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Religious leaders push to replace sites sold to developer

Local religious leaders renewed a call Tuesday to replace a neighborhood park on 10th Street and a gym on 13th Street that the city sold to a private firm.

Members of Niagara Organizing Alliance for Hope are pressing city officials to find a new place for public recreation programs in the neighborhood or take back the property sold to Niagara Falls Redevelopment through the city's power of eminent domain.

The alliance of religious leaders plans a public forum at 7 p.m. Thursday in New Hope Baptist Church, 1122 Buffalo Ave.

"To tear down these parks is a simple way of saying, 'You're not welcome in this community,' " said Bishop Stephan Booze, pastor of Potter's House Christian Church on Seventh Street and co-president of the alliance.

The city sold the parcel on 10th Street in 2004 to a company controlled by Niagara Falls Redevelopment under a renegotiated development agreement signed the previous year. The city then moved playground equipment to a gym on 13th Street but later sold that property as well.

Although the city continued to use the 13th Street gym for youth programs, Niagara Falls Redevelopment fenced off the site this summer, saying the city had failed to meet several requirements for using the land.

Mayor Vince Anello announced this spring that company's contract with the city had expired because the company has not reached development goals. But the city has not taken legal action to cancel the contract.

City Council members agreed earlier this month to help find new recreational space in the neighborhood but have not agreed to use eminent domain to take back the property.

Councilman Charles Walker said city leaders are considering other locations for recreational facilities.

"We're talking about an alternative to going into a court battle because even though we may say NFR is out of compliance, it would take a judge to rule that," Walker said.

Members of the Niagara Organizing Alliance for Hope describe closing the parks as symptomatic of a bigger problem in Niagara Falls: making plans to develop neighborhoods without consulting residents.

"It's just basically speculators taking over whole parts of the city," said the Rev. Rex Taylor Stewart, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Youngstown and co-president of the alliance.

But Walker said the city has sought community involvement in redevelopment plans. Residents, he noted, had been invited to participate in large community meetings in 1997 before the city signed a contract with Niagara Falls Redevelopment.

The neighborhood today is marked by vacant lots where the company and its associated entities have purchased properties and torn down buildings. A company official declined to comment Tuesday.

Alliance leaders and Council members have called for replacing recreational space, whatever the neighborhood's future.

"Even though NFR has torn down all the buildings," Council Chairman Robert Anderson Jr. said, "maybe there still should be a park, but maybe not the same size."


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