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Planning, dialogue can help ease a difficult task

Although I was not present when the Common Council adopted a resolution that included the offensive term "ethnic cleansing," it is clear that the understandable controversy has obscured a major issue arising from the downsizing of the Catholic Diocese in Western New York.

For Buffalo, church closings represent the loss of anchor institutions central to neighborhood stability and vitality. Their loss will force communities to deal with large vacant structures, often in areas already plagued by property decline and abandonment.

It is thus essential to move beyond rhetoric and channel our concerns into positive actions. The task is twofold.

The first is immediate attention to structural maintenance to ensure that these properties, which are often architecturally significant, remain viable and safe community assets. The second is smart planning and action to ensure these properties continue to grace our communities for generations to come.

Bishop Edward U. Kmiec has already pledged that closed churches will be well maintained, a heartening foundation for urban stability and a basis for city-church collaboration. From this starting point, the city must work with the diocese and preservationists to develop a master plan for adaptive reuse. This plan should start with an inventory of the churches' locations and neighborhood demographics and should identify available incentives for buying and restoring the properties.

City departments can also help prospective investors understand and secure local, state and federal tax incentives for historic restoration. The city can link potential buyers with particular restoration funding sources, such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Partners for Sacred Places.

In Buffalo, churches have been converted to schools, condominiums, and, most recently, a performance hall and gallery space. Successful reuses of churches are also found throughout the country. In Pittsburgh, St. John the Baptist Catholic Church has been converted to a restaurant and microbrewery. The Irish Heritage Center in Portland, Maine, was once St. Dominic's Roman Catholic Church.
In Charlotte, N.C., a developer turned the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church into a facility for artists-in-residence. St. Pius Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, was bought by a non-profit housing agency that now serves the community from the building. In Newark, N.J., St. Joseph's Catholic Church was converted to a complex housing a restaurant, a sandwich shop, a credit union and doctors' offices.

There can be no doubt that the downsizing of the diocese presents significant physical, social and economic challenges. By joining together, however, with good will, commitment and thoughtful deliberation, the region, the city, the church and our many communities can meet these challenges and produce a stronger future for all.

Michael J. LoCurto represents the Delaware District on the Buffalo Common Council

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