax credit repairing a four-bedroom, 3,300-square-foot house on Fillmore Avenue, near Stanislaus Street. He purchased the building, which needs extensive work, in October at a city auction.

Ali said the savings will help.

"This will cost a lot of money," Ali said of the renovations.

Shah Ali, an immigrant from Bangladesh who moved to Buffalo in 2009, bought a home on Fillmore Avenue at the city foreclosure auction for $76,000 and estimates he'll spend well over $100,000 fixing it up, (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

In Broadway-Fillmore, about 175 homes and 50 businesses are eligible for historic tax credits in the certified district. About half of the homes are owned by absentee owners.

If the PBN succeeds in extending the district, an additional 144 lots in the area near Memorial Drive would be eligible.

The survey of the Broadway-Historic District was done by Clinton Brown Company Architecture in 2003, and updated by Preservation Studios in 2017.

Five buildings were identified as eligible in their own right for National Register and Local Landmark designations. They are: St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, Polish Singing Circle Building, Burczynski Bakery Building, Michael Dekowski residence at 470 Sweet Ave., and Hodkiewicz-Cohen Bakery.

The tax credits have been put to use in the East Side's Hamlin Park since it was listed on the National Register in 2013. Twenty-seven properties there have used New York State homeowner tax credits, spending $622,507.

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Atiqur Rahman, an accountant who owns Broadway Hardware Store, called the program an asset for Broadway-Fillmore but cited some limitations.

"It is going to greatly help the community, but at the same time there are a very limited number of people who are getting the benefit," Rahman said.

"A major portion of the district is not covered," he said. "This is the main issue. It is going to be a big help but it needs to cover more. But at least we have something now."

Rahman said the downside for some will be adhering to historic standards for materials that can be more expensive and take longer to get the work done.

"Some of those decisions will depend on the Buffalo Preservation Board," Rahman said. "You have to understand that in this area, people are very low-income and some have fled New York City like myself just to survive."

The historic tax credits are available even though the district lacked enough physical integrity to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which automatically qualifies an area for the benefits.

Property owners are eligible for a 20 percent tax credit if they spend a minimum of $5,000, with 5 percent or more spent on the building's exterior. People earning under $60,000 can get a tax rebate.

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

Businesses are eligible for an additional 20 percent federal tax credit, which has been used widely in downtown Buffalo and elsewhere to restore unused buildings.

Matter of fairness

Providing historic tax credits on the East Side is a matter of fairness, said Stephen Karnath, executive director of Broadway-Fillmore Neighborhood Housing Services, which has supported the neighborhood designations.

"As a country we need to provide some level of equity, and providing these credits in a very low-income neighborhood is one way to do that," he said.

A number of people have approached the housing services organization about using the credits, Karnath said.

"If you have about 175 homes in the district, and we can get a half-dozen using it in the first year, that's a huge win for the neighborhood," he said.

Karnath sees another value with the historic designations.

"In real estate, sometimes perception creates reality," he said. "The designation of the Broadway-Fillmore District sends a positive and even powerful message to the development community that this is a neighborhood that's worth a second look, and worth investing in."

Fisher said the existing housing stock on the East Side is often unappreciated and not well understood. She disputes the notion that houses on the East Side aren't worth saving.

"That wouldn't be a question in other parts of the city," Fisher said. "They have not necessarily been as maintained as well, and a huge part of that is just a function of redlining and racist banking practices, to be honest."

There is value in the district's smaller cottage-style housing, too, she said.

"From a material standpoint, they are much better than virtually all the housing that gets built today," Fisher said. "They are old-growth wood, and even the most modest-looking cottages often have a level of trim and a level of handiwork that you simply don't see today in newer houses that are getting built."

"We know those types of details help homeowners realize more value in their homes," she said.

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