Those who like to see old things made new again should get over to see the new apartments at what was once South Junior High School.

The other day, I had a chance to tour the Niagara City Lofts created from the long-closed school.

The owners are having an open house there from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday and those who once attended school there might enjoy stopping by to tour the old place, just to see what it’s become. 

It looks pretty good for an old junior high. 

People are going to want to live there.

Developer Ben Upshaw, co-owner of CB Emmanuel Realty, and his partner Chris Bramwell, Jr., won the rights to perform the restoration work about two years ago. Despite the financial assistance and the tax breaks, the project was a bit more than he and his partner had bargained for. 

Walking down a beautiful first-floor hallway with shining tile and gleaming dark wood doors, Upshaw joked about the state he and his partner had found the building in.  

“We called this hallway the Valley of Mushrooms,” he said. “There were mushrooms growing here.” 

During construction, they dubbed a third-floor hallway the “Valley of Pigeons,” named for the piles of droppings the birds had left behind. There was lead, asbestos and water damage. And some of the walls weren’t connected or “tied” to the rafters. That all had to be corrected. 

Upshaw is a Lockport resident with a finance degree from Canisius College who got his start in New York City with the New York City Housing Partnership. He and his partner began buying and renovating apartments there and now own and manage about 1,800 apartments in Brooklyn and another 300 in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Rochester. The company is also currently renovating a former school building on Minnesota Avenue in Buffalo.  

After an hour-long tour of Niagara City Lofts on Tuesday, I was pretty impressed with their work. 

Remnants of the junior high school, built in 1923, are evident in the re-design like an echo of days past, just enough to make the place look trendy, yet charming. Because the building is on the national and state historic registries, some things that had to stay as close to original as possible.

As such, the old drinking fountains are still there, unusable but gleaming, looking more like art deco embellishments than sad leftovers. The doors to each of the apartments are restored classroom doors or reasonable facsimiles. A small portion of the stands from the gym are used to give character to a hallway. Some of the gym floor was ripped up and used in several spaces including the smartly decorated community room and the tenant library. Overall, the place has a stark, hip 21st Century feel, laid down upon some of the city’s treasured history. 

There is also commercial space in the building. Miss Tammi’s Dance Studio will use the completely renovated auditorium and have a studio in the former pool area. Tammi Antoine John said her contractor husband and Upshaw put their heads together to provide her with an exciting new dance center, something she may need given her connections made last year with “Dancing with the Stars.” Producers of the show rented her studio at the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center last September for a top secret practice space when singer Vanilla Ice was part of the show and in town performing.  Tammi, whose parents went to school at South Junior, will be hosting a grand opening for her studio on Nov. 4.

As for the rentals, there are 61 units in the building. Ten are offered at market rate rents. Of the other 51 apartments, 11 are reserved for veterans and those with special needs, eight for those with state-issued rental vouchers, while the remaining 43 units will be marketed to those making about 60 percent of the area’s median income. In the Falls, that’s about $33,000. The eligibility formula suggests that the 43 designated units will be made available to households taking in about $19,800 or less. According to state officials, rents will range from $450 to $830 a month. This assortment of offerings provides more housing options in the area for low, middle and high-income residents. 

Upshaw’s open house for the community will take place on the first floor and visitors will get to walk through some classrooms turned apartments, and there will be light refreshments. I highly recommend a tour. 

In a city which needs more quality living choices, this should end up being a great addition, especially in a neighborhood adjacent to the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center at Pine and Portage, that was suffering from the presence of the sad, old, empty building, boarded up since it closed in 1985. 

The schoolhouse is back.  

And I think it rocks. 

Contact reporter Michele DeLuca at 282-2311, ext. 2263 or email her at michele.deluca@niagara-gazette.com.

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