On July 19, 2018, the $14.8 million repurposing and renewal of the former School 77 on the West Side of Buffalo, New York was completed. It’s now a solar-powered community hub that will go a long way towards revitalizing the neighborhood.
NYS Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Commissioner Rose Harvey said, “The School 77 project is a great example of how to create much needed housing, revitalize communities and preserve local heritage by reinvesting in core communities. With the assistance of the Historic Tax Credit program, New York State is leading the nation breathing new life into previously underutilized buildings. Since the Governor signed legislation to bolster the state’s use of rehabilitation tax credits in 2013, the state and federal program has spurred more than $3.45 billion in completed investments of historic commercial properties.”
The renovated space features 30 affordable apartments for older residents, office space for community nonprofits, a recreational gymnasium, and an auditorium for a local theater company.
The project was supported by the Better Buffalo Fund—part of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo‘s Buffalo Billion initiative to revitalize neighborhoods and improve transportation—and developed by PUSH Buffalo, a nationally recognized community organization based in Buffalo.
“As Buffalo’s economy continues to grow, projects like this are critical to transforming the city to meet the needs of the Buffalo’s diverse population,” Governor Cuomo said. “The unique renovation of School 77 will not only provide low-cost senior living and a central hub for the West Side, but will serve as a model for community solar projects that promote clean energy across this state and the nation.”
“As Buffalo continues to experience a transformation with unprecedented economic development investments and projects, New York is continuing to develop affordable housing for residents,” said Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. “This solar-powered project on the city’s West Side will provide efficient housing for Buffalo’s older residents and a new space for community development and growth.”
Through a participatory planning process that began in 2014, community leaders identified the vacant, three-story brick school building constructed in 1927 as an opportunity to create an affordable, mixed-use community hub on the West Side. In conjunction with PUSH Buffalo, the residents acted swiftly to ensure the building would be used for their vision before private developers could finalize plans to turn it into high-end loft apartments. Based on community input, the 80,605 square-foot building has been re-purposed to incorporate a variety of uses, including 30 affordable, high-quality rental homes for people aged 55 and older, with incomes at or below 50 percent of the area median income.
Rahwa Ghirmatzion, PUSH Buffalo’s incoming executive director and longtime deputy director said, “This is a frontline community of color that has worked for years to build up its supply of affordable, energy-efficient housing. School 77 takes their efforts to a whole new level. It’s a textbook example of Energy Democracy, which is transforming communities across the country by advancing equitable and sustainable economic development that includes everyone, regardless of income or zip code, as we move to 100% renewable energy.”
New York State Homes and Community Renewal‘s (HCR) Urban and Rural Community Investment Fund awarded School 77 a $1,750,000 loan for the project. HCR allocated Low Income Housing Tax Credits, which generated $6.4 million in tax credit equity. HCR’s Housing Trust Fund also awarded a $1,664,000 loan. Federal Historic Tax Credits, administered by the National Park Service and Internal Revenue Service, generated $3 million in equity and Historic Tax Credits, administered by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, generated nearly $2 million in equity. New York State Energy Research and Development Authority provided $125,700 and Solar Tax Credits generated $38,135 in equity.
HCR Commissioner RuthAnne Visnauskas said, “School 77 exemplifies Governor Cuomo’s affordable housing vision by bringing together State investment with community goals to provide a neighborhood with the housing it needs for all of its residents to share in Buffalo’s revival. The dozens of Buffalonians who will call School 77 their home will have the opportunity to live independently and off the power grid in the community they love.
School 77 includes a refurbished gymnasium for community sports and an auditorium that will house the Ujima Theatre Company, a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural professional theatre whose primary purpose is the preservation, perpetuation, and performance of African American theatre by providing working opportunities for established artists and training experience for aspiring artists. Office space will house PUSH Buffalo and Peace of the City, a local organization that offers a range of programs designed to provide young people with the skills, tools, and values needed to succeed educationally, break the cycle of poverty, and lead meaningful, productive lives.
Residents will have the option of subscribing to energy from the 64-kW community solar array located on the roof of the building that will help them save money on their electricity bills. School 77 is the first community solar project in New York State to offer discounted energy entirely to low-income subscribers; maximize living wage solar installation and maintenance job opportunities for disadvantaged workers; and provide residents with a say in the allocation of revenue generated by the sale of solar subscriptions.
Congressman Brian Higgins said, “This project, made possible in part through federal historic and low-income tax credits, represents the latest labor of love led by PUSH Buffalo. Through community engagement, PUSH brings new life to a former school which sat vacant for the last decade, transforming the building into affordable housing and a neighborhood center of activity that meets the needs of the residents today.”
