In Buffalo, empty warehouses are being replaced by new apartments

BUFFALO — Buffalo was at a decades-long economic turning point when a racially motivated gunman attack in May killed 10 and overshadowed progress. As the city mourned, it also faced unflattering portrayals of the East Side, the impoverished neighborhood where the massacre took place.

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

Major efforts to improve the East Side have been underway for years, such as new training facilities and the renovation of an abandoned train station. And citywide initiatives to pour billions into parks, public art projects and apartment complexes have made Buffalo a more desirable place to live, proponents say.

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

“The other story that needs to be told about Buffalo is that investments are being made,” said Brandye Merriweather, president of the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation, a nonprofit group dedicated to repurposing vacant urban lots.

“I’m very sensitive to the issues the shooting raised,” said Ms. Merriweather, who grew up opposite the scene of the shooting and still has family in the neighborhood.

The wave of progress began in 2012, when then-New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo released $1 billion in grants and tax credits the years since.

Perhaps the most visible sign of Buffalo’s changing fate is its new homes, which are popping up in empty warehouses, former community buildings, and longtime parking lots that have been converted into much-needed housing. In the past decade, 224 multifamily projects have opened or are underway, comprising 10,150 homes, most of them rentals, representing an investment of about $3 billion, according to Mayor Byron W. Brown’s office.

And the pace of new construction appears to be accelerating: A third of the total, or 78 projects, were not unveiled until 2020 and 2021, the mayor’s office said.

Among them is the Seneca One Tower, the city’s tallest building and one of Buffalo’s most prominent projects. Completed in 1972 as a bank, it has stood empty for the last few years. Now, following a $100 million renovation, the 40-story downtown tower offers a variety of uses.

Douglas Development, which bought the tower six years ago, added 115 apartments while also installing a food hall, large gym and craft brewery. Walls were also built around a plaza to contain the Lake Erie winds.

Barbara Foy, 64, who started renting a two-bedroom apartment at Seneca One with her husband Jack, 65, this spring, said she enjoyed sleeping with the blinds cracked to take in the splendor of the skyline. For nearly three decades, Ms Foy worked around the corner as a social worker, although she never actually stayed at night, instead driving back to her home in the suburbs.

But the revitalization has helped her see Buffalo in a whole new light. “Apparently there’s something going on every weekend,” Ms Foy said, adding that she thoroughly enjoyed the city’s Pride parade in June. “Buffalo has really come alive and I’m so proud of it.”

Office letting was slow. About 70 percent of the space at Seneca One is leased, most of it to Buffalo-based M&T Bank and a dozen small technology firms. The vacancy rate for top downtown office buildings was 13 percent late last year, up from 14 percent in 2020, according to brokerage firm CBRE.

Residential rentals, on the other hand, developed robustly. It took just nine months to rent all of the apartments at Seneca One after they hit the market in fall 2020 for up to $3,000 a month, said Greg Baker, development manager at Douglas. The average rent in Buffalo is $800 a month, according to census figures.

Since purchasing Seneca One, Douglas has acquired around 20 properties in the area, including former hotels and hospitals being converted into apartments.

“People are selling houses in the suburbs to move back into the city, unlike when I was young when they lived in the suburbs and commuted into the city,” said Mr. Baker, who is from Buffalo.

In a sprawling city cut by freeways, improving infrastructure has also been a priority, although efforts so far have borne fruit mainly on the western side. For example, a section 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 derelict storefronts there.

Nearby, workers are beginning a $110 million renovation of LaSalle Park, a 77-acre waterfront green space fenced off Interstate 190. Plans call for a wide pedestrian bridge over the highway.

Softening the rough edges of Buffalo’s commercial past is also a focus in downtown Canalside, a nascent neighborhood that embraces a brief remnant of the original Erie Canal. On a recent afternoon, school groups huddled around signs explaining how wheat and pine trees from the Midwest once flowed through Buffalo en route to Europe. Movie nights and yoga classes are held on nearby lawns.

“Buffalo may still have a long way to go, but there’s still a long way to go,” said Stephanie Surowiec, 32, as she sat in the sun and sipped on a hard cider she bought from a stand nearby . Ms. Surowiec, a nurse who grew up in suburban Buffalo, now lives on the outskirts.

If there’s one model for how Buffalo can wring new uses from its industrial colonies, it might be Larkinville, a former soap-and-box-making enclave in the city that developers reinvented as a business district about a decade ago. Block-length factories that now house offices jostle around a plaza with brightly colored Adirondack chairs. Wednesday night concerts are a summer staple.

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

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

In June, Gov. 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 rehabilitation of a 35-acre portion of factory-lined Northland Avenue. Though many of the lots in the neighborhood have fallen into disrepair, one that manufactured metalworking machinery was reborn in 2018 as the 237,000-square-foot Northland Central office and education complex. It includes the Northland Workforce Training Center, which provides job skills to local residents.

“The impact of the place was phenomenal,” said Derek Frank, 41, who enrolled in the class after serving an eight-year sentence for drug trafficking. Today, Mr. Frank is employed as an electrician, as is his son, Derek Jr., 21, who attended classes with his father.

“By placing this building right here in the heart of the city, it’s accessible and convenient,” he added.

But redevelopment plans for the East Side have sometimes stalled. An attempt to create a group of hospitals called the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus has led to gentrification. But advocates point out that the hospitals, which employ 15,000 people, have absorbed some of the economic slump after the factories closed.

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

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

Today, Mr Zaman, 31, a working artist, is one of several muralists hired to apply bright designs to walls of buildings exposed by demolitions. One of his creations, which features Arabic calligraphy that translates to “our colors make us beautiful,” brightens up the side of a Broadway building.

“When we moved here, I felt like we were the only Bangladeshi family,” said Mr. Zaman, who noted that in the mid-2000s there wasn’t a single halal-style restaurant in Buffalo, now there are about 20 “Now people come here from all over the place.”

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