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Aldrich & Ray building developer sues over denial of historic designation

Angelo Natale has a "historic" problem.

Construction is underway on his $5.6 million conversion of a Niagara Street manufacturing building into office space and apartments, with a completion expected by summer.

But the funding has a gaping hole, because the project failed to qualify last year for state and federal historic tax credits that could have covered as much as a third of the cost.

So the developer and his partners are now suing the National Park Service and the keeper of the National Register of Historic Places for "arbitrarily and capriciously" refusing to list the Aldrich & Ray Manufacturing Building on the National Register.

They argue the federal agency ignored or "inconsistently" interpreted and applied the "relevant law rules and regulations" governing the criteria for a listing, and failed to follow procedures. They're asking a federal court in Buffalo to reverse the decision.

National Park Service insisted it followed its procedures. "The National Park Service takes very seriously its role as the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places,” said agency spokesman Mike Litterst. “All nominations are reviewed and evaluated in accordance with the National Historic Preservation Act and must meet the National Register Criteria for Evaluation."

The rejection by the federal authorities – the second time in recent years – represents a rare defeat for an adaptive reuse project in Buffalo, where most of the redevelopment efforts in recent years have benefited from historic tax credits. Buffalo developers are among the biggest users of the credits nationwide.

Natale and his partners – who bought the four-story building at 1485-1491 Niagara St. in 2017 – were counting on the credits to contribute as much as $2 million toward the project's financing.

Besides Natale – a veteran homebuilder who has recently become active in commercial redevelopment – the ownership group includes Bobby Corrao, Frank Parisi and Ikram Massabini, owner of MVP Network Consulting, which will occupy much of the office space in the building.

Created under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Register is a list of historic landmarks that are "protected from destruction or impairment," the lawsuit noted.

In New York, property owners seeking a federal listing apply first to the State Historic Preservation Office, which nominates and recommends a site to the National Park Service. So a building can be listed on both the national and state registers, and a qualifying renovation project can receive state and federal tax credits, totaling up to 40% of the eligible costs.

Developer seeks tax breaks for Niagara Street mixed-use project

In this case, the 33,550-square-foot building was constructed in 1894 for Aldrich & Ray, which specialized in making brass and metal products, including soda fountains, hotel fixtures, tea kettles, coffee urns and utensils, according to the lawsuit.

"The Aldrich & Ray Manufacturing Building is a historically significant tribute to Buffalo's manufacturing and industrial past," the lawsuit said. "There are few other historical buildings remaining along Niagara Street that contribute to an understanding of the industrial heritage along that corridor."

The building was constructed with three floors, but a fourth was added in 1904. The manufacturer also bought a separate standing former police station on a lot just to the north prior to 1900, and connected the two structures, the lawsuit continued.

A devastating fire in 1976 destroyed portions of the former police station and additions to the north and east, although the original building remained.

The lawsuit argued it "remains as one of the oldest factories on Niagara Street, and retains sufficient integrity of setting, character, feeling and association to convey this significant industrial history in the context of Niagara Street at the heart of Buffalo's industrial sector during the late-nineteenth century."

But the state Board of Historic Preservation recommended to the SHPO commissioner that the property was ineligible, and the commissioner agreed. The agency cited the loss of the northern half of the building in the 1976 fire.

Construction on the project will continue "as if historic tax credits were in place," Natale said in an interview. Plans by Carmina Wood Morris PC call for a blend of commercial and residential space, with retail and offices on the first three floors and seven one- and two-bedroom apartments on the fourth floor.

Horvath Chiropractic will take up 3,000 to 5,000 square feet on the first floor within 60 days, while MVP – an information technology company now on Hertel Avenue – will take up much of the rest of the first, all of the second, and part of the third floor by late spring or early summer. The apartments also will be done by summer.

The developers still seek a restaurant or retail tenant to occupy a small, gray metal addition in the rear, where they will put in large glass garage doors that can open up to the street. And they're "talking to some potential tenants" for the remaining third-floor space, Natale said.

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