Attending St. Matthew’s grade school together in a city on the decline, Ben Upshaw and Keith Barnes could hardly have imagined that one day they would be partners in Buffalo’s renewal. But that team effort, and a city back on an upward trajectory, were just what were celebrated at Friday’s ribbon cutting at the former School 63 on Lisbon Street – now formally known as The Lofts at University Heights.
But there was more to the celebration than the reuse of a decade-vacant elementary school for workforce housing. There was something else in the air in the school’s auditorium, and it wasn’t just the mentions of Ani Di Franco having attended School 63 as a girl, which had me wondering whether Ani and her guitar might make a surprise appearance. All the speakers seemed to have Buffalo renewal on their minds.
“The Ribbon-Cutting City”
Some of that mindset was clearly due to several of the speakers arriving after a day of ribbon cuttings, including new vocational facilities at Burgard High School. Mayor Byron Brown told those gathered in the old school’s auditorium that he was going to rename Buffalo “The Ribbon-Cutting City.”
Former Deputy County Executive Richard Tobe, who was tapped by Governor Cuomo to be his point person on upstate revitalization initiatives, said that the day’s series of ribbon cuttings reflected “a change in psychology from despair to forward progress.” The success, he said, was giving young adults a reason to stay in Buffalo for the first time in recent memory.
Tobe also said the projects reflected an “across-the-board, holistic approach to redevelopment in Buffalo.” He went on to say that approach was not to simply provide a Buffalo Billion, including the Better Buffalo Fund (which provided two million dollars for the School 63 project), but to use the Regional Economic Development Councils to allow locals to set priorities in how the funds are spent. Cutting the ribbons on workforce training and workforce housing reflected a regional priority on workforce investment – especially on the neglected side of Main Street.
From a detriment to an asset
Others speaking reflected an even more local, finer-grained view of the importance of the project, at the council district and block club levels. Councilman Rasheed Wyatt said that the School 63 project “wasn’t easy, but we made it happen.” He was glad that what he said was the first major project in his district since he became councilman turned out so well.
When Wyatt was first approached by the development team about the project, he insisted the community be involved at every step along the way, and by all accounts, that’s how it went. County Legislator and Majority Leader April Baskin called Wyatt an “old-school councilman” – not a reference to the project being an old school, but for his practice of hands-on engagement and fighting for his constituents.
Of those constituents, the Minnesota Avenue Block Club, whose president Brian Burns attended School 63 as a boy, was primary. Burns said that if School 63 couldn’t remain in use as a school, then he was happy with this outcome. He said the block club toured the school and he “hasn’t heard a negative word.” He consistently referred to the development team as “Ben and Keith,” suggesting that during the course of the project – in the works for three years – they became friends.
“Beyond developing this school, they have involved themselves in the community at large and they helped us in efforts to maintain the median, and in various other community projects. And last year we gave them a community service award at the end the year, and we expect and hope that the good relationship will continue,” Burns said.
This connection between the project and the community was echoed by Lenny Skrill, Regional Director of the New York State Office of Housing and Community Renewal, one of the Governor’s point people on the Better Buffalo Fund. He told Buffalo Rising, “People who are going to live here may have gone to school here. For a property that was vacant for ten years, this project and projects like this one are emotionally significant to the area. They take something that was a detriment and turn it in to an asset.”
People who are going to live here may have gone to school here. For a property that was vacant for ten years, this project and projects like this one are emotionally significant to the area. They take something that was a detriment and turn it in to an asset.
– Lenny Skrill, Regional Director New York State Office of Housing and Community Renewal
Skrill’s description of the decade-vacant school as a former detriment is certainly fair. A 2014 image on Google Street View shows what the neighborhood had to look at during that time.
But to turn that detriment into an asset in just three years required more than two million dollars from the Buffalo Billion and the cooperation of elected officials and the community. The sixteen million dollar project with lots of moving parts also had lots of funding line items and project partners. Among them were Carmina, Wood, Morris architects and R&P Oak Hill contractors. Steven Weiss, about whose boutique law firm we’ve written, helped line up the tax credits that we know are necessary in weak-market cities such as ours to fill the funding gap between project cost and expected return.
Essential to this project were “Workforce” tax credits, which I learned is another name low-income housing tax credits. In his remarks, Mayor Brown said that the apartments will rent from a low of $500 per month to a high of $740. “Take a look around and see how beautiful this is,” the Mayor said. “This is affordable housing.” Perhaps addressing critics who have raised concerns about gentrification and challenges in finding quality affordable housing in Buffalo, the Mayor said of City Hall, “we’ve invested dollars in affordable housing, so don’t let anyone tell you we’re not investing in affordable housing in Buffalo.” In this case, that investment came from the City of Buffalo’s HOME allocation, part of HUD’s block grant funding allocated to the city every year. Critical funding, amounting to over half the project cost, came from a mortgage through the NYS Housing Finance Agency.
