Niagara Gazette

December 2, 2013

GUEST VIEW: Wednesday referendum: Old vacancy costs vs. new revenue

By Seth Piccirillo
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — The Niagara Falls City School District land sale referendum on Wednesday is very important. It is both a public vote and a community business decision. Do we want to live with blighted buildings until we pay to demolish them, or do we want to see them responsibly renovated in our lifetimes? The vote lets the public chose new tax revenue and blight elimination versus costly government ownership of vacant buildings.

Sale of the former South Junior building and the former Walnut Avenue administration buildings are two of the referendum items. Housing Visions Inc. proposes the Walnut Homes development for the former administration buildings and five surrounding vacant city owned properties. CB Emmanuel Realty proposes the Niagara City Lofts/commercial space at the South Junior Building. Site ownership is necessary for both developments. We have discussed the projects with the public over the past six months, and are presenting the facts by the numbers:

• $0 – Amount of taxes currently generated at city and school district owned properties that are part of the proposed Walnut Homes and Niagara City Lofts developments. These properties have not produced any taxes in 10-15 years, only maintenance costs. Any proposed tax agreement for these properties is not a tax break, because zero revenue is currently created there or will be created there without these developments.

• $0 – Amount of city general fund dollars being requested for the Walnut Homes or Niagara City Lofts developments.

• $50,000 and $1.8 million – Amount of tax revenue that could have been generated in year one, and throughout the contract duration, if the tax agreements presented to the Niagara Falls City Council on November 25 were approved.

• $2.1 million – Taxpayer cost to demolish these properties without development. As a condition of sale, both Housing Visions, Inc. and CB Emanuel Realty will demolish these buildings at their own cost if development does not happen. The South Junior and Administration Building roofs are significantly damaged, and the renovation window is closing rapidly.

• $94,000 – Revenue created for the school district and city by the sale of South Junior and the Walnut Homes properties, if the referendum passes.

• 147,000 square feet – Within one mile, the amount of vacant area that the Walnut Homes and Niagara City Lofts developments would convert to occupied, maintained building space.

• Low income myths – Both developments are applying for state low-income housing and historic renovation tax credits. Why? Because renovating vacant government buildings riddled with asbestos, water damage and structural issues is extremely expensive. Multi-year agreements help offer some financial stability to unpredictable renovation projects, helping the companies secure private sector investment.

• The term “low to moderate income” makes some think of traditional public housing and unmanaged welfare dependence. That is not true with these developments. Housing Visions has used a proven 24 hour property management plan for over 20 years, excluding tenants with a criminal /sex offender background checks, previous landlord references and home visits. Niagara City Lofts is proposing workforce housing as well as commercial office space that is already generating interest. A majority of the rents are market rate for newly renovated units, using our area median income of $44,000 as a measuring stick.

In short, further inaction will only cost the taxpayers more money and force surrounding neighbors to live with continued blight. We proactively sought out these developers because of their successful track records and then conduced months of due diligence. We strongly believe that both sales make business and community development sense. The decision, as it should be, is now in the hands of the public.

Seth Piccirillo is the Niagara Falls Director of Community Development.