Seven years after leaving political office and becoming a lobbyist, former Erie County Executive Joel Giambra is trying his luck at a completely different effort he hopes will help his hometown: He’s building houses.
Giambra has acquired 18 vacant lots during the past two years, mostly from the city foreclosure auction, and all in the Lower West Side neighborhood where he grew up. Now he’s planning to build new homes on the lots, located on several streets near the Peace Bridge and D’Youville College.
The houses will be a mixture of single- and multi-family homes, all designed in the same Victorian style that dominates that area of the city, he said. They are aimed at young professionals, artists and others who want to live near downtown Buffalo in newly built homes, or who can’t afford the nearby Elmwood Village or the Delaware District.
“This is the first time I’ve done new construction,” said Giambra, who will act as general contractor. “I think it’s pretty cool. The neighbors are excited. I’m excited. Hopefully, buyers will be excited.”
The former politician also wants to rebrand the community as the Olmsted Park/Connecticut Village, to capitalize on the centrality of Connecticut Street, which ends at the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Front Park. “I think the Olmsted theme is very attractive to a lot of people,” he said.
Citing the presence of D’Youville, the flurry of redevelopment activity such as the Horsefeathers Market and Residences project on Connecticut and the opening of new businesses, he said the area’s revival looks real. Most of the homes near the lots are well-maintained and “in decent shape,” he said.
“I am firmly convinced it’s on the upswing,” he said. “If you look at property values over the last three to four years in that area, it’s encouraging interest. It’s young professionals and the creative class. That’s the market that we’re going after.”
That’s great news for neighbors like Jordan McCann, 28, who lives in a four-unit house next to one of Giambra’s vacant lots on Plymouth.
“I wouldn’t have a problem as long as you have the right people in there to take care of it,” said McCann, who has lived there for seven years.
The housing adventure is new for Giambra, who grew up “in the projects” on Lakeview Avenue and spent 25 years in the public sector. He teamed up with former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato as a partner and managing director in Park Strategies LLC, a lobbying firm, which is still his full-time job. “This is a hobby,” he said, adding, “but it may turn into a full-time job.”
After rehabbing his own home and three others for family members, he decided to “try my hand with flipping.” He bought two foreclosed houses on 14th Street from the city and a bank, gutted them – in one case, he needed five dumpsters to empty it out before he touched any new drywall – and fixed them up before reselling them for $188,000 and $145,000, respectively.
“We went forward, and it turned out to be a very, very nice project,” he said. “It gave me reason to believe there was an opportunity. My confidence was bolstered. There might be a need for some new houses now.”
Giambra has already lined up partners for some of the construction, marketing and financing of the homes, and has all the permits and approvals in place to start construction on the first home – his own – in two weeks. That will also become the model home he will use for future sales, before starting work on any other homes.
He said he’s already garnered support from city leaders, including Mayor Byron W. Brown.
“If this is successful, we can do it citywide. Unfortunately, there are a lot of lots in the city,” Giambra said. “I hope it encourages other people to do the same thing.”
Marketing and sales will be handled by his 26-year-old son, Nicholas Giambra, a real estate agent with Hunt Real Estate Corp., and Stephanie DeMartino. Evans Bank will provide the financing for future buyers. And he’s working to sign a deal with Barden Homes to help with some of the prefabricated construction work to speed up the jobs.
Giambra said he didn’t know yet how much the homes would cost to build but expected they would be sold for $150,000 to $210,000. “That’s what I think the market will bear, but we don’t know yet,” he said. “We’re testing the market here, to see what people’s appetite is for new houses and what are the price points. We haven’t built a lot of market-rate houses to test it out yet.”