The Empire State Development Corporation provided a $1.6 million loan through its Better Buffalo Fund. Through two rounds of the program, BBF has awarded more than $20 million to 35 projects. These projects are renovating more than 450 residential units and more than 190,000 square-feet of store front and commercial space, while also leveraging over $223 million in private investment in the City of Buffalo. Round three applications are now being reviewed and awards will be announced this spring.
City of Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said, “I’m pleased to join representatives of PUSH Buffalo and my colleagues in government at the ribbon cutting of School 77, a nearly $15 million housing and community improvement project,” said Mayor Byron W. Brown. “I thank Governor Andrew Cuomo for supporting this project through the Better Buffalo Fund which is part of his Buffalo Billion Initiative. I’m proud of the role the City played in this project to improve the quality of life for all residents of the West Side neighborhood.”
The City of Buffalo’s Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency provided $460,000 in HOME funds. Since 2011, 2,177 affordable homes for more than 4,200 residents have been created or preserved in Buffalo with $144.8 million in HCR resources.
Empire State Development President, CEO and Commissioner Howard Zemsky said, “The Better Buffalo Fund’s School 77 project – remaking this historic school building into a home for theater, businesses and senior apartments — is a great example of New York State’s strategic approach to economic development, using smart growth principles to revitalize neighborhoods and attract private investments.”
Community solar projects like School 77 offer a way for low-income residents, renters, or people who don’t have the roof space or resources for their own solar energy panels, to benefit from the clean energy revolution that is transforming energy markets worldwide. Dozens of local residents worked to renovate School 77, making it energy-efficient, and installing the solar energy infrastructure. The PUSH Community Hiring Hall has served as a path to employment for residents eager to work on the project.
New York Public Service Commission Chair John B. Rhodes said, “School 77 shows what can happen when Gov. Cuomo’s Reforming the Energy Vision energy strategy partners with a community determined to put energy democracy into action. This kind of project shows how ‘all’ New Yorkers — regardless of income or zip code — can play a role in building a cleaner, more resilient, more affordable energy system, and can share fully in its benefits. It’s also a powerful reminder that we need to see more clean and renewable energy projects that benefit low- and moderate-income communities and communities of color.”
The Governor has committed to providing all New Yorkers with access to safe, affordable housing is reflected in the State’s unprecedented $20 billion, five-year Housing Plan. The plan makes housing accessible and combats homelessness by building or preserving more than 100,000 affordable homes and 6,000 with supportive services. The plan is a comprehensive approach to statewide housing issues and includes multifamily and single-family housing and community development.
Senator Tim Kennedy said, “Significant state investment continues to fuel exceptional projects, like the transformation and preservation of the former School 77 on Buffalo’s West Side. The vision for this project was driven by neighbors and local leaders, and thanks to their dedication and collaboration, this space will become not only a place to call home, but a gathering point that will further foster a sense of community and growth.”
City of Buffalo Council Member David A. Rivera said, “A few years ago leaders in the community came to me to see how we could save School 77. I am very excited to be here today to say that we saved School 77. I want to thank all of the partners who collaborated on this project from State Government, PUSH Buffalo, all the way down to the residents and community leaders of this neighborhood, who each played an important role in bringing School 77 back to life. This is a transformational project for this neighborhood, the West Side and Buffalo. Our children need an indoor place to play, our senior citizens need an affordable, quality place to live, our artists need proper performance space, and we all need buildings that operate on renewable energy. School 77 meets all of those needs and beyond. If every development looked like School 77, Buffalo would that much better of a place to live for all its residents. I hope School 77 is the new standard for development in Buffalo and New York.”
Sarah Shanley Hope, executive director of the national clean-energy nonprofit the Solutions Project, who grew up in Buffalo, said “As we move toward 100% clean, renewable energy, big corporations must not be the only entities that benefit. It’s important that working people and their communities get a fair share of the jobs and the wealth created. School 77 is an example of how that theory is working in real life. If it can work in Buffalo, it can work all across the state, the nation and the world.”
School 77 is already serving as a model for how to achieve energy democracy. The 100 percent NGO Network – a national network of clean energy nonprofits – is organizing a series of field trips across the country to see examples of energy democracy in action, and School 77 will host the first such event in late July. The New York Energy Democracy Alliance, a statewide alliance of dozens of grassroots environmental and environmental justice organizations, will hold its semi-annual retreat at the school later this month, as well.
Assemblyman Sean Ryan said, “This project is an amazing example of what can be done when we find creative ways to reuse buildings. Thanks to the hard work of everyone involved, School 77 will serve as a community hub and even more importantly, provide 30 affordable housing units on the West Side. The Better Buffalo Fund has been investing in Buffalo’s future by investing in projects like this across the city, and I’m excited to see the community live, work and play in this great rehabilitated building.”
Renderings courtesy of PUSH Buffalo.