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Fruit Belt Residents Take Their Plight to Common Council

On Tuesday, the Common Council heard testimony regarding a proposal to put a moratorium on construction in the Fruit Belt until residents of that neighborhood gain access to the master plan that has been concocted secretly by local power brokers. It’s not every day that council chambers draw such a crowd focused on one issue, but then, it’s not every day that a local minister charters two school busses to transport members of his congregation to act as a cheering section for his real estate schemes.

Reverend Michael Chapman, pastor of St. John Baptist Church and CEO of a string of charities from which he earns in excess of $200,000 annually, began his presentation in a reverential tone: “Oh, God bless ya. I’d like to thank this honorable council for allowing us to come.”

He then requested all to stand.

From there, Chapman’s oratory jumped wildly from one point to the next. On the topic of neighborhood participation in the plan sell McCarley Gardens—the moderate income, HUD-subsidized apartment complex that sits in the midst of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus—he said that 11 years ago, he, Judge James A. McLeod, and local NAACP leader Frank Mesiah were involved in getting money from the Oishei Foundation to do a study to understand residents’ concerns regarding the St. John Town House Initiative. The report he was apparently referring to came out in 2006. But numbers and timelines have a way of becoming blurred during Chapman’s rapid and urgent speaking style.

We gleaned that “they’ve” been to the White House six times to lobby for the plan to sell McCarley Gardens to the UB Foundation, then move the residents to new rental properties in newly constructed townhouses scattered around the Fruit Belt on lots controlled by St. John entities. Hillary Rodham Clinton is a big fan of the plan, he said, among many others.

Chapman said they’d been to Baltimore to see how a similar thing had been done there. (One could hope this was not in reference to the widely discredited plan hatched by Johns Hopkins University and the city of Baltimore in 2001 to redevelop 20 blocks of homeowner, rental, and business property on that city’s east side. The project affected over 800 households and provoked powerful backlash from residents who fought successfully for fair benefits.) He said that what he is envisioning for the Fruit Belt is being held up as “a model across the country.” He even said that his plan was greeted with great approval in the Bahamas, and that if it wasn’t wanted in the city of Buffalo, he might just go build his project in the Bahamas.

At various points, he gave shouts out to supporters in the crowd. Among them, Beverly Foit-Albert, who was sitting next to him, just across the aisle.

Other notables were Victor Martucci and Kevin Keenan, lobbyists for former Buffalo mayor Tony Masiello’s firm Masiello Martucci Calabrese & Associates. Chapman contracts with them for help pushing through the McCarley Gardens plan. I noticed Councilman Darius Pridgen hand Martucci a piece of paper. I asked Pridgen for a copy, which he supplied. It was a resolution post-dated March 19, calling for the formation of a Fruit Belt Neighborhood Advisory Council. Martucci and Keenan seemed pleased with the document. After all, the resolution creates the appearance of taking meaningful action while avoiding taking the truly meaningful action of approving a construction moratorium—which was the real issue of the day.

Fruit Belt residents, business people, and professionals Veronica Hemphill-Nichols, Larry Goins, Steven Mackie, and Sharon Everett all expressed how the community has been locked out of the closed-door decision-making that has been going on for years at the BNMC. Everett, a UB graduate with a law degree, said she had nothing bad to say about Chapman, “but he does not represent us.”

Former councilman George K. Arthur followed Chapman’s performance with his trademark, to-the-point style. He observed that Chapman must in fact not have even read the petition that was then before the council. He listed pertinent issues that have not and are not being addressed, such as parking in the neighborhood—the last such study took place in the 1970s. He spoke about the antiquated sewer system that runs under the neighborhood, and the strain on that system as the construction and population density rises with all the development.

Arthur said he understands that Chapman wants to sell McCarley. “Good! Sell it,” Arthur urged. “Sell it to someone who will continue to run it. McCarley is one of the most successful housing developments of its type, anywhere.” He also pointed out that the UB Foundation continues to ignore residents’ requests for a copy of the purchase agreement it signed in March 2010 with Chapman’s Oak-Michigan Housing Development Fund Company, Inc., for the sale of McCarley Gardens.

