March 19, 2018
Four years of hard work paid off for new Buffalo developer Amy Judd and her husband Mark, with Friday’s ribbon cutting on The Alexandre Apartments. Inside and out, this seven-story former warehouse is a great addition to the loft offerings in the city center.
Opening of the Alexandre marks another piece of the 500 Block puzzle falling into place, a saga Buffalo Rising has been covering for over a decade. Ever since the pre-crash proposal by Rocco Termini (with study support from UB) to combine the properties on the block into a single project ran aground, rehab has proceeded building-by-building, each project requiring a developer to put together a team and piece together funding. Together, they’ve remade the block inch by inch and yard by yard – and square foot by square foot. In many cases the results have been outstanding, and that is certainly the case for The Alexandre.
To my eye, The Alexandre is an example of elegant minimalism, showcasing the talents of TRM Architect (for more images, see the photo gallery). The building’s construction – all reinforced concrete, like an industrial daylight factory – lent itself to this approach.
Wood grain is a design theme throughout, appropriate for a building that originally had wood floors and wood grain from the original forms molded into the concrete walls, piers, and beams. Much of the original wood flooring could not be reused (as you can see from the “before” pictures), so the upper floors are wood grain vinyl plank. Even the marble in the bathrooms and countertops has a banding that evokes a grain.
The interior color palette is focused on black, white, and gray. The walls are painted a light gray, as are the nearly invisible picture-hanging railings that are provided so that tenants aren’t tempted to drill into the concrete walls.
A minimalist design approach was perhaps suggested as much by what’s outside the building as what’s inside. This more utilitarian building swims in a sea of notable, elaborate Buffalo architecture. By using the expansive fenestration allowed by its daylight-factory construction, The Alexandre brings that outside architecture inside, where the minimalist interiors put it on display rather than compete with it. You can see examples of that in the photo gallery below.
The film industry heritage of the building is also remembered in elegant, minimalist fashion, with an artwork in the lobby. Although Buffalo is blessed that the once-large film industry presence in the city left it with a legacy of delightful buildings, that legacy (mostly west of Main Street) remains almost entirely unknown and unrecognized. Hopefully, soon the tenants of The Alexandre will have a place to see films within walking distance.
Bringing together the many pieces of funding for The Alexandre took several years, perhaps representing an entirely different exercise in elegant minimalism. Found among the line items are $750,000 from the Better Buffalo Fund, a transit-oriented development grant through the City of Buffalo, and $50,000 from the New York Main Street grant overseen by Buffalo Place. At first blush, fifty thousand may not seem like a lot, but in a project with a surprisingly small budget of five million, every dollar helps.
Another example of how this project stretched every dollar was its use of preservation tax credits, federal and state. Although, theoretically, those credits, used together, can cover forty percent of a project’s cost, few projects in Buffalo actually get the entire forty percent because the tax credits have to be syndicated, or sold to investors. Although such credits are vital to many projects, a significant chunk of the value is lost in syndication. But because Mark Judd owns a significant business – BIDCO Marine – he was able to be the investor. So the project didn’t lose a dollar to syndication.
Aiding the project’s tight budget was the building’s simple, solid, construction. Aside from cutting small windows into the sides of the building, the only major structural change necessary, project architect Matt Moscati told me, was the addition of a code-compliant access stairway, which cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars.
Other than the building’s bones, though, there wasn’t much else to be reused. As you can see from the “before” photos, much of the wood flooring was in bad shape. What could be salvaged of the inch-thick maple was milled and installed in the lobby, along with features like a sliding fire door.
The streamlined funding for The Alexandre was helped along by the minimalist price Amy and Mark Judd paid for the seven-story warehouse: just $340,000 – perhaps less than what you paid for your house. As it happened, the previous owner was less interested in wringing out every penny of potential value than in seeing the building respectfully reused, and that’s just what Amy and Mark had in mind.
Crucial to this project was financing from the Community Preservation Corporation, a nationwide non-profit whose mission is to provide “financing for multi-family housing projects in under-served and growing communities.” The development team told me that CPC’s role was essential, as banks tend not to lend adequate percentages for such projects. And indeed, CPC’s history in Buffalo has been to lend to projects that don’t fit the traditional banking mold (read: riskier). For example, they helped finance the Granite Works – once under demolition threat from City Hall, and now overlooking a burgeoning medical campus.
When the recession hit, CPC sadly had to close their Buffalo office. But with a growing resurgence driving more and more Buffalo projects, we were fortunate to have CPC re-open a Buffalo office a couple of years ago. They recently moved to more permanent digs at 500 Seneca.
Boosting CPC’s lending ability has been a productive partnership with New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, investing state pension funds in projects that help build, and rebuild, the state.
One cost the developers did have to incur was parking. The plans for this project were made before the adoption of the Green Code, meaning it was subject to parking minimums. Mark Judd told me they spent three years purchasing parking spaces in the nearby Mohawk Ramp. While proximity to downtown and medical campus jobs, and location on Metro Rail, could have allowed the creation of parking-free housing there, the parking spaces will probably help with the marketing of the units.
A step forward for back streets
Although The Alexandre is on Washington Street, it is also part of the 500 Block. With this building reused, nearly every building on the block has been rehabbed, mostly for mixed use. Notable exceptions are the former Burger King at Main and Mohawk, and 529–533 Main, former home of Ruby’s Restaurant. Hopefully the stars will soon align for those buildings, too.
Washington Street, rightly or wrongly, is considered the “back side” of Main Street. But while it’s clearly not as much of a defining street as Main, Washington also has some significant architecture and sense of place, such as the Electric Tower and St. Michael’s Church today, and once-upon-a-time the Chippewa Market. Charles Burchfield’s painting The White Tower, of the same block of Washington as The Alexandre (not visible in the painting), shows those notable buildings set amid the unremarkable, utilitarian, mixed-use buildings that make a city function.
Burchfield, who as I wrote this month captured scenes of Buffalo beginning with the Queen City’s most prosperous decade of the 1920s, had an affinity for the back streets and grittier side of the city. A more famous painting of Buffalo, Rainy Night, shows that vividly.
Like Burchfield, Buffalo would do well to deepen its affinity for the back streets of downtown, like Washington, Ellicott, Franklin, and Pearl. Yet east of Main Street, Washington and Ellicott, over to the Oak-Elm corridor has a ratio of surface parking to buildings that is far too high. Even the building stock that still exists is substantially underutilized. The same is the case west of Main Street, with Pearl and Franklin over to Delaware, especially north of Chippewa.
With better transit-oriented development, and surface parking relocated underground, those “back street” areas have the potential to become almost neighborhoods unto themselves. Dense, walkable, mixed-use, vibrant, unpretentious, utilitarian (Veblenite?), and more human in scale, those would be places where Jane Jacobs might feel at home.
This, then, is another reason that The Alexandre is a win for Buffalo: whether intentional or not, it is another step in that direction.
Amy Judd told me that, now that they’ve gotten this initial project under their belt, they’ll consider taking on additional redevelopment projects. Good. Buffalo’s back streets, in every direction from The Alexandre, should provide no shortage of opportunities.