When the project broke ground, Buffalo Rising’s Tim Scanlon wrote this about the affordable housing specifics: “Due to the tax-exempt bond financing restrictions, three of the units will be for households who earn no more than 50 percent of the Annual Median Income (AMI) for the area, 35 will be for households earning up to 60 percent of AMI, and six will be set aside for households earning no more than 90 percent of AMI, adjusted for family size.”
And for the folks with the low-to-moderate incomes now unfortunately prevalent among Buffalo’s working families, how will they find living in the former school? Very agreeable, I think.
The rooms, with their off-white paint, high ceilings, and ample fenestration have a classic loft feel. Only the lack of high-end amenities such as granite counter tops or slate floors distinguish them from market-rate loft conversions I’ve toured. These will be very comfortable living spaces. About two thirds of the 44 units are one-bedroom, starting at 600 square feet, and the rest are two-bedroom, up to 900 square feet.
Interest has been high, reflecting the shortage of quality, affordable housing in Buffalo that has been highlighted in recent discussions with Assemblyman Sean Ryan and the Partnership for the Public Good, and will be the subject of a symposium at UB next month. Four of the units are already occupied, with fourteen more tenants approved to move in by April 1. Over the weekend, Keith Barnes told me that they took thirty more applications on Saturday.
Refreshing a century-old school and neighborhood
After the ribbon cutting, I took a tour of the century-old building. The respect for the historic features of the building was excellent – characteristic of a project funded with historic preservation tax credits (both state and local). Buffalo Rising readers will especially appreciate the restored cornice. Features like the original wood floors, doors, and trim were incorporated, as were blackboards in some rooms.
The small, elementary-school sized auditorium will remain an auditorium available for tenants to use. Sign-ups for that and the community room will be through an on-site building manager. The community room opens on to an outdoor courtyard space adapted from the former pool. The courtyard struck me as having far too much hardscape compared to green, but that may be a function of what could and could not be accommodated on the former pool site (and the fact that it’s still winter). The building will have 24/7 on-site security.
See our recent post for more details, and see the photo gallery below for more pictures.
And what will be the effect of this project on the neighborhood? After the ribbon cutting I got the chance to explore one of the few pockets of the city I hadn’t yet visited. University Heights was one of the last parts of the city to be developed, and the neighborhood is full of charming craftsman houses and well-treed streets, some with planted medians. The project is just a couple of blocks from some other recent development work on LaSalle Avenue.
The project is also in walking distance of the LaSalle Metro Rail station, making it a kind of transit-oriented development. Of course, that also puts it in walking, jogging, and cycling distance of the new rail trail that begins at the station and, when completed, will stretch all the way to the City of Tonawanda. Other recreational amenities in walking distance include Shoshone and McCarthy Parks. Shopping is nearby in the University Heights retail district on Main Street, including an Aldi’s. Altogether, this is a place that lends itself to car-free or one-car-per-household living. That makes the project’s nearly 60 parking spaces for 44 units seem like too many. If that proves to be the case, perhaps some of the parking can be reclaimed for people space.
Hopefully, the influx of new residents will breathe new life into the set of retail storefront buildings I discovered across from the school at the intersection of Lisbon and Cordova – an unexpected find in the middle of otherwise residential blocks. I love coming across pocket retail nodes in the middle of neighborhoods – they can be found throughout the city. Both of these buildings are delightful, although only one of them is currently being used for retail. Being able to grab a coffee, sandwich, newspaper, or carton of milk right on your block would be a great quality-of-life amenity for current and new residents alike.
“Ben and Keith”
The opportunity to provide a boost to the neighborhood and to Buffalo’s trajectory is a clear point of pride for the new development partnership of “Ben and Keith,” as the block club president called them. After attending grade school together at St. Matthews Church school (off E. Ferry), Ben Upshaw went on to Bishop Turner high school in the Schiller Park neighborhood, while Keith Barnes went to McKinley. McKinley turned out not to be for him, so he joined an older brother and Upshaw at Turner. After a finance degree from Canisius College, Upshaw ended up working in development in Brooklyn. He knows Mayor Bill de Blasio. Barnes worked in real estate in Buffalo, and owns his own firm, the Barnes Real Estate Group.
Although their paths diverged, they never lost touch, and never lost their desire to help their hometown. Recently, Upshaw’s firm added an adaptive reuse project in Niagara Falls – which Mayor Paul Dyster called “the largest ever undertaken by an African-American developer in the history of the city” – to its portfolio, and also looked for potential projects in Buffalo, in partnership with his school classmate Barnes. Barnes told me that a few years ago they were looking at three starter projects, and figured, logically, they would end up doing the smallest one. But the one they ended up doing – School 63 – was actually on the larger end.
Now that they’ve proven to the city – and themselves – what they can do together, these school friends and business partners have their eye on other projects. One is another adaptive reuse project, and another would involve a new-build on currently vacant land. One of them would involve senior housing.
We’ll be following their work with interest.
Note: this article includes reporting and photos by Jessica Marinelli.