Ambitious conversion of historic Buffalo church nears completion — Business — The Buffalo News

Ambitious conversion of historic Buffalo church nears completion - Business - The Buffalo News

Ambitious conversion of historic Buffalo church nears completion

$8.5 million project saves a shrinking century-old congregation while cutting its expenses

Developer Murray Gould stands in a staged loft apartment that was on display during an open house at Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church last weekend. Goulds firm has been converting part of the church into apartments since 2013. Photos by Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News


Want to live in a place with cathedral ceilings? Try an apartment in a church.

Thats the opportunity now being offered at Lafayette Lofts in Elmwood Village, where 21 units have been crafted out of vast extra space in the still-active Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church.

From the airiness of the churchs former Summer Chapel and the floor of the onetime gym and stage in the Memorial House, to the former school area and buried basement bowling alley, the historic religious structure has been carved into a wide variety of apartments with distinct characteristics.

There are four or five overall variations on the theme, and each one might appeal to a different kind of tenant. Some have bowling alley lanes incorporated into floors. Others offer lofts or second floors built above kitchens in what used to be a wide-open chapel or gym. And a few showcase stained-glass windows, arches, repurposed fireplaces or French doors, or aged oak trusses overhead.

But all include modern accoutrements granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, bronze fixtures, subway or mosaic tile floors or back splashes, and hardwood floors or cabinets while incorporating the buildings architectural heritage with features such as exposed brick, ornate plaster detail and original oak trim. And the buildings location at the corner of Elmwood and Lafayette avenues puts tenants in the midst of a vibrant neighborhood.

It is the most diverse collection of housing styles anywhere in Buffalo, and maybe even nationally, because of the different architectural styles, said Murray Gould, founder and owner of Syracuse-based Port City Preservation LLC, the developer that is acting as project manager for the redevelopment project. Theres a great deal of interest in this building.

Port City held an open house last weekend, drawing more than 1,000 people. Already, about half of the apartments have been leased.

To be sure, not everything will be converted. The church is still in business, so tenants will share the building with the congregation, which still uses the sanctuary for services and needs space for its offices and related functions. The church and pastors offices are being relocated to a portion of the buildings former school, at the corner of Elmwood and St. James Place.

But the church no longer needs a sanctuary built for 1,400 people when the congregation now numbers only 100. So workers under Port Citys direction have taken out two-thirds of the pews in the back of the sanctuary, reducing the front portion to a much smaller 300-seat facility for religious services.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the sanctuary space will be set off with a 6-foot-high wood partition to create a rear social hall that can handle 300 for a sit-down dinner for events or business functions. That retains the beauty of the enormous cathedral space without damaging or destroying its history, Gould said. We dont want to lose the breadth of scope and scale of the whole place, he said.

And other parts of the building on the lower floor including directly below the sanctuary are being gutted and converted to a 1,700-square-foot parlor room, meeting or board rooms, a small 2,500-square-foot pre-K school and a commercial kitchen facility called the Culinary Center of Elmwood Village all available to the community for rent. Gould hopes to market the kitchen with both cold and dry storage, as well as two double-burner gas stoves, deep fryers, conventional ovens, griddles, chargrills and a full commercial dishwasher for use by caterers, food trucks, or chef-taught cooking or butchering classes.

The building will have two entrances with secure card readers on Lafayette and St. James for the residents, and one entrance on Elmwood for commercial users, as well as the main church entrance. Although one of the apartments is directly across a hallway from the back of the sanctuary, the residential section will be closed off from the church portion by new walls and secure doors for maintenance and security.

The building will be owned by a new corporation, LAPC Lofts LLC, that itself is majority controlled by the church, with Evans Bancorp as its financial partner in purchasing the tax credits. A professional firm will manage the facility. Tenants will pay rent to the corporation, with any profits split between the church and the bank. Gould said he hopes to have the building open for the first tenants by months end.

Ive been doing this work for 30 years. Ive done more than 100 restoration projects, said Gould, an Oswego native who worked in the electric power industry for 25 years in finance before learning about tax-credit projects and shifting to adaptive reuse redevelopment in North Carolina and now upstate New York. Ive never had anything with this conglomeration of mixes in one building.

The $8.5 million project several years in the making and under construction since April 2013 represents an effort by the century-old but dwindling congregation to preserve its history and home, while reducing the financial and management burden of carrying a 60,000-square-foot edifice it no longer needs. Those expenses had threatened to drag down the congregation if it didnt take action.

This was complex, but its also tremendously rewarding, Gould said. I get an energy when its a complex puzzle.

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