Residents of McCarley Gardens apartments and the surrounding Fruit Belt neighborhood near the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus want to know why the area’s future is being planned by a panel that includes none of them.
The residents know that change is imminent, especially because of their proximity to the burgeoning Medical Campus.
The problem, they say, is that no one on the Economic Opportunity Panel put together by St. John Baptist Church and the University at Buffalo is from the neighborhood the panel is focused on. They want it dissolved and a new one convened.
“All these different people, organizations and corporations are making decisions for the Fruit Belt and McCarley Gardens,” said Veronica Hemphill-Nichols, founder of the Fruit Belt Housing Task Force. “We’re asking to be at the table. We want to speak for our future. We have to live here.”
Lorraine Chambley, president of the McCarley Gardens Tenant Association, felt similarly.
“The problem is, none of the members of the panel has ever lived, worked or played in the Fruit Belt/McCarley Gardens community,” Chambley said.
“How can somebody else represent your own neighborhood. That’s like me going to Cheektowaga and saying, ‘OK. Let’s do this,’ ” said Leemah A. Kaaid, owner of the High Street Deli.
No changes will be made to the panel, university and church officials said, adding that it has the responsibility of assessing economic opportunities for residents and making recommendations to UB, and was not intended to be a community group.
It is a group of “professional people who deal with workforce development,” said the Rev. Michael Chapman, St. John pastor.
The panel will submit a report to UB soon, but even then, the conversation will continue, said university spokesman John DellaContrada.
“EOP is finishing up its report and intends to provide it to the church and UB next month, targeting the first week in March,” DellaContrada said. The panel’s report is “a starting point for additional planning. It’s not the end of the process.”
Residents, however, are trying to short-circuit that process with a petition for a moratorium on future development in the McCarley Gardens/Fruit Belt community until a master plan is developed by a panel that includes a majority of residents, property owners and taxpayers of that community. The petition has 341 names and was delivered to City Hall on Thursday.
The current panel includes UB Vice President Dennis R. Black; June W. Hoeflich, a UB Council member and former CEO of Sheehan Hospital; and Paul E. Tesluk, a UB management professor.
St. John selected Buffalo Urban League CEO Brenda W. McDuffie; Colleen B. Cummings, former executive director of the Buffalo Employment and Training Center; and City Judge James A.W. McLeod.
“Why in the world would we dissolve [the panel] when they’re about to give me a study about jobs? Once the study comes to me, then I will share it with the community, and they’ll have an opportunity to have input at that time,” Chapman said.
McCarley Gardens is a low-income apartment complex owned by St. John Baptist Church with 149 apartments on 15 acres bounded by Michigan Avenue and Oak, Goodell and Virginia streets. It is located within the borders of the Medical Campus.
In 2010, Oak-Michigan Housing Development Corp. – a development arm of St. John – agreed to sell the parcel to UB for $15 million. All of the tenants must be relocated to housing that is equal to or better than their current housing at no extra cost to residents. No relocation date has been set yet, because the plan still needs federal approval.
The EOP joint panel was one of the conditions of the sale. It was formed for the church and UB to engage community leaders, listen to ideas and concerns and then deliver a set of recommendations to UB for job training, skills development and educational opportunities for residents in the community.
However, community leaders have written to the UB Foundation, which is purchasing the McCarley parcel on behalf of UB, requesting a new panel that has neighborhood representation at a ratio of 2-to-1.
UB officials said the panel has held several meetings attended by nearly 100 community members and leaders, including Fruit Belt residents and McCarley Gardens Tenant Council leaders. When pressed for specific dates of public meetings, DellaContrada referred to one, which was a walking tour of the Fruit Belt neighborhood with residents in 2011.
Several residents had no recollection of the meeting.
“No, I don’t remember that,” said Larry Goins, a retired Buffalo police officer who has lived in two different houses on Lemon Street since 1959. He said he would have welcomed the opportunity to sit on the panel had he known about it.
A meeting was held Dec. 13 for Fruit Belt residents enrolled in a new leadership development program developed by UB. Other area residents, however, also attended after seeing a flier about it. The meeting was the first time many residents had ever met the panel members, said Hemphill-Nichols. “We never knew there was a panel,” she said.
Kaaid also said she was never aware a panel existed. She has attended public meetings held by UB and St. John. However, she said she has never received straight answers or actual information, especially from the church.
She is happy about the opportunities the Medical Campus will bring to that section of the East Side.
“As a business owner I’m happy for the growth in the neighborhood,” she said. “We’re happy for the development. We just would like to be involved and know what’s going on, because we’re here.”