Malorie Lebeau 10/29/2020


By John Cropley |

SCHENECTADY — The proposal to convert the old Elmer Avenue School into apartments continues to inch forward, with a new developer presenting a project for city approval.

The new plans call for 51 rental units for older residents. The Rochester firm that proposes to undertake the project said it would cost a minimum of $15 million and would go forward only if it’s awarded historic preservation and affordable housing grants.

Elmer Gardens secured a use variance for the project from the city Zoning Board of Approvals in early October. It went before the Planning Commission last week for preliminary review of a requested site plan approval and made a favorable first impression.

The bigger hurdle is likely to be securing grants from the state Division of Homes and Community Renewal and the state Historic Preservation Office. The application process is highly competitive and comes at a time when the state is weighing sweeping spending cuts amid a financial crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Adam Driscoll, development director of Home Leasing, said it likely will be 12 to 15 months until the Rochester-based affordable housing developer/manager learns if it is successful in the next round of grant applications. The grants are an indispensable part of the project — the finances would be untenable without them.

Driscoll said it seems logical that affordable housing would be a priority for state funding amid a financial crisis, but acknowledged this particular crisis could go above and beyond others the state government has faced.

“It’s definitely something we’re aware of,” he said. “I don’t necessarily see it affecting housing at the moment, but I don’t want to say it won’t.”

The plans call for 40 one-bedroom, three two-bedroom and eight studio apartments rented to people age 55 and older who meet the limits of an income scale that has yet to be determined. It would include 31 off-street parking spaces, which would be enough for all residents if only 60 percent of them own vehicles, which is about the maximum percentage at Home Leasing’s other senior housing projects.

Amenities would include a playground for residents’ guests, a dog-washing station, gardens and a fitness center. The school auditorium would be converted into a meeting room available to residents and non-residents alike.

The project would be a collaboration with Better Community Neighborhoods Inc.; the two are also working together on the $20 million Renaissance Square project a half-mile west on Eastern Avenue.

The biggest piece of Renaissance Square is conversion of the old St. Mary’s School on Irving Street. With drywall now in place, the interior is starting to resemble the apartment building it will become more than the vandalized, raccoon-infested school it once was.

The St. Mary’s project became viable and moved from planning to execution only with the award of $4.37 million in state grants in the spring of 2019.

The original wing of the Elmer Avenue School is older than St. Mary’s but in much better shape — it has been unused but maintained for the last three years while St. Mary’s was vacant and neglected for much of the last 40 years.

“The cost to renovate and the construction is going to be pretty high because it is an adaptive reuse of an existing structure,” Driscoll said. High, but not insurmountable, he added: “We’ve done over a dozen adaptive projects.”

Among those projects were several schools. Home Leasing recently completed conversion of the old Holley High School in western New York, is now working on the former St. Anthony of Padua School in Syracuse, and of course has the nearby St. Mary’s School in Schenectady, which it hopes to open to tenants in March 2021.

Home Leasing is vertically integrated, planning its own projects, serving as general contractor during construction and managing them after completion. It has 25 housing communities in three states totaling about 2,300 units.

The multifamily rental development and management firm that previously pursued conversion of the Elmer Avenue School — Latham-based Sunrise Management & Consulting — has successfully completed two school-to-apartment conversions of its own, in Rotterdam and Averill Park, and manages a third in Schenectady. But it concluded that the Elmer Avenue financials didn’t work and dropped the project.

The critical distinction: Sunrise had planned market-rate apartments at Elmer Avenue, just as it did in Rotterdam and Averill Park, and would not qualify for some of the construction subsidies that Home Leasing is able to seek.

The city and the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority worked with Sunrise and are working with Home Leasing and BCNI to move the project forward. It’s a continuation of their effort to improve the Eastern Avenue corridor, which is bookended by the school and by the former Annie Schaffer Senior Center, now converted to 27 apartments. In the middle, numerous derelict structures have been leveled, a pocket park has been opened and the Renaissance Square project is underway.

Metroplex also is assisting the St. Mary’s conversion, and was involved in three other school conversions: Horace Mann, St. Columba and Draper. (Actually four, if you count the circa-1877 Nott Street School, which was an office building for decades before conversion to apartments.)

At the Oct. 21 Planning Commission meeting, two concerns were submitted in writing: That the residents’ trash would be set out for curbside pickup in a platoon of rolling garbage cans, and that “senior housing” might be a misnomer, as the minimum age is only 55, and these not-so-old residents could have even-younger family members living with them.

Driscoll replied that the maintenance crews at Home Leasing properties put the trash totes out and bring them back inside in fairly short order — they don’t languish at the curb.

He confirmed that only the primary leaseholder would have to be 55 or older.

But the age of residents is a regulatory matter beyond the purview of the Planning Commission.

During the virtual meeting, Schenectady United Neighborhoods President Tom Carey asked Home Leasing to take care of the small parking lot across Eastern Avenue from the school. It would be included in the $450,000 sale of the school but the developer has no current plans for it.

Carey also shared a wish expressed by some commission members — for aesthetic improvement of the newer wing of the Elmer Avenue School, which dates to around 1960, and is a bland contrast to the original wing, which dates to around 1905.

However, the historic preservation credits don’t discriminate against mid-20th century architecture — to qualify, Home Leasing and BCNI will have to leave the appearance of both wings largely as is.