I am an incremental small scale real estate developer in Buffalo, NY and on my shelf in my office is the book The Little Engine That Could.
I always feel like that little engine.
Being an incremental developer basically means that we are broke and tired all the time because we work in small buildings that no one can figure out, and we have a lot of stress because the small projects are often more challenging than the large ones! We say “I think I can” A LOT. However, it also means we sit in a space where we can be creative, meaningful, thoughtful and community-driven. We can dream big, and then see those dreams come true. We can have a direct impact in our community. In my opinion, it is worth it.
The biggest challenge I see in our community is creating value in a place where value is limited. We have vacant buildings worth so little that it doesn’t make financial sense to invest in them. The vacancy vortex has its grip– these places are beautiful but forgotten, or wasting away at the hands of negligent or careless owners.
Working in Buffalo and Niagara Falls means I’m often asking myself, how do we create value in a place where banks and traditional financial markets don’t exist? How do we create our own value in neighborhoods that have been forgotten? How do we create value in places people don’t love? How do we create value without displacement? How do we bring these buildings back to life?
Answer: It takes a village… and an Instagram account. (Half kidding about the IG!)
Here is the secret! We can create value with love, attention, and serious dedication. To recruit a village, we have to attract people with energy and hope. We have to build momentum, and we need people to help us build it.. Momentum then begins to build its own momentum. We have to love our places so hard that others fall in love, too. When they fall in love, the possibilities are endless. We all need a village, falling in love with their place, to bring it back to life.
Let’s walk through one year of a small scale development project–specifically looking at the idea of “building a village” around The Huntress, a small scale development project on the West Side of Buffalo. The hope is that you can see the process of an incremental, small scale development project on a micro level and the village it took to make it so.
One winter day, my team and I walked into a little building around the corner from my house. The small, one-story, blonde brick building with two storefronts had been on my radar for quite some time. This little cutie came with two 600sf storefronts attached in front of a two-story wood-framed house. Perfect for a family! Perfect for small businesses!
Sadly, the place was slumlord city. The kitchen sink was a cheap, plastic washtub, there were bars on every window, and the storefronts desperately needed some serious love. There was grime, dirt, and dropped ceilings everywhere… but also amazing tin ceilings, a cool attic space with plank hardwood floors, and an original hex tile entryway. For decades, this little building sat, passing from one owner to another, trying to make it work. For decades, it limped along. I couldn’t help but love it. She was fierce. She was tiny. She was a Huntress… so that is what I named her! I believed in it but I knew in order to bring her back to life, others would need to believe in her, too.
So we set out to buy and renovate her, knowing she could be small but mighty. We knew we needed a village of people who believed in this building to make this work, but never did I imagine the amazing village we would find.
The first group of people in the village included me and my team. We all saw the potential. She was ferocious. Tiny, like me! Small but mighty, just like us. We knew the storefronts would add to the walkability of the neighborhood and would support local small businesses, which is part of our mission as a neighborhood development company. We knew it was a no-brainer. After all, we have the expertise– our team is made up of a construction team and a property management team, all working full time to bring buildings like this back to life. This is what we do!
Someone in your village has to be the money person. That critical person came along – an investor who lent us the money when I couldn’t get banks to return my calls. He and his wife love Buffalo–but had never invested in something like this before. When I presented the project, though, they decided to take a chance. Securing the investor was a huge deal–getting the banks to do this kind of project was a challenge, at the time, due to the mixed-use nature of the building. However, since local banks have now seen the success of this project, they’ve become excited to lend to projects like this!
The third and fourth villagers happened to be a friend of mine and her adorable son who agreed to rent the apartment, despite seeing the dirt, grime, and neglect. She knew that despite the gross current condition, we would follow through on her makeover. It was a perfect space for her–the attic provided a much-needed space for her growing photography business, and the house was open, welcoming, and plenty big for her family needs.
Then came Stefan and Dave, the owners of What’s Pop-in. They literally showed up at my door with a popcorn sample and an ask to work together. All they had was an idea, delicious popcorn and serious hustle: they wanted to make the best popcorn in Buffalo. I said, “Absolutely.” Let’s do it.” They signed a lease for the storefront space and off to the races they went.
The next round of villagers came by way of an art party. Some of our friends and area residents decided to throw a dance party/art show in the What’s Pop-in space to get some energy flowing. Over 50 people came to see some art, dance and have popcorn.
We danced until about 2am… and there is nothing like having a dance party inside a space you just renovated. I highly recommend it!
As we renovated the spaces, our village continued to grow. The popcorn shop began to take off, gaining a solid Instagram following, features in local news articles, and selling out at pop up markets. The photography studio thrived, specializing in sexy boudoir photos with the backdrop of that attic space with the cool plank floors. Stefan threw a small “popcorn dinner” inside the storefront, pairing flavored popcorn with a five-course meal– including blue cheese popcorn and steak. Yum!
We worked hard to make sure the renovation style was in line with today’s standards: we invested an additional $60,000 into the building between the storefront repairs, apartment makeover, and neglected maintenance concerns. We went with gallery-white paint on the walls with semi-gloss white trim for a sophisticated look. We restored the floors, saved the original built-in cabinets, and removed the bars off the windows. We repaired and painted the amazing tin ceilings in the storefronts, and rebuilt the storefront windows. We focused on keeping it clean, simple and classic.
Next came Netta. She completed our village, really, when she rented the second storefront space! She is a nail artist, a mother, a wife, a Buffalo lover, and a firebrand. She wanted to expand her nail salon from her home into an official space. The available storefront at the Huntress was a perfect spot for her, and we welcomed the Top Coat Nail Salon! Everyone needs a good nail salon, am I right?!?!
And that’s it! It’s been just over two years since that initial walkthrough. Today, the Huntress is still small, but now, truly mighty. A warrior! A little engine that could! She provides shelter for three small businesses and a family inside 2,500sf of space. That is three small businesses supporting their families. Three small businesses paying taxes, working to build their communities and contributing to the world. Is she perfect? No way. (Don’t forget, we are still in a tertiary market!) But she is alive, and that is what counts… and bonus: you can get popcorn delivered to your door, no matter where you live in the USA. (Not kidding. That popcorn concept is now so serious that they ship weekly across the country! See what tiny storefronts can do?!)
So when people ask you if that little brick building in your neighborhood can be saved, don’t say no. Stop. Look at it. Think about the potential. Think about your village, and who in your world can help you bring it back to life. Teamwork makes the dream work! Think about what your neighborhood needs. Think about what you can do to fill that need gap. Don’t be afraid to believe in people. When your attorney asks you if you’re sure of using such a strong name on a little building – remind him that dynamite comes in small packages.
Love it so damn hard. Dream so damn big, and take incremental steps to see it through. You can build the value! You can build the village!
Last but not least, if you need someone to be in your village– let me know because I am happy to be part of it. I believe in you, too!
What a great piece on a great project. Congratulations! Many parallels with projects in my own hometown, Benton Harbor. The secret sauce – Deep roots. Deep pockets. And most important – passion for the place!
Not every thing that matters can be measured!