Neighbors oppose plan for new gym at Sacred Heart - The Buffalo News

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Neighbors oppose plan for new gym at Sacred Heart

The latest development flap in Amherst pits determined residents against a project that would overlook their backyards.

But unlike other recent controversies, this one has nothing to do with six-story hotels.

Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart plans a $2.5 million gymnasium at the rear of its Main Street campus to replace an aging facility that was built in the 1930s.

Neighbors, though, say the gym is too tall and not in tune with the aesthetics of their Eggertsville neighborhood – and they’ve mounted a furious fight to alter it.

“The school was designed by one of Buffalo’s best architects, and what they’re talking about putting up is really an eyesore compared to the rest of the campus,” said Raymond Volpe, who lives behind the academy.

The proposed 14,000-square-foot gym would sit entirely on Sacred Heart’s campus with the rear wall overlooking an alley behind the homes on Crosby Boulevard.

Neighbors say that alley – which runs between their detached garages and the back of Sacred Heart – is a cherished part of their historic neighborhood, one of the oldest in Amherst.

“We live back here,” resident Ken Tunnah said of the alley. “Mothers play with their children back here. This will be pitch dark. This will change dramatically.”

Original plans called for a brick shell on three sides in keeping with the architecture of the school – but the rear side facing the homes would be made of industrial siding.

Until recently, school officials said the costs of changing the materials on the back side were too high and would jeopardize the entire project.

That all changed late last week when Sacred Heart – seeking to appease the neighbors – agreed to a number of changes, including brick and faux windows on the rear wall.

“I said to them, ‘This is what you asked for all along, and by an angel, we were able to give it to you,’” said Jennifer M. Demert, head of school at Sacred Heart.

That angel came in the form of Arthur F. Dobson Jr., a Clarence attorney who died last month while on a bicycle trip in Europe.

Dobson was a passionate supporter of the academy and of Sister Maria Pares, a Franciscan nun who is something of a legend in the local sports community and who coaches the Sacred Heart basketball team.

A contribution from Dobson’s family allowed the academy to change its original plans in the hopes of making the gym a reality, Demert said.

“We need this,” she said of the gym. “All the boys schools have it, and this is what we need for our girls.”

The site plan has been approved by Amherst officials on the condition that Sacred Heart work with the neighbors to make the structure “more aesthetically pleasing.”

Demert said the school has done just that, revising its plans six times until it agreed to go with the brick structure.

“We’ve really tried” to address their concerns, Demert said.

The neighbors, though, aren’t relenting and may have found a creative way to stop the project.

They have applied to designate Sacred Heart a historic structure, which town officials said it most likely is.

The historic designation – to be reviewed by the town’s historic preservation commission tonight – could include a garage on the property that is decades old but is reportedly listed as a “contributing structure” to the historic value of the campus.

A historic designation could prevent the garage from being demolished and could put the entire project on hold.

Neighbors say the disagreement is just the latest example of development gone wrong in Amherst, where two six-story hotels have outraged separate groups of nearby residents.

They are particularly worried that the Eggertsville area – recently rezoned for traditional business – could be the next place such buildings start popping up.

“The nature of this whole neighborhood is going to change, with the first step being built here,” Volpe said.

“It’s just an example of this over-reaching mentality of development in town,” he added.

Demert, though, said a tiny Catholic school shouldn’t be painted with the same brush as the major real estate companies.

“I think we’re different than a hotel,” she said. “We’re an educational institution and we’re continuing in this day and age.”

At a time when other Catholic schools are closing – Holy Angels Academy was just the latest – Demert said recent renovations like the new gym are one way to keep the school viable.

“I have families that are coming with the assurance that, ‘There’s going to be the new gym, right? Because the old one just doesn’t cut it,’ ” she said. “I don’t want to let them down.”

Even the neighbors acknowledge the school has been an anchor of the neighborhood for years.

“We like our neighborhood and we like the school,” said resident Sheree Lamendola.

The question is how big that anchor should be.

“We’re OK with development,” Lamendola said. “Just responsible.”

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