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Douglas Jemal chosen for $35 million redevelopment project in Lackawanna

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539 Ridge Road Lackawanna rendering

A rendering of Douglas Jemal's proposed $35 million mixed-use project in Lackawanna, at the former St. Barbara's  Catholic Church site.

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Douglas Jemal has been selected to develop a proposed $35 million project in Lackawanna that would bring 160 apartments and ground-floor retail to the site of the former St. Barbara's Catholic Church on Ridge Road.

The project would mark the first of its kind in at least a generation for the city, which has been seeking new private development investment in the last few years. It also would be the first venture in Lackawanna by Jemal, the Washington, D.C., developer who has built an extensive portfolio of properties in downtown Buffalo and its suburbs.

“Lackawanna, it’s a gateway site. It has a lot of potential,” Jemal said. “Us doing something nice over there will spark other people to start developing over there as well.”

Jemal's plan calls for 160 market-rate apartments, averaging 850 square feet in size, plus 10,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor and 30,000 square feet of underground parking. In all, the four-story building will total about 200,000 square feet of space, and will anchor the city's multimillion-dollar effort to redevelop the Ridge Road and Center Street corridors.

The mix of apartments will include 115 one-bedroom units, 35 two-bedroom apartments and 10 three-bedroom units, with both private and common balconies offering views into South Park and downtown. Rents have not yet been determined, but Jemal noted that they would be less expensive than apartments in his projects in downtown Buffalo – such as Seneca One, Police Apartments or the Statler.

"So it really makes sense to do it," he added.

Jemal praised Lackawanna Mayor Annette Iafallo and the City Council for having “a passion for their community” that was contagious.

“They gave me a lot of history about what it once was. And I’m a person that believes that what once was can be again,” he said. “When someone really loves something and believes in something, it makes you feel the same way. That’s what drew me to it.”

The Lackawanna City Council on Tuesday evening named Jemal's Douglas Development as designated developer of the vacant property at 539 Ridge Road, unanimously approving a land sale for the 1.25-acre site. The purchase price is just $1, because Jemal agreed – at Iafallo's request – to forgo any 485-a property tax incentives and to pay full taxes on the property, as he is doing in Buffalo, the mayor said.

That means he will pay $1.19 million in combined school, city and county property taxes upon completion of the project – including $586,866 just to Lackawanna.

The sale is expected to close by year-end, but city officials hope to schedule the project for review by the city's Planning and Zoning boards in November. The project will require variances for height and for parking, but Iafallo said that "will not be a problem at all," noting that the previous church steeple was higher, as are some nearby buildings.

Once approved, the project is expected to take 18 to 24 months to complete, depending on any supply chain shortages.

Located in the city's Second Ward, across from the Lackawanna Public Library, the property was home to the church from 1930 until it was closed by the Diocese of Buffalo in 2008. The church was demolished in 2011 and the land was then sold to the city in November 2014 but has sat vacant since.

However, it's been among several targets for redevelopment initiatives by Iafallo, who has focused attention on a half-dozen city-owned properties that have sat vacant but are ripe for reuse within the city's downtown and neighborhoods. All but one are located in the city's Brownfield Opportunity Area and Opportunity Zones, offering additional incentives for developers.

Iafallo said she had hoped to draw Jemal to Lackawanna when she first came into office in 2020, saying it "would be such a boost to our city." So when the city issued a request-for-proposals for the church property in January, and received three responses, including Jemal's, "we kept pinching ourselves and doing a dance to make sure this was real," she said. "We're very happy."

She declined to identify the other two prospects because "we are working with them on other projects." But she said officials chose Jemal "because of what he's done for Buffalo" and because his proposal followed the letter of what the city had asked for but "was on a grander scale."

"We’re not looking for a project that constrains the site to those who live there. We wanted it to be a walkable community," said city spokesman Chuck Clark. " So out of all of them, that just rose to the top."

The project comes as Lackawanna is undertaking a multimillion-dollar revitalization of Ridge Road and Center Street, including  reconstruction of Center in conjunction with the Erie County Water and Sewer authorities. It also features construction of a splash park and inclusive recreation park at Franklin Playground, funded by a grant, and building of three affordable single-family homes by Habitat for Humanity and the city.

Meanwhile, the city is still hoping for a mixed-use project with a grocery on 2.5 acres of land on the former Friendship House community center property at 264 Ridge Road. It's also received inquiries for warehousing or light manufacturing space for 6.5 acres at 1 Alliance Drive, adjacent to a 73,000-square-foot building at 400 Ingham Ave., that Empire Building Diagnostics bought for its new headquarters, with 70 employees.

There's also a 2.5-acre open parcel on Wilmuth Avenue designated for light manufacturing or warehouse use. And officials are hoping for townhomes or apartments to be built at 100 Dona, on the 2.2-acre site of the former Lincoln Annex High School that was torn down 25 years ago and taken over by the city.

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