Catholic Charities project brightens lives in Cortland

By Tom Maguire | Associate editor

On ribbon-cutting day, members of the Riverview Apartments “army” that forged the supportive housing project spoke of comfort, safety, affordability, and sacred places.

If a sense of welcome completes the sacredness, then Kevin Knapp is already entrenched. Knapp, 58, was happily inviting people up to see his new apartment March 9 in Cortland.

“First time I’ve ever moved into a new apartment building,” he said. “Very first time. It’s nice. I like it. It’s got a big kitchen.”

The people who work there, Knapp said, “are all very nice to me. I like ’em. They’re enjoyable to be around.”

Catholic Charities of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse d/b/a Catholic Charities of Cortland County teamed with many partners to create the $7.35 million structure, which covers 17,306 square feet on a little side street next to Route 81.

The building, with all its “green” environmentally friendly aspects and “wheat and khaki” coloration on the exterior, seems to project right out onto Riverview Avenue. It’s a huge improvement over the two old buildings and pole barn that stood there previously.

Heading into the news conference inside the building, where one collaborator noted a particular “clean” smell, one of the organizers paused near the permeable brick paving of the front courtyard to give his assessment.

“I’m very pleased with the project; it looks good to me,” said Fred Zolna, housing developer with Christopher Community, the housing corporation that was developed by Catholic Charities. “I attribute that to the architect and the builder.”

 Zolna, who put together the multiple funding sources and made them work together, said the project is “very popular; there’s a huge need for it.”

“This is mixed-use housing for people with low to moderate incomes with 20 of the housing units supported by the New York State Office of Mental Health,” said Marie Walsh, executive director of Catholic Charities of Cortland County. “Individuals in the Supported Housing program have lived experience with mental health challenges during their lifetime and benefit from supports available on-site, such as case-management and peer-support services delivered by others with similar lived experience.”

The 39 units consist primarily of one-bedroom apartments. More than half of the units are rented and the building should be full by May, said Douglas J. Reicher, president of Christopher Community. “We had more than 150 applications for housing,” he said.

Some of the units were open for touring March 9, a cold day reminiscent of the groundbreaking less then a year ago.

Still unoccupied was Apartment 117, where curly blue and green ribbons decorated the door handle. Inside, Bruce C. King, a partner in Holmes, King, Kallquist & Associates, Architects, walked around taking photos of his handiwork. He described the apartment as a “single bedroom, and then with a kitchen-living-dining space, kind of one big space; bathroom; entry hall; and then a big storage closet.”

He added: “I think the trick with affordable housing is producing a building that’s [homey] and that’s house-like, not institutional. … Our interior designer works really hard on material choices.”

Catching the eye were the large Whirlpool refrigerator and the Whirlpool oven. The kitchen also features eight cupboards and a large curving countertop. The digital thermostat on the wall said it was 70 degrees. The flooring is a durable, wood-like vinyl with a sound cushion underneath, and the general colors of the apartment are “warm beiges,” said Terrie L. King, Bruce’s wife and the senior interior designer and director of marketing for the firm.

“I think the most important thing about the color scheme … is it needs to be warm, inviting, and homey,” she said.

She added: “All of the products are green certified by one or another third-party certification. So it’s healthy too.”

Laurie A. Hunt, project manager for the architects, appreciated the ”earth tones” of the apartment, and she agreed that the aura was very warm.

“In the Central New York region, this project, in my opinion, raises the bar to a new level [regarding] the design aesthetic provided for affordable housing,” said Jeremy Davidheiser, director of facilities and construction for Christopher Community.

All of the parking lot and building runoff is contained on-site and directed into dry wells, he said. The parking lot will be topped off and landscaping will be added in the spring.

“Part of what makes it a sustainable development,” said Davidheiser, who also teaches at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, “is that it redeveloped an existing urban site instead of developing new land.”

The organizers exuded awe that such a complex project came about.

“It was an underutilized piece of land till now,” Reicher said. “It was a long process, a lot of hard work, great staff, great construction team. … If you saw the chart that the contractor uses with 20 or 25 different trades trying to keep it all scheduled and happening, it’s like conducting an orchestra. … It took an army of people to get it done.”

Catholic Charities’ Walsh spoke of the “big jump” into the byzantine world of funding, grants, contractors, tax credits, legalities, partners, and all of the physical parts including bright cabinets, shiny sinks, and gleaming floors. Walsh’s agency will provide case management on-site.

Using tax advantages, New York State Homes and Community Renewal supplied equity of up to $3.9 million for the project, said the agency’s upstate development director, Leonard Skrill.

“And because of that tax credit,” said Beth Graham, an underwriter with another partner, Enterprise Community Investment, Inc., “you don’t need to borrow as much money. And if you don’t have to borrow as much, then you don’t have to charge as much rent. It’s a really great idea, and a bipartisan one.” Her organization’s goal is to end housing insecurity by 2020, and she urged people to promote the housing tax credits by contacting their members of Congress.

Although headquartered in New York City, the Community Preservation Corporation (CPC) provided part of the construction financing for the project.

“Riverview Apartments provides permanent stable housing and needed services that allow its residents to live independently in a compassionate environment,” said Nicholas V. Petragnani, CPC’s senior vice president and director of the Central New York and Finger Lakes region.

 “Everyone should have a safe and affordable place to live,” said Moira Tashjian, associate commissioner for the state Office of Mental Health’s division of adult community care.

She added: “People now have a place to live, to love, to grow, to recover, and to have hope.”

Knapp, the resident of Riverview Apartment 217, is delighted that he got to keep his dog, Zoey, a Blue Heeler mix.

“They call it Pisa Palace,” Knapp said of Riverview, because Mike Pisa, Catholic Charities of Cortland County’s director of residential services, continues to hover over the site.

“There’s something to be said for home — home is a special and sacred place,” said Michael F. Melara, executive director of Catholic Charities of Onondaga County and interim executive director of Catholic Charities & Community Services.

Riverview is not only special but also  long-lasting.

“For the past 40 years, Christopher Community has been building not just housing for people, but people’s homes,” Reicher said. “And we fully expect to be here operating … and maintaining this building for at least another 40 years.”

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