Nov 30


City will repair building, won’t evict hostel — yet

The Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency approved a $2 million plan to renovate a city-owned structure that is in danger of collapse, threatening the attached Hostel Buffalo Niagara building. The city says it's time for the hostel to purchase and redevelop the properties.

Hostel Buffalo-Niagara lives on. For now.

Over two dozen board members and supporters of the institution attended an emergency meeting held by the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency Thursday morning to determine the future of the hostel at its current location. 

The BURA board voted unanimously to approve renovations to 664 Washington St. — a building attached to the rear of the hostel, which faces Main Street — not to exceed $2 million in cost.

The structure, owned by BURA since 2002, was cited earlier this year by both the city and an engineering report for posing extreme safety hazards to occupants of the hostel and to pedestrians.

In addition to paying for structural repairs, the agency is giving the hostel first dibs on redeveloping the attached building. But the hostel only has a year to submit plans and raise funds for the purchase. The hostel’s attorney, Laurence Rubin — a former BURA vice chair — asked for an extension. Some BURA board members insisted the hostel’s already been given enough time and resources.

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“This $2 million … is not going into East Buffalo, it is not going into the Lower West Side, it is not going to many vulnerable families that are out there that have leaky roofs,” said BURA vice chairman Brendan Mehaffy.

“It’s about, at this time, what the hostel can do to put together a successful development plan that finally relieves the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency of this obligation so it can pursue its mission in the neighborhoods,” Mehaffy added.

“We’re at the point where we’re saying, quite clearly, the hostel needs to step up,” said Mayor Byron Brown, BURA’s chair, who added that the hostel pays rent lower than some single mothers in the city.

Brown said that the hostel needs to pay off $110,000 in rent arrears before it can become eligible to purchase the Washington Street building from BURA — a debt that Hostel Buffalo-Niagara President Alexander Burgos said he just learned of at the meeting.

The hostel has been operating since 1996 as a hotel alternative to foreign and domestic travelers. The building has seven rooms and 48 beds that can accommodate solo guests and large groups. The hostel’s rent to BURA is based on an annual percentage of its profit.

“There is a meeting to be held next week between our board and the BURA board — that’s what I just talked to their treasurer about — to discuss where that number came from and how it can be alleviated,” Burgos said.

This is the latest instance of the hostel board saying BURA has kept them out of the loop.

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Investigative Post reported two weeks ago that the agency first raised the possibility of evicting the hostel at a September meeting. The hostel board was not aware the hostel was facing eviction until Investigative Post questioned them about it.

Burgos said his board was notified about BURA’s Nov. 16 meeting — when a vote to renovate or demolish the building was to initially be held, but was tabled – only a couple days in advance.

“We found out that there may be a vacate notice given to us two weeks ago, and at that moment we had 48 hours before the meeting,” Burgos said.

He added that the hostel board was notified of the exact language to appear on the agenda for Thursday’s special meeting just 24 hours beforehand. 

“I had to scramble our team,” he said.

BURA granted the hostel a two-year designated developer status for the building in March 2020, which would allow the hostel to expand its operations to book an additional 5,000 to 11,000 guests annually, according to a September 2019 proposal.

During Thursday’s special meeting, Mehaffy cited the agreement as further evidence of BURA’s support for the hostel that failed to produce an action plan.

Burgos said the designation came just as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down travel and tourism, which brought the hostel’s expansion and renovation hopes to a halt.

“Negotiations with the city stalled because they wanted at the time guarantees that travel would happen again, that our business would be viable in the future,” Burgos said. 

“Since last year, we are back to pre-pandemic revenues, so we’re back in operations. We’re back in full swing.”

Burgos said the board had raised about 85 percent of the funds to purchase and renovate the Washington Street structure as of this spring, but talks stalled once more after city inspectors produced a report detailing the Washington Street building’s dilapidation.

“At that point BURA said, ‘We need to take care of our building that’s been cited by another department within the city, and at this moment, we cannot continue negotiations until we resolve our matter back there,’” Burgos said.

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Fillmore District Council Member Mitch Nowakowski said he was pleased with the outcome of the board’s vote and that he has faith the hostel will gather the money needed to fund their portion of the repairs. He said renovation was a culturally and financially responsible alternative to demolition.

“We don’t need any more buildings in Downtown Buffalo to collapse,” he said. “We need to be able to secure old buildings in the Theatre District that contribute to the vibrancy and the identity of Downtown Buffalo … The last thing that I wanted to do was to have a measure before us to approve funds for a pile of rubble.”

 More talks are expected to take place between BURA and the hostel in coming weeks. For now, Burgos said he only has one focus: “Keeping the hostel our home.”

“We have a lot of work to do, but we ask the city to be our partner in this and we’re motivated and enthusiastic and we’re going to keep this place where it is,” he said.

Investigative Post

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