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Immigrants, millennials fueling the revitalization of Niagara Street

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Max Kalnitz
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In recent years, downtown Buffalo has become a housing hotspot for young professionals. High end housing and a myriad of food and entertainment options are causing more and more people to move closer to the city center each year. Specifically, Niagara Street has transformed from what some considered a rundown corridor to a destination.

After the stock market crash in 2008, Burmese immigrant Kevin Lin took advantage of cheap investment properties on Buffalo’s west side. Lin heard numerous Burmese refugees would be arriving in Buffalo and wanted to help improve their community. He turned to Niagara Street, where he renovated over a dozen houses and opened Sun Cuisine.

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Credit Max Kalnitz
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Sun Cuisine on Niagara Street is considered one of the area's best Thai and Burmese restaurants.

“At that time, Niagara Street did not look as good as it does right now,” Lin said. “But I believed Buffalo will grow. Buffalo will be coming, growing, because you know, like the wave of business and life, it’s not always sinking down. It has to come back.”

Over the years Sun has transformed from a dingy, low-maintenance market to one of Buffalo’s finest Thai and Burmese restaurants. Niagara Street has mimicked the restaurant’s renovations.

High-end lofts, improved public transportation through Buffalo’s Complete Streets program, and trendy gastropubs and breweries are motivating young professionals to live on the street. But what made Niagara Street appealing to developers? James Morell, chair of the Buffalo Planning Board, says it started with an influx of immigrants, like Lin, coming to the city’s west side.

“So what happened is, individual developers and major individuals in the city, they started seeing this migration and saying, ‘Wait a minute, what’s at the other end between Elmwood [Avenue] and the river?’” Morell said. “You have this major corridor running Niagara Street, that has a lot of abandoned buildings. You have the infrastructure in place, so why not look to see if I can put a development, because you have the population to sustain it?”

But the street’s transformation took time. Niagara District Common Council member David Rivera grew up on Buffalo’s west side. Since 2008, he has helped change his old neighborhood.

“For many years it was embarrassing, to tell you the truth. [It was] full of potholes, and that was the gateway from the Peace Bridge to downtown Buffalo,” Rivera said. “We knew that we had to change that appearance.”

Over time, developers transformed Niagara Street’s abandoned buildings into rustic modern housing, fetching anywhere from $1,200 to $2,200 a month. Spaces like the Turner Brothers Lofts are 100 percent filled, with mostly millennials and young families looking to enjoy all that downtown has to offer.

Kayci Caldwell lives in a Turner Brothers loft with her boyfriend. She grew up in Buffalo and remembers the years of depression on Niagara.

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Kayci Caldwell and Eric Cohen have lived in their Niagara Street loft for more than two years.

“When I first told my parents we were looking at an apartment on Niagara Street, they were like, ‘What? Are you sure?’” Caldwell said.

For $1,260 a month, Caldwell and her boyfriend believe their one-bedroom loft is the best bang for their buck. She says its proximity to highway ramps and downtown, with an added view of Lake Erie make it a prime location. 

Jake Schneider, the developer behind the Turner Brother Lofts, sits at Ru’s Pierogi, the restaurant occupying his building’s first floor. Schneider says potential tenants, like Caldwell, look for a mix of commercial and housing, a popular trend in the nation’s larger cities.

“We definitely skewed this mix of apartments more towards younger professionals, the millennials,” Schneider said. “They seem to be driving the housing boom downtown. They were the first group to embrace the urban lifestyle that kind of reawakened here in Buffalo in the last 10 years.”

As Niagara Street continues to experience rapid redevelopment, the question of gentrification arises. Morrell says it’s an unfortunate, but necessary, side effect of Niagara Street’s renaissance.

“[Does] the price to pay for a resurgence in the area equal gentrification?” Morell said. “The byproduct is gentrification, not in the true sense of gentrification, where you come in and immediately tear down all the dilapidated houses and start putting up brand new houses and buildings. That’s not happening. It’s a slow process.”

The proof is on the street. Refurbishment is happening in pockets along Niagara Street. Some blocks have yet to receive a facelift while others are bustling with consumers. Morrell says the city’s vision for Niagara Street is a community of low, middle and upper-income families to maintain diversity.

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Developer Jake Schneider standing outside of Ru's Pierogi on Niagara Street.

He points out the $14 million North Star Housing residential project, which is demolishing low and moderate-income housing and replacing it with apartments targeted toward the same demographic. A Rochester firm recently unveiled plans to build a 10-story, $17 million building with commercial space, two floors of parking and high-end apartments.

Niagara Street has proven that the city’s and developers’ investments have paid off. Morrell says the city wants to use Niagara Street as a model for streets on Buffalo’s east side.

“The one thing the city is definitely doing is to continue to look at the model that was created on Niagara Street to see if it can be recreated on Bailey, on Jefferson, [and] on Broadway,” Morell said.

Looking back, Kevin Lin is happy he found a home on Niagara Street. As the neighborhood continues to change rapidly, he’s excited to be a part of the commotion.

“In recent years, everything is growing. So it should be okay."

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