In Buffalo’s Fruit Belt, just east of the medical corridor, there’s one go-to man when it comes to development: the Rev. Michael Chapman.
Whether it’s residential or commercial projects, the pastor of St. John Baptist Church – the largest African-American church in Buffalo – is the sole city-designated developer in the 36-block Fruit Belt neighborhood that reaches from Michigan to Jefferson avenues.
With City Hall’s blessing, Chapman has a hand in everything in the Fruit Belt, from the sale of city-owned lots to the construction of dozens of low-income rental units and a planned supermarket and commercial center for the low-income neighborhood.
But now, at a time when the Medical Campus is exploding with construction just a stone’s throw away – and when real estate prices west of the campus are climbing – some in the neighborhood complain about the pastor’s power over their community, and specifically about 49 additional townhouses for low- and moderate-income renters that Chapman is building just east of the Medical Campus.
“We’re not against renters,” Fruit Belt homeowner Harvill Hill said. “We prefer to have people owning their residences rather than renting. When you rent, it’s a temporary condition. You’re not going to stay. We want homeowners to be dedicated.”
“They want flop houses on the block,” Phyllis Wiggins, a longtime Fruit Belt homeowner, said of Chapman’s rental housing project. “They are going to bring any riffraff back in the Fruit Belt. We want property owners. How come he didn’t get grants to help people who live in the Fruit Belt to restore their houses?”
Others in the neighborhood, meanwhile, have an opposite concern, and worry that existing elderly and lower-income residents will be priced out of their homes – despite Chapman’s low-income rentals – unless City Hall has a plan to prevent gentrification if Fruit Belt real estate goes up as the Medical Campus takes off.
“That’s definitely going to happen,” said Willie Cunningham, a Mulberry Street homeowner.
“They want workers and students to buy here,” he said of the Medical Campus planners. “Property taxes will go up, and homeowners won’t be able to afford taxes on their own homes. When our kids grow up, the people here will not look like us.”
Chapman seems stung by the criticisms, so much so that he told The Buffalo News that he is backing away from his prior commitment to build as many as 100 or more new townhome rentals in the Fruit Belt. He’ll finish the townhouses now being built and concentrate on commercial development after that, he said.
“Folks don’t want us to build there anymore,” Chapman said. “We’re not building any more townhomes in the Fruit Belt. The rest of them we’re putting someplace else. Anything else we build in the Fruit Belt will be commercial.
“As long as we are developing, and I’m making the decisions, we’ll make sure there are minorities getting these houses, and we will prevent gentrification. But if they open up to other developers, we’ll see if they can stop those other developers from doing what they want to do.”
Chapman’s comments stunned neighborhood activists who, nonetheless, welcomed his backing away from the Fruit Belt plan.
“That’s good for the neighborhood,” said Veronica Hemphill-Nichols, coordinator of the Fruit Belt/McCarley Gardens Housing Task Force. “It will give others the opportunity to build homes that they could own and become stakeholders in the neighborhood.
“It’s not good to have just one developer controlling the neighborhood,” she said.
St. John tradition
St. John Church has a long and proud tradition – dating back to the 1970s – as a Fruit Belt developer, stepping in when private developers showed little if any interest in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
With backing from City Hall, the church – headed first by the Rev. Burnie C. McCarley, then Bennett W. Smith and now Chapman – has built everything from low-income housing to a senior citizen complex, a community center and a hospice. Generally, the development was well received.
The current project goes back almost 10 years, when Chapman, citing a University at Buffalo study, began supporting a Fruit Belt revitalization plan to, among other things, ensure the community wasn’t left out when the medical corridor eventually flourished. From that announcement came the pastor’s plan to build a grocery store and commercial strip as well as some 200 new homes on vacant city-owned lots in the Fruit Belt.
The housing is being built by one of the St. John Church’s nonprofit development agencies, St. John Fruit Belt Community Development Corp. Chapman serves as chief executive officer of that corporation, and in that position he received $100,000 over three years, documents show.
“If the money is there, I get paid,” Chapman said. “I do this because I love the Lord. This ain’t making money for me.”
The development corporation originally received $6 million in government funds to build 28 townhouse apartments for low- and moderate-income renters. Those houses, scattered around the Fruit Belt, were completed in 2007 with no opposition from residents.
But then, Chapman’s corporation received another $15 million in government funds to construct 49 more rental homes now being built on Maple, Carlton, Mulberry, Locust, Lemon, Rose, Peach and Grape streets. Existing homeowners began to complain, with some saying the Medical Campus spin-off could pass the Fruit Belt by if it emphasizes low-income rentals rather than homeownership.
