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Fruit Belt Residents and Homeowners Testify

Erie County Legislator Tim Hogues with Fruit Belt residents Harvel Hill, Larry Goins, and Veronica Hemphill-Nichols. (photo by Buck Quigley)

On Tuesday, the Economic Development Committee of the Erie County Legislature unanimously approved a resolution put forth by Legislator Timothy Hogues, calling on “the leadership of St. John Baptist Church and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus to reconsider the Economic Opportunity Panel in relation to providing inclusion of nearby residents and businesses of the Fruit Belt and McCarley Gardens in its work.”

Up to this point, residents have been represented by an “Economic Opportunity Panel” made up of individuals named by St. John Baptist Church and the University at Buffalo. That panel currently consists of June Hoeflich, a UB Council member and former CEO of the now-defunct Sheehan Hospital; Paul A. Tesluk, the Donald S. Carmichael Professor of Organizational Behavior at the UB School of Management; Colleen B. Cummings, the former executive director for the Buffalo Employment and Training Center; Brenda W. McDuffie, the president and CEO of Buffalo Urban League and former board member of Great Lakes Health System; Judge James A. W. McLeod, also a former board member of Great Lakes Health System and former board member of Kaleida Health; and Dennis Black, the vice president of University Life and Services at UB. Marsha Henderson, former UB vice president for external affairs and current consultant to UB President Satish Tripathi, is assisting the panel, along with Bradshaw Hovey, senior fellow at the UB Urban Design Project and UB Regional Institute. None of them live in the Fruit Belt neighborhood.

Three individuals who do live in the Fruit Belt took the time to address the legislators, among them Veronica Hemphill-Nichols, who explained in great detail a number of issues familiar to Fruit Belt residents but unheard by the general public. For example, who knew that mud produced during the construction of the Gates Vascular Institute clogged storm sewers and caused basement flooding for residents? Who knew that Fruit Belt homeowners—whose 19th-century lots have no driveways—have to park three or four blocks from their homes on a daily basis because many medical campus employees pass on paying $85 per month to park in prescribed lots? How many suburban legislators are familiar with the phenomenon of rats fleeing as abandoned buildings are demolished, and why it’s good to keep several cats in your home to keep the uprooted rodents at bay?

Aside from these and other quality of life issues brought to light at the hearing, resident Harvel Hill urged lawmakers to listen to the people who live there: “Flooding our neighborhood with rental property is not the way to build a community. We have not been listened to at all. We’re not against development—we’re against being locked out.”

The issue Hill was referring to is the planned relocation of 150 families currently residing in McCarley Gardens, a moderate-income, HUD-subsidized housing development that sits in the middle of the medical campus footprint. A development arm of St. John Baptist Church is building townhouses that they then plan to rent to the former McCarley residents. The UB Foundation is putting up $15 million to buy McCarley in order to knock it down.

Larry Goins is a retired Buffalo police officer who has lived in the Fruit Belt since 1959. He owns four houses there. He recounted how plans have changed in the neighborhood over the years. At one time he was told houses would be built and offered for home ownership. Now that plan has changed, and rentals seem to be the future. “We get mixed signals,” he said.

Meanwhile, some of the rentals wind up being rented by gang members. Somehow, that little tidbit is not illustrated in the architectural drawings offered up by St. John’s and UB.

Economic Development Committee Chairman Thomas A. Loughran (D-Amherst), Lynn Marinelli (D-Tonawanda), Edward A. Rath III (R-Amherst, Clarence), and Joseph Lorigo (C/RWest Seneca) all voted in favor of Hogues’s resolution, along with ex-officio committee member Betty Jean Grant (D-Buffalo). They agreed to send copies of the strongly worded message to Tripathi, UB Foundation Board Chair Francis Letro, Mayor Byron Brown, the Buffalo Common Council, Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus director Matthew Enstice, St. John Baptist Church pastor Michael Chapman, UB spokesperson John Della Contrada, McCarley Gardens Tenant Association president Lorraine Chambley, and Fruit Belt Housing Task Force founder Hemphill-Nichols.

From there, the Fruit Belt residents walked over to City Hall for a meeting of the Common Council’s Community Development Committee, where Hemphill-Nichols was scheduled to speak on a proposed moratorium on development in the McCarley Gardens/Fruit Belt communities until neighborhood stakeholders gain significant representation in the planning process.

A motion to table the issue for two weeks quickly passed, but was then reversed to allow the assembled Fruit Belt residents to address their concerns to the lawmakers. Reverend Darius Pridgen noted that a more complete discourse would take place in two weeks, when Chapman would also address the body, giving his side of the story. Pridgen (Ellicott District), Michael LoCurto (Delaware District), David Rivera (Niagara District), Bonnie Russell (University District), and committee chair Joseph Golombek (North District) were then treated to the same stories told one hour earlier to the county legislature committee. When the testimony was completed, the item was tabled.

After the session was adjourned, Pridgen agreed that representatives of UB and the UB Foundation should also be invited to the March 12 meeting, in the interest of including all stakeholders, and giving them all an opportunity to speak publicly on an issue that is suddenly gaining community interest. He said that he would reach out to UB to make that come about.

In the meantime, the UB Foundation continues to ignore a request initially made on December 13—to release the contract it signed with Chapman relating to the sale of McCarley Gardens—to neighborhood homeowners and residents, who continue to be kept in the dark about plans that will change their lives.

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