By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — A local nonprofit is pressing on with plans to turn Highland Elementary School in the City of Tonawanda into low-income apartments after the original plan for the structure fell through over the summer.
The People Inc., goal to rent out the building from the owner, S. Spoth, LLC, and convert it into senior housing apartments hinged on receiving funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But their application for funding was denied early this summer, making the plans impossible.
“It wasn’t a problem with the application,” Rhonda Frederick, People Inc. chief operating officer, said. “Unfortunately there isno more HUD 202 funding at this time.”
The organization isn’t giving up, though.
“We are looking at a state program for funding,” she said. “They definitely have more funding available.”
The application for the program is set to go out in January and the nonprofit will likely hear back in the spring, around April.
If all goes according to plan, construction on the renovation, which will cost $2 million according to the city’s documents, will begin in the summer and will take about nine months.
The 38 apartments will be available for seniors, young professionals and those with disabilities — unlike the original plan, which would have served only seniors.
“It will be all income based,” Frederick said.
But funding isn’t the only hurdle People Inc. must conquer. A variety of the city’s zoning procedures must be altered for the project, and the city’s building department denied the building permit in November based on four zoning inconsistencies.
In a letter to the nonprofit, city building inspector Kevin Rank said the city’s minimum lot size for the project is listed 135,500 square feet, while the lot size of the Highland property is significantly smaller — only 80,127 square feet.
The nonprofit’s plan also did not have enough parking spaces per apartment, according to city zoning regulations.
People Inc. filed a variance request to relieve them from the four zoning issues on Nov. 26.
“The essential characteristic of the neighborhood is the same,” Frederick wrote in the document.
A public hearing on the variance was held Monday in the community room inside City Hall. Residents living near the property were invited by mail to voice their opinions on the matter.
The Zoning Board of Appeals will now decide to approve or deny the variance request.
“They look at the facts of the case, the testimony and the feedback from the public,” Rank said.
Meanwhile, though, a for sale sign has been placed on the property, as People Inc. can’t agree to a lease before receiving the funding. In the meantime, S. Spoth, LLC has chosen to put the property back up for sale at a listing price of $325,000.
The school was sold to the owner in an auction last spring for $152,000.
But the school has been empty since the district closed it in 2009, and many residents are concerned about the continuing vacancy.
Just this past weekend, a group of kids broke the school’s windows, according to Lt. Fredric Foels.
“We didn’t catch them, but the owners came quickly and covered it up with plywood,” Foels said. “It doesn’t look unsightly.”
Mayor Ron Pilozzi, along with residents who live nearby, has also voiced his concerns about the vacancy.
“I am sure the neighborhood would like to see the property used,” Frederick said. “It is nearby public transportation and has nice amenities for young people starting out. It really is a good community.”Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000 ext. 4150