“We figured that if you’re going to put in these townhomes, you would have come to the residents to see how they feel. We were totally out of the equation,” said Hill, the Fruit Belt homeowner.
Adding fuel to the growing resentment over the 49 new townhouse rentals was Chapman’s previously announced plan to sell the nearby church-owned McCarley Gardens property to the University at Buffalo for $15 million, then relocate McCarley Gardens’ 150 families to new townhouse rentals in the Fruit Belt.
While the McCarley Gardens sale appears on hold until Chapman submits a tenant relocation plan to the federal government, UB says the project remains a go. UB already paid a church development agency $120,000 for costs associated with the purchase agreement, documents show.
There’s also resentment among some Fruit Belt residents over a City Hall practice allowing Chapman’s organization to review residents’ requests to purchase city-owned vacant land next to their homes.
Chapman said the practice ensured the lots needed for his Fruit Belt projects weren’t accidentally sold by the city. Since all needed lots have been acquired, Chapman as well as a City Hall official told The Buffalo News that the process is no longer necessary. In addition to the lots Chapman is building on, there are about 500 other vacant lots in the Fruit Belt, about half owned by the city.
Arm of City Hall
Some Fruit Belt residents view Chapman almost as an arm of City Hall, going back to Anthony M. Masiello’s administration, when he was given unofficial developer status to work in the Fruit Belt, through today with the Brown administration, which gave St. John formal developer status to build the 49 townhouses.
Developer status is the city’s promise to work with a developer, making city-owned property available, and providing funding support if possible.
Residents also note that Mayor Byron W. Brown is a member of Chapman’s church, and they talk of the campaign support Brown receives from the pastor’s family. Chapman’s wife, Ina, contributed $5,000 in February to Brown’s re-election campaign. (She gave $1,000 in June to Brown’s primary opponent, Bernie Tolbert.)
Masiello praised Chapman, saying the pastor was the only developer during his administration willing to take an economic risk and work in the Fruit Belt.
That generally remains the case today.
“There’s some people seriously considering, who could have a project under way in the next year or so,” said Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of Mayor Byron W. Brown’s Office of Strategic Development. But nothing is imminent, he said.
Several local developers and housing advocates familiar with Chapman’s work lauded the pastor’s efforts as a developer and said he’s sincere in wanting to improve housing and the quality of life on Buffalo’s East Side.
Several, however, also said residents raise valid concerns when questioning a housing policy that emphasizes almost exclusively rental units over home ownership.
“I think there may already be a sufficient supply of these very nice duplex-style rental units in that neighborhood,” said John Murphy, who is with Homefront, a Buffalo nonprofit housing organization.
He suggested a more-layered development approach that includes repair grants to help existing homeowners maintain their houses as well as a rehab and sale programs for existing vacant houses.
“Then the entire neighborhood begins to benefit as ownership opportunities are created,” he said. “Ownership strengthens a neighborhood as children of owners attend local schools, make long-term relationship, et cetera.”
Masiello, who now runs a lobbying and consulting firm that sometimes assists Chapman, said the pastor agrees with the layered approach and would like to have more market-rate housing in the Fruit Belt, but said that the current Fruit Belt market may not yet sustain it.
“The time is getting there,” Masiello said. In the meantime, “you’ve got to have housing opportunities for people who work on the campus. Not everyone is able to own a house. They can have a nice house they rent.”
The original UB study Chapman used as the basis of his Fruit Belt revitalization plan called for a mix of rental and home ownership, with new builds and rehabs, creating an economically diverse community, said UB urban affairs professor Henry Louis Taylor Jr.
Taylor, however, doesn’t blame Chapman for the one-dimensional Fruit Belt development. Others, he said, including UB and the Medical Campus, should do more to help develop a Fruit Belt revitalization program .
A plan also is needed to ward off gentrification, Taylor said.
Fending off gentrification
Mehaffy acknowledged the city doesn’t currently have such a plan, but said Chapman’s low-income rental units are an effective way to fend off gentrification.
Fruit Belt residents, however, want something more.
“What is really needed in the Fruit Belt,” said the Rev. Darius G. Pridgen, the Ellicott District councilman, “is a reassessment of what the residents and homeowners feel that they need in their community so that the government and developers are not dreaming for the people, but with the people.”
Matthew Enstice, president of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, agreed, adding that the Medical Campus hired a consultant to share marketing and related data with developers and neighborhood advocates.
Given all the powerful players on the Medical Campus and in the Fruit Belt community, it should be possible to implement a strong Fruit Belt plan, Taylor said.
“If all of those elements cannot find a way to come together as partners, to create a world-class community, it would be a shame and disgrace,” he said.