A piece of Buffalo history may be colliding with plans for a 5,000-square-foot market and café proposed as a bridge between the Fruit Belt neighborhood and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
The Rev. Michael Chapman, head of Buffalo’s St. John Baptist Church, on Tuesday told the city Planning Board that the church-sponsored business will cater to Fruit Belt residents as well as medical campus personnel, who could stop by the Sweet Pea Market for breakfast or some locally grown produce on their way to and from work. The market also will have a pharmacy in it, Chapman said.
The church’s St. John Fruit Belt Community Development Corp. got Planning Board approval to build the $1.7 million project at the corner of High and Maple streets – the beginning of the Fruit Belt and eastern edge of the medical campus.
Chapman said he hopes to begin building the market in April and have it completed by January 2015. But shortly after the planners met, it became apparent that Chapman’s time-line may be optimistic, largely because of an 1865 building that sits on land where the market is planned.
The St. John Fruit Belt Community Development Corp. currently owns one vacant lot needed for the project, but several other needed parcels are owned by the city. Chapman said the city set aside the property to sell to the corporation for the market, and also agreed to demolish the vacant brick building on one of those city-owned lots.
Chapman said he’s been working for the past two years with the Mayor’s Office and the city’s strategic planning and real estate officials.
City officials, he said, told him the building did not meet the conditions for historic preservation, and city officials never said any further historic review was needed.
“It was discussed whether it should go, and it doesn’t fall within the guidelines,” Chapman said, referring to a need for further historic preservation review.
City officials did, however, require that the building be checked out to see if it could be rehabilitated, Chapman said.
He said his architects toured the brick building two years ago. “We checked, and it cannot be rehabbed. It was in disrepair. It’s been sitting for 15, 20 years,” he said.
“We went through the whole process two years ago,” Chapman added.” We’ve spent $100,000. I hope people aren’t now bringing up things they say that should have been done.”
But the head of the city’s Historic Preservation Board said the City Charter requires all demolitions be reviewed by the preservation board.
“Until the board looks at it, a demolition cannot happen,” said Chairman Paul McDonnell.
The board does not have authority to prevent a demolition of a building unless it is a designated landmark. The High Street building is not a landmark.
But the board can make a recommendation, and, in some instances, begin landmark status proceedings.
McDonnell and Tim Tielman, executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo, a preservation organization, said they believe the 1865 brick building has historical significance to the city and the Fruit Belt.
For generations, the 5,400-square-foot structure was used as a home office for physicians, according to Tielman. It’s an example of Italianate architecture that can be found in Allentown, in some of the most valuable homes in the city, he said.
Tielman objected to Chapman’s characterization that the building cannot be restored. “When you hear that, someone is speaking out of their hat,” Tielman said. “Everything has a cost. This house has witnessed 150 years of Fruit Belt history, the boom of Buffalo and a front-row seat on the bust of Buffalo. We cannot cavalierly dismiss this. If there is a public will, if the public has a strong interest, an option must exist to restore.”
In addition to the historic preservation review, the sale of the city lots also must be approved by the Common Council, according to Council President Darius G. Pridgen. Pridgen, who is the Ellicott District Council member. He said the project also must be reviewed by a Fruit Belt community group he recently assembled to consider projects affecting the community.
Chapman on Tuesday told the Planning Board that the proposed market would be open from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. and will have parking for 27 cars, as well as additional parking in nearby church-owned lots, if needed.
The project will provide 40 part-time jobs for young people, he said.
He said most of the $1.7 million project will be financed through First Niagara Bank. In addition, National Grid has donated $300,000, and Erie County government, under County Executive Mark Poloncarz, contributed $150,000. There is also $250,000 in private equity, Chapman said.
Chapman said the market is part of the larger Fruit Belt redevelopment project St. John Baptist Church has been involved with in recent years.