$19M project would bring 55 apartments to Eastern Ave. area

Former St. Mary's School would be coverted to apartments
The former St. Mary's School on Irving Street, shown Monday, is proposed for conversion to rental housing.
The former St. Mary's School on Irving Street, shown Monday, is proposed for conversion to rental housing.

Categories: Business, News, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY — A long-vacant Catholic school would get a new lease on life in its second century as part of a $19 million proposal to create 55 apartments in the Eastern Avenue corridor.

A Rochester company that has converted several other old schools to apartments and specializes in workforce housing will bring its proposal before the Schenectady Board of Zoning Appeals on Tuesday evening. 

The plan calls for the old St. Mary’s School at 104 Irving St. to be converted into 25 apartments, and for vacant commercial buildings at 817, 819 and 823 Eastern Ave. to be demolished then replaced with new construction containing 30 apartments and two commercial/retail spaces in 34,400 square feet.

Tuesday’s hearing will be the first formal public review of a plan that has been in development for months with partner agencies, and will depend in part on grants and other assistance.

The plan requires zoning adjustments because many of its details would could not conform to the C-2, R-2 and R-3 residential zoning district regulations, thanks to issues such as too few parking spaces, too little setback from property boundaries and not enough landscaping.

Rochester-based Home Leasing has built and now manages 2,000 units of housing in New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland. In the Capital Region, it recently started work on Clinton Avenue Apartments, a $50 million overhaul of 70 row houses in a five-block stretch in Albany that will contain 210 units. 

In the process of pursuing the Albany project, Home Leasing was introduced to Better Neighborhoods Inc. of Schenectady, which has been heavily involved in the effort to revitalize the Eastern Avenue corridor. It will be Home Leasing’s partner in the proposed Schenectady project, which is being called Renaissance Square. The name comes from Renaissance Hall, the old St. Mary’s Church, which is now a restaurant and event venue, but the two ventures are not affiliated.

Adam Driscoll, development manager for Home Leasing, said the long-vacant and vandalized former school looks from the outside as though it is in rough shape but it is solid inside, probably due to a good roof keeping moisture out.

“We’ve been inside the school several times,” he said. 

The work to be done is not overwhelming logistically or financially, he added.

“It’s something that doesn’t intimidate us, it actually excites us,” Driscoll said. “We’ve renovated six or seven very similar type schools.” Among them is the landmark former Eastman Dental Dispensary, right in Rochester, now known as Eastman Gardens.

Better Neighborhoods Inc. Executive Director James Flacke said the old St. Mary’s School will be a nice addition to the residential landscape.

“It’d be a shame to lose it,” he said, “you can’t build a building like this.”

The Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority is assisting with the project as part of the ongoing effort to revitalize the Eastern Avenue corridor in the same way downtown was redeveloped. 

Chairman Ray Gillen said Metroplex’s investment thus far has been only time and effort, not dollars, but there will likely be a property tax exemption extended to the project. The Eastern Avenue buildings to be demolished have not generated large tax payments, he said, and the old school has never been on the tax rolls.

“We want to continue to build the momentum on Eastern,” he said.

Driscoll said his company also will seek historic preservation tax credits and affordable housing tax credits. Rents have not yet been set but Flacke said they will be formulated to be affordable to the working population of the neighborhood.

The idea is not to bring in replacement residents — no existing residential units are being removed to make way for the project — but to present a better housing option in a timeworn area and inspire other rental landlords to upgrade their own properties.

“Rental prices will be affordable to those already living in the community,” he said. “That’s a big part of why BNI’s involved. We’re not in the business of gentrifying neighborhoods.”

Eastern Avenue Neighborhood Association President Bob Harvey said BNI has presented the plans to the association at its meetings and there has been general support for them. The large rental buildings would be different from the collection of two-family houses that exists there now, but they’d be operated by responsible landlords, which are an important piece of the puzzle.

“We’re looking for some change of character,” he said.

Some residents expressed concern about the number of parking spaces proposed per apartment — a total of 74 for 55 units — but Harvey said he feels that is not a fatal flaw.

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