2018 is already off to a productive start for the Niagara Falls Community Development team. We are focused on significant public space improvements, home owner renovations, housing court reform and many more citizen led projects. As we move forward, it is important for us to recap where we have been. Take a look at some of our most impactful 2017 Community Development initiatives:
Niagara City Lofts
The former South Junior officially transformed into the Niagara City Lofts in October 2017. Our team was proud to bring the community together for public meetings and act as the city’s point of contact for this project. The once blighted, government owned building is now back on the tax rolls, hosting 61 new apartments, and a dance studio. Vacant for more than a decade, the old school located at 561 Portage Road was at one time deemed a public hazard and slated for demolition at a cost to taxpayers of $12 million. As a former school, the property was 100 percent exempt from city, county and school district taxes, making it both a hazard and a financial liability. Partnerships between the developer, CB Emmanuel, the City of Niagara Falls, New York State, and the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development brought this building back to life. Most importantly, Niagara City Lofts is now a point of pride for its neighborhood instead of a point of grave concern.
The most rewarding part of working at Niagara Falls Community Development is the opportunity to bring to life ideas that were born in the minds of the people who live in our community. We do our best to stay on the cutting edge of community development, implementing initiatives that make the vision of a better Niagara Falls a reality. One of the most valuable tools in our arsenal is participatory budgeting (or PB, for short). Our Department is one of the first in the country to implement this type of process using HUD Community Development Block Grant funds. By putting decisions about the expenditure of public funds right where they belong – the public – we are better able to serve the needs of the people of our city, improving quality of life by going directly to those whose opinions matter most. In 2017, we were able to allocate $360,000 to park projects across the city through participatory budgeting. In 2018, we are expanding the impact of PB to cover all public spaces, seeking proposals for “placemaking” initiatives of all types. We want residents to ask what it means to live in their neighborhood, and to think about how the physical features of your neighborhood could better express that identity. The people of Niagara Falls have personality. We want to use PB to bring that personality into the physical space that we all share.
Zombie Fight Project
Over the course of ten months, the Zombie Fight Project (ZFP), made possible by a grant from New York State Attorney General Eric Schniederman, has become a pace setter in the field and a leader in applying the new Zombie Property and Foreclosure Prevention Law. In April 2017, the City had about 150 official zombie properties reported to The NYS Department of Financial Services. To date, 53 of these properties (~35%) have been inspected, with the banks notified of any code violations. Of those 53 properties, two have been demolished, with one more slated for removal in March, 12 have seen completed foreclosures and have been sold, and seven have successfully filed for expedited foreclosure, per the new law. In September 2017, Niagara Falls became one of the first municipalities to bring legal action against a bank in State Supreme Court for code violations that were not remediated. Our strategy has paved the way for other municipalities to do the same, and we expect the case to deliver a positive outcome for the Niagara Falls community.
70th Street Park Completion
The neighborhood spoke and we listened. Niagara Falls Community Development completed park improvements at 70th Street Park in August 2017. Improvements include a new playground, basketball court and seating as a direct result of neighborhood meetings hosted in 2014 and 2016. This project was included in the 2015 Action Plan, funded by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant Program and the playground design follows the principles of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED).
Home Renovations and Closing Cost Grants
In 2017, Niagara Falls Community Development, Niagara Falls Neighborhood Services, Inc., and Center City Development Corporation continued to invest United States Department of Housing and Urban Development funds in home renovations and first time home buyers. In Federal Grant Years 2012-2015, our organizations managed 116 deferred loans for housing renovation and 116 first time home buyer grants, representing a $4 million investment in our neighborhoods. In Federal Fiscal Year 2015 alone, a period that covered calendar year 2017, we executed 76 closing cost grants, with 48 of those properties selling for above assessed value. These investments can be seen in every Niagara Falls neighborhood, and essential part of our development strategy.
Most Public Events Yet
In 2017, our team hosted over 35 public events and meetings, the most in our department’s history. From idea sessions and participatory budget voting, to color runs and outdoor movie nights, it was our privilege to spend time with our neighbors. You are the experts on this community and we are fortunate to work with all of you.
Jingle Falls USA
We were proud to partner with the Niagara Falls City Clerk, Destination Niagara USA, Niagara PAL, Niagara Falls Culinary Institute, Old Falls Street, LiveNF, Seneca Niagara Casino and many other local stakeholders to create Jingle Falls USA throughout December 2017. The new event series brought family-centric events to downtown Niagara Falls during the holiday season including a candlelight stroll, fireworks, 5K race, artisan markets, 12 bars of Christmas, Santa Clause arriving by helicopter, and much more. This grassroots coalition looks forward to building on the inaugural year’s success in 2018.
Walnut Avenue Homes
Housing Visions’ Walnut Avenue Homes were completed in May 2017, transforming vacant, government owned properties into quality in-fill housing. Not only are these properties back on the tax roll, become an asset to the neighborhood for the first time in a generation. The $12.2 million, 41-unit project is designed to meet LEED for HOMES and NYSERDA Energy Star certifications. The 8 building project features seven new construction buildings and the historic rehabilitation of a long vacant school administration building. Unit configurations include 12 one-bedroom units, 18 two-bedroom units, and 11 three-bedroom units, as well as resident amenities including a resident community center, computer lab, off-street parking, washer and dryer hook-ups and green space. This project was included in the 2014 Community Development Action Plan and was partially funded by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant Program.
2017 brought closer ties between our Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) program and the Homeless Alliance for Western New York (HAWNY). HAWNY, as our region's Continuum of Care (CoC) lead agency, is responsible for coordinating and implementing a system to meet the needs for those experiencing homelessness. Our team, HAWNY, HUD, and our ESG service providers worked together to develop and implement a new Coordinated Entry system for Niagara Falls. Coordinated Entry is a new HUD mandate that creates a standard for all programs receiving ESG and CoC funds. This standard moves to a more data-driven approach to combating homelessness by doing three things: (1) establishing consistency among all service providers so clients are better informed and helped, (2) establishing performance targets appropriate for program type and the area's population, and (3) better monitor the performance of HUD funding recipients and service providers. We are happy to have worked closely with HAWNY staff and our ESG subrecipients, Community Missions, YWCA Carolyn's House, Family & Children's Services, and NiaCAP, to develop and implement Coordinated Entry.
In 2017, we started using colorful tactical urbanism to make our city streets safer and more complete. Implementation of a Complete Streets policy in Niagara Falls has started as any successful endeavor should – with strong partnerships. Niagara Falls Community Development partnered with GObike Buffalo, the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Niagara and the Niagara Falls City School District to paint crosswalks close to public school with colorful, visible colors. Working with local students, we also added bike barrows to remind motorists that roads are not only for cars. We painted over ten crosswalks in 2017, and will keep the momentum going this year.