The city’s only hostel, which hosts some 6,000 travelers a year in the Theater District, is facing the prospect of eviction because an adjacent city-owned building is in danger of collapse after years of neglect.
Recent inspections by the city and an engineering consultant found the vacant, rear section of the hostel building has deteriorated to the point that it could jeopardize the structural integrity of the hostel. The rear building, which faces Washington Street, is separate but attached to the hostel building at 667 Main St.
Hostel Buffalo-Niagara is across the street from Shea’s Performing Arts Center, two doors down from the Town Ballroom. A nonprofit, it’s been operating at the site since 1996.
City building inspectors in April cited the Washington Street portion of the property for nine violations, including water damage to the roof, floor and electrical panels, which supply the hostel with its power.
“An incomplete inspection was performed due to the hazardous conditions at interior of this building,” the inspection report said.
In a separate report, engineering consultant DiDonato Associates concluded the roof of the rear structure could threaten the hostel due to shared north and south walls. DiDonato recommended the entire building be evacuated while steps are taken to shore up the rear structure.
“It is only a matter of time before sections of the roof and floor systems start to cave in if no structural intervention is undertaken,” the July report said.
“Our professional opinion is that the property should vacate any occupants directly adjacent to  Washington during the construction due to the unknowns and risks associated.”
The building is owned by the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, a city development agency that is headed by Mayor Byron Brown and whose board is composed primarily of mayoral appointees, as well as three members of the Common Council.
BURA had been scheduled to vote Thursday on possibly evicting the hostel, but postponed action until next month, when the board will likely consider at least two options for the property — rehabilitation and sale, or demolition at a cost of nearly $1 million. In either case, the hostel could be displaced.
There was no discussion Thursday of restricting hostel operations in the meantime, and it continues taking reservations.
Fillmore District Councilman Mitch Nowakowski, who is on the BURA board, said Thursday he would prefer the Washington Street structure be repaired and the entire building sold to someone who would keep the hostel on Main Street.
“We’re going to be in a better position as a city and as the downtown Theatre District if we invest the resources to shore up Washington Street,” he said.
Hostel not informed
The building’s condition was discussed during a BURA meeting in September, when special project manager Brandon Baxter told the board that the Washington Street structure was rated as a safety hazard.
At the time, Common Council President Darius Pridgen, also a BURA member, raised the possibilities of eviction or suspending operations until repairs were made. A longtime hostel advocate, Pridgen also proposed converting the Washington Street portion of the building to affordable housing, a concept that had been considered in the past.
No members of the hostel’s board or staff were present at the September meeting.
When contacted via email, a hostel board member declined to comment, except to say that they had not been made aware of the discussions that took place at the September BURA meeting. The board member also said the hostel was unaware of a possible eviction until informed by Investigative Post.
Over a dozen hostel supporters, including some board members, attended Thursday’s BURA meeting. The hostel had made its way onto the agenda, but was scrapped at the eleventh hour. Hope Young-Watkins, BURA’s senior director, said a special meeting will be held in two weeks.
Nowakowski said he was pleased to hear that action items would be presented in December for board consideration.
“From what I’m hearing is that there’s two options: one option, to be spending $800,000 to demolish the building, or we can leverage more resources to secure the perimeter and the structure and be able to put it in a place where it’s shored up and we can sell it to somebody for an adaptive reuse,” he said.
Although part of the Ellicott District now, the hostel will become part of Nowakowski’s Fillmore District on Jan. 1.
The hostel accommodates up to 50 guests per night, with rooms ranging from $98 nightly for a private room to $279 for a group of five to eight guests. There are also co-ed and gender specific options.
In addition to boarding space, Hostel Buffalo-Niagara also hosts BOX Gallery and a number of performances and events.
The hostel generated $234,502 in revenue for the 2022 fiscal year ending in March, according to their nonprofit tax form.
City owned since 2002
Hostel Buffalo-Niagara has been operating at the Main Street building, formerly Norban’s Department Store, since 1996 on a long-term lease that expired in July 2021. The current lease is month to month.
BURA has owned the building since 2002. Not long after BURA took ownership, the weekly alternative newspaper Artvoice sought to purchase the rear structure from the agency, intending to convert the space into offices and an arts center.
In 2006, after three years of negotiations, Artvoice and BURA reached a 10-year, lease-to-own deal for the entire building. The plan envisioned the hostel continuing to operate in the front part of the structure.
That arrangement broke down over a dispute over who would pay to repair the rear structure’s badly compromised roof.
In 2017, BURA issued a request for proposals to developers after the city decided to put both the front and rear of the building up for sale, mainly due to the continued deterioration of the rear. According to a Buffalo News story, hostel board members and staff weren’t notified of BURA’s plans until the RFP was released.
Later that year, the city announced that it would not sell the structure and that BURA would instead try to develop mixed-income housing on the Washington Street side.
Hostel Buffalo-Niagara submitted a proposal to BURA for designated developer status in September 2019, which included plans to expand into the Washington Street building to rebrand as Hostel Plus. BURA gave the hostel designated developer status for one year in 2020, but nothing came of it.