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McCarley Gardens: UB Won't Respond to "Ultimatums"

The saga continues to evolve around plans by the UB Foundation to purchase McCarley Gardens—the HUD-sponsored, moderate income housing development that sits on 15 acres adjacent to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus—from the Oak-Michigan Housing Development Fund Company, Inc., a development arm of Reverend Michael Chapman’s St. John’s Baptist Church. UB wants to move the 150 families that live there and knock it all down to make way for future development.

At a December 13 meeting between an “Economic Opportunity Panel” named by UB and St. John’s, McCarley Gardens and Fruit Belt residents aired their negative experiences with the process, and the general lack of opportunities made available to Fruit Belt residents amid the alleged jobs boom that is supposedly taking place in the medical corridor.

The residents boiled their concerns down to three requests: They want access to the 2010 contract that was signed between the UB Foundation and St. John’s. They want the current panel to be dissolved and reconstituted to include individuals that actually live in the Fruit Belt, in a ratio of 2:1. They also want all future meetings to be made open to the public, and especially the press.

Former city councilman George K. Arthur gave the panel a January 3 deadline for UB to respond. When no response came, Fruit Belt organizer Veronica Hemphill-Nichols and McCarley Gardens resident Lorraine Chambley sent a polite letter to UB Foundation chairman Francis M. Letro dated January 15, reiterating the requests the neighbors made at the December 13 meeting. Letro did not reply.

Then, on January 23, UB Assistant Vice President for Government and Community Relations Michael J. Pietkiewicz sent a lengthy reply to Nichols. The letter was copied to Letro, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, Ellicott District Councilman Darius Pridgen, BNMC president and CEO Matthew Enstice, UB President Satish Tripathi, UB Neighborhood Outreach Coordinator Linwood Roberts, Chapman, and Chambley.

That response referenced “multiple opportunities for public input through dozens of individual and group interviews and meetings where residents and neighbors have been encouraged to voice their concerns.” It also offered a link to plans for the downtown campus, and a link to contingencies contained in the UB Foundation/St. John’s contract—but not the contract itself.

In the meantime, Victor Martucci—from the lobbyist group Masiello, Martucci, Calabrese, and Associates—and Kevin Keenan—former director of the office of communications for the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo from 2000-2011, and now a founding partner of Keenan Communications Group, which is a division of the former Buffalo mayor Tony Masiello’s group—met with Chambley and former McCarley Gardens resident Gwen Walker on the afternoon of January 2 in the conference room at St. John’s.

We called Martucci to ask what the meeting was about, and here’s what he said: “I’m not gonna comment on any meetings that I have on behalf of my client. You know? It’s not a public meeting, and, um, you know, if, if, if I talk to the press about meetings that I have with people, nobody’s gonna meet with me anymore. So, I’m just not gonna do that.”

When asked who his client was, he replied, “No. No. Um, I’m just gonna leave it at that.”

“But you did visit with Ms. Chambley?” we asked.

“I’m not even gonna confirm that,” he responded, with a laugh.

Keenan was equally illuminating. “Yeah, I don’t talk about what I may or may not be doing,” he said. “That’s…anything that I would do in private remains private.”

“Oh, it was a private meeting?” we asked.

“I didn’t say…I just said I don’t confirm anything, I just, I don’t talk about my business in public. What business I may or may not be conducting,” he answered.

Would he say who hired him to meet with Chambley? “As I said, what I do with my time is, you know, that’s my time, and I don’t talk about it in public.”

“So are you saying that you didn’t meet with Chambley?” we asked.

“I’m not saying anything. I’m saying that I don’t comment on what I do with my time. So, I’m not saying anything. Other than what I just said,” said Keenan.

According to Chambley, Martucci and Keenan were very forthcoming at the January 2 meeting when they explained that they were representing Chapman and St. John’s.

How was that meeting? “It was cool,” says Chambley, “They want us to trust them and we told them we don’t trust anybody. They wanted to know how we felt about the move. We said they aren’t doing any kind of impact studies. They’re not worried about what the outcome is going to be. Kevin Keenan wrote two-and-a-half pages just listening to us, and we were there for maybe an hour.”

When Chambley remarked that they had wanted their lawyer to attend the meeting with them, Martucci said it was really good that he didn’t come because then Martucci wouldn’t have spoken as freely. At which point, Walker interjected, “Well, how freely have you spoken? You haven’t said anything.” The two left the meeting with the same questions they had arrived with. “So what have they done for us?” Chambley says.

Has there been any follow-up since that clandestine meeting? “Nope. I haven’t talked to them,” says Chambley. “They were supposed to be trying to have a meeting for all the residents by the end of January because they want to get McCarley Gardens re-zoned. They haven’t contacted us or said anything.”

Chambley also received a phone call from “someone from UB” sometime after the January 15 letter was sent to Letro. During that conversation, she was told that they didn’t appreciate the tone of the letter, and that UB does not respond to “ultimatums.”

Hemphill-Nichols sent a concise follow-up letter to foundation chairman Letro dated January 29, pointing out that Pietkiewicz’s response on Letro’s behalf ignored all three of the residents’ requests first made at the December 13 meeting. She again lists them, and closes with this: “We would appreciate it if you, and not a staff person from the university would reply ‘Yes or No’ to these very simple questions. Thank you for your cooperation in this matter.”

The letter was copied to Brown, Pridgen, Enstice, Tripathi, Roberts, Pietkiewicz, and Chapman, as well as local TV news channels two, four, and seven, the Buffalo News, the Challenger, and the Criterion.

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