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Fruit Belt Residents Still Want a Community Benefit Agreement

The Torch is Past
Fruit Belt Residents Still Want a Community Benefit Agreement

There was another standing room only meeting sponsored by the fruit Belt/McCarley Gardens Housing Task Force at the Moot Senior Center on High Street Tuesday evening—this time asking the question: Can there be gentrification with justice? In the five-plus years since the UB Foundation plotted with St. John Baptist Church Reverend Michael Chapman to buy and knock down McCarley Gardens—moderate income apartments that are situated in the middle of the grandiose plans for the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus—the answer still appears to be “no.” While the plans to buy the 15-acre parcel for $15 million never came to fruition, it’s clear that neighborhood residents remain excluded from whatever development schemes continue to unfold on the BNMC.

Moderator Veronica Hemphill-Nichols began by suggesting that gentrification can improve neighborhoods, unless it takes the form of predatory gentrification, which displaces black inner city residents “to allow upper income whites in, all in the name of Urban Pioneering.”

Speakers at the event included John Washington of PUSH Buffalo, Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant, and attorney Arthur Giacalone, who stood in for former city councilman George K. Arthur who was unable to attend.

Washington pointed out the hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks given out as incentives for all of our big “cranes in the air” construction projects like Harborcenter, Delaware North, Solar City and others, before shifting his focus to the grim statistic that while African Americans comprise 35.5 percent of the population, only 9.8 percent of bank loans go to African Americans. A Community Benefits Agreement, he believes, is the best way for the neighborhood to win any kind of say in the development that has been going on all around them for several years now.

Giacalone began his presentation by reading a series of quotes by scheduled speaker Arthur—who has been the most vocal and uncompromising critic of the way development plans have been foisted upon the predominantly African American residents of the Fruit Belt over the past several years. Giacalone read from the BNMC’s own literature to illustrate how it views the surrounding neighborhoods. Allentown is described as: of the first and largest residential historic districts in the United States and is included on the National Register of Historic Places. This diverse neighborhood is known for its vibrant street life and boasts a unique mix of commercial and residential offerings, including an array of restaurants, shops, and galleries. Notable in the area is the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site – the Wilcox Mansion at 641 Delaware— important for both its historic and architectural significance.

The Linwood Historic Preservation District is:

...a short five-minute walk from the Medical Campus consisting of a stunning, quiet neighborhood and grand assortment of single and multifamily homes and apartment buildings. The bicycle friendly street abounds with 175 years of American architectural design—Georgian, Greek Revival, Colonial Revival, Second Empire, Stick-style, Queen Anne, Italianate, American Foursquare, Arts and Crafts. They are young families, gay couples and families, young professionals, established families, seniors, and professionals with medical or dental practices on their ground floors. In fact, Linwood Avenue was once called “Pill Hill” because of all the medical offices here.

Meanwhile, the Fruit Belt is described like so:

As one of Buffalo’s oldest residential neighborhoods, the Fruit Belt is engaged in a renewal marked by new housing construction, retail development, and streetscape improvements. The neighborhood takes its name from the large number of orchards and gardens planted by its first residents. As the area developed, the streets were named after the fruits that existed in abundance such as Cherry, Grape, Peach, Mulberry, and so on.

The problem, according to Giacalone, is that all development on the medical campus begins not with public outreach and input, but rather with sweeping plans that will alter the quality of life for those who live nearby. Only then, when the plans are unveiled amid public fanfare, do entities like UB and BNMC “reach out” to residents in what by that time is invariably a form of damage control. (One such plan that was unveiled a few years ago amid great hoopla included an activity center for neighborhood youth that featured subterranean basketball courts that would be sunken below well manicured landscaping. Mercifully, those blueprints seem to have vanished and are no longer discussed.)

As is the case with all major developments in Buffalo, the 1976 New York State Law known as the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA)—which takes into account the impact of a given project on the people living nearby—is completely ignored. A 1986 NYS Supreme Court ruling affirmed that existing neighborhood character must be preserved—yet here we are nearly 30 years later, continuing to put the cart before the horse when it comes to dealing with neighborhood concerns, whether it’s on the east side or by the Peace Bridge.

Giacalone also sprinkled some jabs at Buffalo News editorials characterizing the BNMC construction as “a thing of beauty,” “wholly desirable,” and “as inevitable as the laws of supply and demand.”

Legislator Grant spoke up about how little of the Buffalo Billion had been dedicated to improve things on the East Side like redeveloping commercial strips, opening community centers, covering the 33 Expressway to restore the fabric of the area, grants for low income homeowners, building grocery stores, fixing crumbling infrastructure, and assisting the Michigan Avenue Heritage corridor which features cultural assets like the Nash House, Colored Musicians Club, Langston Hughes Institute Center, Johnnie B. Wiley Stadium and the African Cultural Center. She also stressed the need for training programs so that more workers can be hired from the neighborhood whenever construction projects commence.

While the event struck a nerve with the many concerned residents who came to learn more about what they can do, it was disheartening to realize that a similar meeting took place just over a year ago—pushing for the neighborhood to gain a Community Benefit Agreement with the BNMC. In order for that to happen, more parties will have to be involved. The next event should include city representatives such as Mayor Byron Brown and City Council President Darius Pridgen, as well as people from UB and the BNMC, according to several in attendance.

As one attendee remarked of the absent lawmakers: “We put their asses in there; we can take them out.”

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