The boarded-up brick buildings of the long-derided Commodore Perry apartments are poised to come down, set to give way to more modern apartments that would transform the public housing project from the 1950s in one of the biggest redevelopment efforts in the city's history.
The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority on Tuesday unveiled preliminary plans to remake the aging 30-acre complex in the Old First Ward into a new mixed-income neighborhood, featuring a wide variety of housing options.
The multi-year effort – expected to cost well over $300 million – will radically transform a 10-block area of aging structures stretching from Chicago to Hamburg streets and from the Niagara Thruway to South Park Avenue.
That's an area that was previously singled out as ideal for a possible downtown football stadium, and it's hoped that the revamp will draw other types of development, retail and services to the revived neighborhood.
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"It’s going to have great spillover effect to other neighborhoods that Perry is around," said Common Councilmember Mitch Nowakowski, whose district includes Perry. "It’s definitely going to increase the vitality of the Old First Ward."
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The proposed redesign would mark an unprecedented overhaul for Perry, and is part of BMHA's larger plan to rehab its aging housing stock – much of which was constructed in the post-war years of the 1940s and 1950s. That was a time when the needs and standards were much different from today, so the design and features of the buildings and individual apartments are sorely outdated.
Many other cities have since demolished and rebuilt such older housing. But Buffalo opted instead to renovate multiple times over many decades, without addressing many of the buildings' core deficiencies – including the smaller size of the apartments that don't meet the needs of big families.
"Our public housing stock is horrible," said BMHA Executive Director Gillian Brown. "While a lot of other public housing authorities were tearing stuff down in the '80s, we spent too much money and too much time trying to fix up the old crappy public housing. They’ve been throwing money in that forever. At some point, it became in for a penny, in for a pound."
Currently, the 70-year-old Perry complex – one of the biggest in BMHA's portfolio – is only partially occupied. Its 328-unit tower buildings and 84 townhomes on the western end along South Park are largely full, but the 24 three-story walk-up buildings stretching along Perry and parallel streets are vacant and boarded up.
It has been cited recently for safety violations by federal auditors. And more than 300 units were previously demolished more than 20 years ago, leaving empty and grassy lots in their wake.
That's made the entire area a drag and blight on the surrounding neighborhoods, as it sits between the Cobblestone District, the Old First Ward and Larkinville. So it's become a major focus of BMHA's attention, along with the Marine Drive and Shaffer Village apartments – all of which are targeted for major rehab in the next five to 10 years as part of a complete overhaul that is expected to tally over $1 billion of investment.
"We knew that dealing with Perry was going to be a challenge," Brown said. "We really had to address it."
Upon completion of the two-phase venture, the new Perry Homes will offer a range of newly built and renovated townhouse, triplex, mid-level and tower buildings capable of housing hundreds of households. But instead of traditional multi-family apartments with one- and two-bedrooms, expect a lot more larger units with three, four, five and even six bedrooms, to accommodate the larger families that make up much of the city population that BMHA serves.
They will also have more updated amenities, like larger kitchens and closets, as well as greenspace for children. And many will have their own front doors.
"We really want to focus on doors and people, giving people front doors and backyards," said Nadine Marrero, president of Bridges Development, the nonprofit development subsidiary of BMHA. "We want to focus more on more townhomes and that type of housing. We want to make it family-friendly."
The revamped neighborhood will still have more than enough apartments to handle the current needs of the Perry project, for those earning less than 30% of the area median income. But it will also include housing options for households earning 50%, 80% and even 100% of the median. "It brings in every income band," Marrero said. "It doesn’t just concentrate people living in poverty in one 30-acre site."
The housing authority issued a request for qualifications in 2019, seeking firms capable of undertaking its ambitious tasks. Nineteen firms responded just as the pandemic began, and officials from BMHA and the city's Office of Strategic Planning narrowed the pool to Pennrose Companies and its consultant, WRT LLC of Philadelphia.
BMHA officials presented their draft plans to Perry residents in a pair of public sessions Tuesday evening, seeking to gauge their reactions and obtain input that will help in finalizing the proposal. If the project passes muster – and wins approval from city regulators – executives hope to start demolishing all the vacant structures. That's expected to be completed by next summer, and Pennrose hopes to secure construction financing by June 2023.
"We are extremely excited to be part of this comprehensive, full-scale transformation plan in Buffalo's Perry Community,” said Dylan Salmons, regional vice present at Pennrose.
The agency and Pennrose will begin the first phase in the east by constructing a series of buildings along the perimeter of Perry, Stannard Alley, Fulton Street, Coatsworth Alley and South Park. Those will include two-, three- and five-bedroom townhouses of two floors each; three and four-bedroom triplexes of three stories; four-bedroom stacked flats; and one-, two and three-bedroom flats in mid-rise buildings of three to four floors.
The three-story buildings will feature a single-level handicapped accessible unit on the ground floor, below a larger two-story apartment. Others will be more traditional multi-family buildings with all one-story apartments and a shared lobby, elevator and corridors, plus mixed-use commercial space on the ground floor.
Every townhouse and triplex apartment will have its own front door, with rear yard space in a central courtyard area surrounded by the buildings and bisected by the alleys.
In all, Pennrose will build 415 apartments in the first phase – which is expected to take about 18 months. That includes 284 units subsidized through Section 8 and more than 100 financed with low-income housing tax credits. Individual units will range in size from 725 square feet to 1,790 square feet.
That's not as dense as Perry was originally, Marrero said, but it's closer to the "more traditional density that you would normally see in every other neighborhood," like North Buffalo or Elmwood. "This is a neighborhood," she said, noting that the first phase is also closer to single-family homes on the other side of Hamburg Street. "It's this missing tooth in the development going on around us."
The second phase is anticipated to begin in 2024, and will add another 604 apartments. That phase will include demolition of one of the six "plus-shaped" eight-story tower buildings on the northwest block, bordered by Scott, Louisiana, Perry and Chicago streets, as well as some of the existing but outdated rowhouse buildings in the southwest corner along South Park.
"We didn’t start it as a demolition project, but going through the infrastructure challenges, it became apparent that investments in small-size units wasn’t in the best interest of residents," Marrero said.
Those will be replaced by another series of mostly mid-rise apartment buildings along Chicago, South Park and Louisiana – including on either side of the city-owned Lanigan Field House, playground and splash pad on South Park, which BMHA officials hope the city will upgrade.
Additionally, the remaining towers would be renovated with improved lobbies, as well as new finishes, doors, windows and frames, along with upgraded kitchens and bathrooms and new electrical, lighting, heating and cooling systems. Units would also be reconfigured and combined, to make larger apartments where appropriate.
Officials stressed that no one who currently lives at Perry will lose their housing, nor will their rents go up. Any tenants living in the units being renovated or taken down will be given the option to move to one of the new apartments nearby or to other BMHA housing. Under federal guidelines, BMHA tenants will still pay no more than 30% of their income for rent and utilities.
BMHA officials and their developers are still working on plans for Marine Drive and Shaffer, which will be unveiled later. The agency also intends to renovate its other housing projects.
"We’re doing some of the most exciting stuff in the city right now, because of the cooperation between us and City Hall," said Brown, who is not related to Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown. "We’re getting stuff done that was not even thinkable 10 years ago."