The Buffalo City Mission will not be moving after all into a former warehouse on Swan Street near the city’s Larkinville neighborhood.
Stuart Harper, the mission’s executive director, said Thursday that the nonprofit agency has abandoned plans to purchase the former Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. building at 545 Swan St. and instead will look to expand operations at another city location.
The huge warehouse, now occupied by Mesmer Refrigeration, wasn’t as good a fit for the agency as originally thought.
“It seemed like we were trying to place a square peg in a round hole,” Harper said.
Mission officials estimated renovations to the historic 246,000-square-foot building at $42 million. They were counting on financing the effort with a combination of state and federal tax credits, grants and private contributions to create an emergency shelter and transitional housing, as well as one- and two-bedroom apartments.
All of the various funding streams “had their own requirements, and when you match those requirements with what our needs are, and the costs of meeting all those requirements, it just didn’t make sense,” Harper said.
The price tag, he added, “just got ridiculous.”
Architect Steve Carmina, who was working on the project design, said he wasn’t entirely surprised by the change in plans.
“It’s a big project. It’s a heavy lift for anybody, even considering the tax credits and opportunities,” he said. “Trying to pull something together that would put all those organizations under one roof began to be unwieldy.”
The project also may have faced some opposition from within the neighborhoods nearby. Larkinville, in particular, is within walking distance, just across a bridge, and developer Howard Zemsky has been working for years to create not only a successful office environment but also a lively community to the east of downtown. His flagship Larkin at Exchange Building is fully occupied, and he’s turned his attention to redeveloping other nearby buildings for a mixture of office, retail, restaurant and even residential space.
When the project was announced several weeks ago, Zemsky said he was surprised at the proposal for the City Mission as Swan Street is “relatively disconnected from other support services.”
“We would want to make sure this potential project is done and managed in a way that complements the continued growth in the surrounding area, and is done in a way that considers the recent investments made here,” Zemsky said. “We actively manage our properties and provide an excellent tenant experience. We’re certain that will continue under any scenario.”
Harper expressed disappointment that the plan was not moving forward, but he said the process helped the agency solidify how much room it will need for future operations.
“Not much was wasted from it,” he said. “We were committed to the space as much as we could be prior to doing our due diligence.”
The mission, which has operated a men’s homeless shelter at 100 East Tupper St. since 1984, will continue to search for a new location. Mission officials said the building isn’t large enough to accommodate current strategies for ending homelessness.
The shelter is located on nearly an acre of land within two blocks of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, where property values have been skyrocketing due to rampant development and growing employment in the area.
Harper anticipated little trouble selling the current shelter, although no sale is pending, he said.
“We haven’t taken any formal offers,” he said. “We’re really focused on making sure we get the right space.”
The mission is working with Brendan R. Mehaffy, executive director of the city’s Office of Strategic Planning, to find potential properties within a mile of the center of the city so that accessibility isn’t an issue, Harper said.
Wherever the new site is, the mission remains committed to creating more permanent affordable housing – a service the agency hasn’t been able to provide for former clients, Harper said.
Those apartments may have to be located separately from the emergency shelter and transitional housing if the agency is to qualify for the tax credits it needs, he added.