In early July, a group of young Buffalo artists transformed the south side of a brick building at 515 Main St. into a colorful, contemporary mural. For many denizens of the slowly re-emerging downtown neighborhood, this unexpected jolt of color signaled the beginning of a new lease on life for the block.
But last week, the creators of the mural and promoters of the 500-block revival received news that the vacant lot that provided access to the mural for hundreds of people over the summer would be fenced off later this month. Allpro Parking, which manages the privately owned lot, informed the 500 Block Committee by email Thursday of its plans to erect two fences on either end of the narrow alleyway during the week of Oct. 15 or 22 unless community members came up with a proposal for its future use and an offer to sublet the property by Friday.
“I understand that our decision to install a fence is not the first preference of some. Please be mindful of the following: This land is private property and not a public alley as some may wish to believe. The owner of the parcel along with the management of the property [Allpro] are concerned with the liability exposure,” Allpro President and CEO Rick Serra wrote in the email, which was provided to The News by Main Street Studios owner Erica Eichelkraut Zilbauer. “We cannot delay the installation of the fence, as we want to secure the parcel before our wintry snow season is upon us, as we see this parcel with snow cover will create tremendous liability issues.”
For Zilbauer, a member of 500 Block Committee who said she submitted a proposal with various ideas for the reuse of the alleyway to Allpro in May and was told it was not necessary, the company’s eight-day ultimatum for community members to come up with an alternative to a fence and the money to sublet the lot is frustrating.
“We’re trying really hard to work with them. They’ve been a part of all the block parties. They’ve come to the business meetings, they’ve made an effort to be good neighbors. So this ultimatum is just really incredibly confusing to us,” Zilbauer said. “They participated in the mural. Obviously we had to get approval to be standing on that lot and put ladders up. So they were very aware of what was going on and how much work was going into it. That might have been a good time to say, ‘Listen, we are going to be fencing this off soon.’ But, nope.”
Serra, for his part, said he did not recall receiving a proposal from Zilbauer in May and cited concerns with foot traffic that expose Allpro to liability issues, especially in the winter months. He said that Allpro has managed the property for six or seven years, but that issues with dog-droppings and loitering have only become apparent in the past year.
“We’re always concerned about liability. People walking through create more exposure for people to possibly to sustain injuries and fall down,” he said. “Liability’s always an issue, but for the past year, there’s been more unwanted activity in and around our parking lot, whether it was my neighbor’s property next door or this vacant parcel being used more as a passage by the wrong people.”
Serra stressed that he was referring to vagrants – not to the increased foot traffic resulting from art events at 515 Main or to passers-by who are curious about the new mural. He added that the mural would still be visible from Main Street if the lot were fenced-off.
But for Zilbauer and her supporters, who have been loudly voicing their opposition to Allpro’s plan on Facebook and have sent several emails to Serra the increased artistic activity in and around the lot over the summer has already cleared up most of the problems Allpro’s proposed fence is meant to eliminate.
“When I first looked at this building last August, the first thing I saw was two people sleeping in it. The next day I went back, there was a guy doing heroin. The next day I went back, there was someone punching someone else. I mean, that lot has been a horrible issue for a long time,” Zilbauer said. She believes the interest in the mural and increased activity on the 500 block have helped. “There’s a lot of problems that have been solved. So I’m confused. I’m very confused about the timing. This lot’s been a problem for a really long time, and now all of a sudden they’re coming in and deciding they need to fence it off. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Serra admitted that the activities of Zilbauer and other 500 Block Committee members on Facebook rubbed him the wrong way, but said that the Oct. 12 deadline was “absolutely” flexible and that Allpro is open to discussions.
“Allpro is a stand-up company. I didn’t realize it was going to be something that they had to go on a negative campaign [about],” Serra said. “I can’t see why this can’t be a win-win for everybody.”