Attorney Peter A. Reese also addressed the Council. He recounted his earliest memories growing up in a City of Tonawanda public housing project called Colin Kelly Heights. He enrolled in the engineering program at UB in 1962, before the North Campus was conceived. UB then turned its back on the city and “fled to the swampy former farm fields of Amherst,” he said. “There, it quickly converted itself from a burgeoning Berkeley of the East to the suburban real estate development megalithic combine it is today. It is now UA, the State University of New York at Amherst.”

Reese described his first real full-time job at Roswell Park in 1973, and how, when he started there, they parked their cars on the rubble-strewn field that is McCarley Gardens today. “During all the time I have been involved with civic life in Buffalo, St. John Baptist Church has been a shining beacon of hope and a stalwart champion of the interests of working and middle-class African Americans and all the residents of the city. When McCarley Gardens was built we knew and saw that it was good,” he said.

Things have changed, according to Reese. “Teaming up with this corporate real estate reverend, the U of A has decided it wants once worthless and now prime Buffalo residential property for its own selfish interests, and it intends to steamroll anything and anyone who gets in the way. This Council needs to put protections in place to safeguard the interests of the many citizens, residents, and stakeholders who have chosen to make the Fruit Belt/McCarley area their home,” he urged lawmakers, in support of the construction moratorium.

Pridgen had started the meeting by saying he regretted that no UB representatives would be on hand because they had been invited too late. I found that hard to believe, since I asked Pridgen two weeks ago if he would be inviting a representative from the UB Foundation to the hearing, and he said that he would, in the interest of including all stakeholders. After all, without the $15 million the UB Foundation is dangling in front of Chapman, none of this would be taking place.

Be that as it may, at least one member of the UB Foundation was on hand, sitting next to Chapman. When the call for a moratorium was tabled, and the assembled audience was preparing to leave, I asked Beverly Foit-Albert if she was still a member of the UB Foundation. She said that she was. I asked her why she didn’t address the Council. She said that she was just there as an observer, and that she’d only found out about the meeting one hour before it started, and she didn’t want to speak on behalf of anyyone. I asked her what she thought about the McCarley Gardens plan.

“I’m here because I think it’s the best thing to happen in that neighborhood in years,” she said.

I asked her why the UB Foundation continues to deny Fruit Belt and McCarley Gardens residents access to the contract it signed with St. John. She said she didn’t know what I was talking about.

Beverly Foit-Albert is not a disinterested observer, however. According to the UB Foundation website, she is the chair of UBF Corporation, FNUB Inc., University at Buffalo Foundation Incubator, Inc., and UBF Faculty-Student Housing Corp.—all members of the multiplying number of private, not-for-profit entities that swirl around UB.

The attorney general of the State of New York runs a charity website: There, you can search for information on various not-for-profits. That’s where I found the annual filing for St. John Fruit Belt Community Development Corporation, along with that entity’s 990 tax form for 2011. Attached there are financial statements and an independent audit.

It was on page 7 of that audit that I found item 4: McCarley Project. It reads:

The Corporation has been designated by Oak-Michigan Housing Development Fund Company, Inc., to receive an amount up to $120,000 for any costs associated with the Purchase Agreement dated March 2010, between Oak-Michigan Housing Development Fund Company, Inc (seller) and FNUB, LLC (purchaser) for the sale of 172 Goodell Street. The initial payment of $30,000 was on March 19, 2010, with monthly of payments of $5,000 thereafter. As of December 31, 2011, the Corporation has collected the entire amount.

Foit-Albert did not return phone calls asking how it came to be that FNUB, which she chairs, paid $120,000 to this St. John entity, when her own business, Foit-Albert Associates, is a contractor on the McCarley Gardens project through St. John, having notably drawn up the map that illustrated where McCarley residents would be relocated.

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