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February 9, 2023
By Jonathan Epstein
The drab and outdated towers of the Marine Drive Apartments public housing facility adjacent to Canalside will be coming down after 72 years, to be replaced by a $400 million complex that can accommodate even more residents.
The demolition of the seven 10-story structures will be part of one of the biggest redevelopment projects in the city's history and will make way for a modern affordable housing complex for more than 700 tenants, with larger apartments, more amenities and green space, officials from the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority said.
"This is going to be an incredible addition to the waterfront," said Gillian D. Brown, executive director of the BMHA, which owns Marine Drive.
The authority, together with private-sector developer partners from The Habitat Co. of Chicago and Duvernay + Brooks LLC of New York, announced its major change of plans on Thursday in a series of meetings.
Representatives told current residents and local political leaders that it makes more sense to start over at Marine Drive rather than renovating the aging and deteriorating buildings, as the agency had been saying for more than a year.
Plans for the redevelopment have not been finalized, as officials plan to meet with tenants later this month, first with a resident advisory committee during the week of Feb. 19, and then over a three-day workshop from Feb. 28 to March 2, to get feedback and ideas about what they would like to see in the new complex. That engagement, through Urban Design Associates, will continue over the next few months.
In turn, that will be used by architects and engineers to develop designs by the summer, with a goal of being able to present final plans by late summer or fall. Officials said the project would need approval from the city Planning Board and Preservation Board, and possibly the Zoning Board of Appeals and Common Council. That process could begin this fall.
However, officials do have some high-level concepts. BMHA is committed to maintaining at least 616 units as it has currently, and to accommodating all of the existing Marine Drive tenants.
But officials ideally want more. They're anticipating a mix of four-story, six-story and 10-story buildings, along with townhome-style structures. And they're planning for more usable passive and active green space, with places to relax and for children to play.
They also expect a different configuration of one-bedroom, two-bedroom and three-bedroom apartments, to right size the complex for its current population. That's because there's more demand for one-bedroom units right now, but the existing buildings have more two-bedroom apartments.
“I’m committed to a transformation of Marine Drive that preserves affordable housing for existing and future residents while providing a high quality of life in a burgeoning neighborhood on our waterfront," said Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, who is not related to the BMHA executive director. "I believe Buffalo’s waterfront can be a model for equitable development."
The announcement marks a big change in direction for the Marine Drive complex. The authority had begun talking with tenants in 2021 about renovation ideas, with an expectation of beginning work last year.
The about-face came after evaluating the buildings' physical condition, mechanical systems, infrastructure, the layout of the very small apartments, the potential for and limits of rehab, and the financial picture. Officials realized that the cost of renovation would not be much different than demolishing and rebuilding. There was also a costly list of essential repairs and system replacements that would disrupt tenants.
"The development is really a mess," BMHA's Brown said. "There isn't a single system at Marine Drive that is working well."
That's because the buildings and systems are "functionally obsolete," and can't be upgraded or rehabbed in a cost-effective way. The apartments themselves range in size from 400 square feet for a one-bedroom to 735 square feet for a three-bedroom unit, which is significantly smaller than today's standards, where typical units have 630 to 1,200 square feet for the same configurations.
"The buildings are extremely spartan and there are no amenities. And there's not an easy way to retrofit them," said Jeffrey D. Head, vice president for community development at The Habitat Co.
The kitchens and bathrooms also are cramped, the windows are tiny, the walls are thin and ceiling heights are less than 7.5 feet.
There also have been repeated problems with the heating and water pipes, and there's no air conditioning. And the complex was designed at a time when the approach to public housing was institutional and isolated.
"They were built for warehousing people," Head said.
By contrast, officials noted, a new-build project would allow the design of larger units for modern needs, with updated kitchens, bathrooms and mechanical systems. It would also include other amenities that weren't included originally and can't fit there now, such as covered parking, retail space, and healthcare or community space.
Plus, officials said, it's better for the logistics of relocation. With new construction, tenants could move once. With a renovation, they would likely have to move two to three times within the complex while units are rehabbed. "They would have to hopscotch around," Head said.
And a new design would be more consistent with the redeveloped neighborhoods around it, while still maintaining the ability for lower-income residents to live near the water.
"Marine Drive has gone from being the only thing on the waterfront to the worst thing on the waterfront," Brown said. "The buildings are ugly. They don't mesh with what's at the waterfront."
Gail Cintron, a 10-year tenant of the complex, said she is looking forward to the proposed changes.
“It’s going to be great, because it’s going to be more organized. I’m hoping that we will finally get the security that we need,” Cintron said, noting that some doors leading into the buildings are not always secured, resulting in packages and other deliveries getting stolen.
It’s about time, said Julie Tatro, who has lived in the complex for 18 years.
“I’m glad something is being done to improve the quality of life for residents, but I’m also dissatisfied with management not addressing concerns right now that tenants are living with, such as rats, roaches and garbage,” Tatro said.
Antonio Roman, who has lived at Marine Drive since 2013, said the plan outlined for tenants Thursday makes more sense than merely renovating the buildings in the complex.
“So the only way to get something nice is to start all over again and build from the ground up,” he added.
Plans call for a staged redevelopment, using the extensive surface parking lot on the southeastern portion of the property, which Brown said is "underutilized" and "badly laid out." The developers would construct the first pair of buildings on that lot, before relocating residents from one or two of the current towers, which would then be demolished and cleared. That land would then be used for the next phase of construction, and so on.
In all, officials envision three phases of development, starting in the summer of 2024. The first phase would take about 18 months, finishing by the end of 2025, but the full redevelopment would not be completed until 2029.
Financing is complicated. Marine Drive is not a federal Section 8 property but state public housing, and has largely operated at a deficit for years because it does not get subsidies to cover the gap between the rent it receives and the actual operating cost. About 40% of its tenants earn less than 50% of the area median income, but household earnings range from just 10% of AMI to 200%.
BMHA and the two developers will co-own the complex as a public-private partnership, and plan to keep it as affordable to the same population as it is now – guaranteeing residents can stay – through a combination of Section 8 subsidies and low-income housing tax credits. They will also fund the project through their own equity, a first mortgage, additional state subsidies through New York Homes and Community Renewal, and a city property tax break.
News staff reporter Harold McNeil contributed to this report.