In Buffalo, new apartments pop up in empty warehouses

BUFFALO — Buffalo was undergoing a decade-long economic turnaround when a racially motivated attack by a gunman killed 10 people in May, overshadowing progress. As the city suffered, it also had to deal with unflattering portrayals of the East Side, the impoverished neighborhood where the massacre took place.

Those harsh shots tell only part of the story, residents, business owners and city officials say. Now, they are determined to put the focus back on recovery.

Significant efforts have been made over the years to improve the East Side, including new job training facilities and the redevelopment of a deserted train station. And citywide initiatives to invest billions in parks, public art projects and apartment complexes have made Buffalo a more desirable place to live, advocates say.

Those efforts may even have reversed a chronic population decline: The latest census figures show Buffalo’s population has increased for the first time in 70 years.

“You need to tell the other story about Buffalo, that investments are being made,” said Brandye Merriweather, president of the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation, a nonprofit group that works to reuse vacant city-owned lots.

“I am very sensitive to the issues that the shooting has raised,” said Ms. Merriweather, who grew up across the street from the shooting and still has family in the neighborhood.

The wave of progress began in 2012 when then-New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo pledged $1 billion in grants and tax credits as part of a revitalization effort, and has been fueled by a combination of taxpayer funds and investment. private in the years since.

Perhaps the most visible sign of Buffalo’s changing fortunes are its new apartments, appearing in vacant warehouses, former municipal buildings and parking lots long since converted into much-needed housing. In the last decade, 224 multifamily projects have opened or are underway, encompassing 10,150 apartments, most of them for rent, the equivalent of about $3 billion in investment, according to Mayor Byron W. Brown’s office.

And the pace of new housing appears to be accelerating: A third of the total, or 78 projects, were unveiled in 2020 and 2021 alone, the mayor’s office said.

Among them is Seneca One Tower, the tallest building in the city and one of Buffalo’s most prominent projects. Completed in 1972 as a home for a bank, it has been empty in recent years. Now, the 40-story downtown spire features a variety of uses after a $100 million renovation.

Douglas Development, which bought the tower six years ago, added 115 apartments and also installed a food hall, a large gym and a craft brewery. He also erected walls around a plaza to stem the winds from Lake Erie.

Barbara Foy, 64, who began renting a two-bedroom apartment on Seneca One this spring with her husband, Jack, 65, said she liked to sleep with the shades ajar to enjoy the glow of the horizon. For nearly three decades, Ms. Foy worked around the corner as a social worker, though she never really stayed overnight, instead driving back to her house in the suburbs.

But the revitalization has helped her see Buffalo in a whole new light. “There seems to be something happening every weekend,” Ms. Foy said, adding that she enjoyed the city’s Pride parade in June. “Buffalo has really come to life and I’m very proud of it.”

Office leasing has been slow. About 70 percent of the spaces at Seneca One are leased, most of it to Buffalo-based M&T Bank as well as a dozen small tech companies. The vacancy rate for major downtown office buildings was 13 percent at the end of last year, according to brokerage firm CBRE, up from 14 percent in 2020.

Residential leasing, on the other hand, has been strong. It took just nine months to rent all the apartments at Seneca One after they went on the market in the fall of 2020 for up to $3,000 a month, said Greg Baker, director of development at Douglas. Buffalo’s median rent is $800 a month, according to census figures.

Since purchasing Seneca One, Douglas has acquired about 20 properties in the region, including former hotels and hospitals that will be converted to homes.

“People are selling houses in the suburbs to come back to the city, compared to when I was younger, when they lived in the suburbs and commuted into the city,” said Mr. Baker, a Buffalo native.

In a sprawling city that’s bisected by freeways, improving infrastructure has also been a priority, though efforts so far have paid off mostly on the West Side. For example, a stretch of Niagara Street near a bridge to Canada that was once lined with car dealerships now shines with new sidewalks, streetlights, and a protected bike lane. Bike shops and restaurants have also revived dilapidated storefronts there.

Nearby, workers are about to begin a $110 million overhaul of LaSalle Park, a 77-acre waterfront green space bordered by Interstate 190. Plans call for a wide pedestrian bridge over the highway.

Smoothing the rough edges of Buffalo’s commercial past is also a focus downtown in Canalside, a growing neighborhood that embraces a small remnant of the original Erie Canal. On a recent afternoon, school groups milled around signs explaining how wheat and pine from the Midwest once flowed through Buffalo en route to Europe. Movie nights and yoga classes take place in the nearby gardens.

“Buffalo may have a long way to go, but it’s still come a long way,” said Stephanie Surowiec, 32, sitting in the sun sipping strong cider from a nearby stand. A nurse who grew up in suburban Buffalo, Ms. Surowiec today lives on the edge of the city.

If there’s a model for how Buffalo can extract new uses from its industrial cores, it might be Larkinville, a former soap and box-making enclave in the city that developers reimagined as a commercial district a decade ago. One-block-long factories that now have offices huddle around a plaza dotted with colorful Adirondack chairs. Wednesday night concerts are a summer staple.

Makeovers of a similar scale are fewer on the East Side, but that could change soon.

This spring, officials announced a $225 million infusion for the neighborhood, including $185 million from the state. Among the funds are $30 million for an African-American heritage corridor along Michigan Avenue and $61 million to rebuild Central Terminal, a 17-story Art Deco train station that saw its last passengers in 1979.

In June, Governor Kathy Hochul announced a $50 million investment for the East Side to help homeowners with repairs and unpaid utility bills.

Some projects have already produced tangible results, such as the redevelopment of a 35-acre portion of Northland Avenue lined with factories. Although many of the neighborhood’s properties remain abandoned, one, which made metalworking machines, was reborn in 2018 as the 237,000-square-foot Northland Central, an office and education complex. It includes the Northland Workforce Training Center, which teaches job skills to area residents.

“The impact of the place has been phenomenal,” said Derek Frank, 41, who signed up for classes after serving an eight-year prison sentence for drug trafficking. Today, Mr. Frank works as an electrician, as does his son, Derek Jr., 21, who attended classes with his father.

“Putting that building here in the heart of the city makes it accessible and convenient,” he added.

But plans to redevelop the East Side have sometimes hit roadblocks. An effort to create a group of hospitals called the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus has caused gentrification. But advocates point out that the hospitals, which employ 15,000, have regained some of the economic slack after the factories closed.

Whether driven by public investment or other reasons, Buffalo has seen remarkable growth. Its population of 278,000 at the 2020 census increased 7 percent from 261,000 in 2010.

Buffalo enjoys a steady stream of immigrants, like the family of Muhammad Z. Zaman, who emigrated from Bangladesh in 2004 in part because Buffalo was one of the few places in the United States with an Islamic elementary school, Zaman said.

Today, Mr. Zaman, 31, a working artist, is one of several muralists hired to add brilliant designs to the walls of buildings exposed by the demolitions. One of his creations, incorporating Arabic calligraphy that translates to “our colors make us beautiful,” adorns the side of a structure on Broadway.

“When we first moved here, I felt like we were the only Bangladeshi family,” said Mr. Zaman, who noted that there was not a single halal-style restaurant in Buffalo in the mid-2000s, compared to the 20 current. “Now people come from everywhere.”

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