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Developer taking Lackawanna to court to force sale of former Friendship House parcel

The developer of a proposed low-income housing project is taking the City of Lackawanna to court over a parcel of land on Ridge Road that once held the Friendship House.

At issue is a 2.5-acre parcel of land at 264 Ridge that is the proposed site of Ridgeway Commons, an $8.5 million 32-unit apartment complex sponsored by Community Services for the Developmentally Disabled.

The nonprofit agency sought to buy the parcel for $90,000.

Supreme Court Justice Tracey A. Bannister has ordered that the City of Lackawanna and Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski appear in court at 11 a.m. Friday, Feb. 3 to show cause why the court should not order the city to sign a deed and sell the property to Community Services for the Developmentally Disabled. The hearing was postponed Friday until 4 p.m. Monday, Feb. 6.

City officials have been vocal opponents to development projects proposed by nonprofit organizations because of the loss of property tax revenue. In fact they voted down proposals for the Friendship House site from other nonprofits in the past.

But Community Services for the Developmentally Disabled claims it has the documents to prove Lackawanna officials have already approved its proposal.

"We have a contractual commitment from the city and a signed purchase document by the mayor and development director," said Mindy Cervoni, president and chief executive officer of Community Services for the Developmentally Disabled. "In addition, we have two letters of support signed by Mayor Geoffrey Szymanski.

"His intent was clear," said Cervoni, "that this project will be the catalyst for future development in Lackawanna. The First Ward has a critical need for housing."

Szymanski declined to comment citing the potential litigation.

"They're preparing to sue us, so I can't go into detail," said Szymanski, who said he preferred to develop the site with a project that would benefit all of the residents.

"The Friendship House benefited the entire city," Szymanski said. "I went to pre-K at the Friendship House. If I were mayor at the time it closed, I would have turned it into City Hall. I'm really hoping to put a grocery store there."

City Council members were asked more than once to approve the project during three sessions in December. During the first session, the measure was tabled for review. At the time, members questioned the nature of the project saying they had been misled. They also objected to site preparation being done before an official land transfer.

On Dec. 19, the council voted 4-1 to direct Szymanski to approve the land transfer.

And at a special session later in the month, council members approved the land transfer, apparently clearing the way for the project. But that vote was later determined to be invalid.

Second Ward Councilwoman Annette Iafallo, who twice voted against the project,  said she was opposed to the apartments from the start.

“It didn’t pass the smell test with me,” she said after the second meeting. “First of all we were not made aware of the project until the last minute. This is prime land in the business district. Lackawanna does not need any more nonprofit projects. They don’t pay taxes.”

Members of the City Council grew concerned when site preparation began on the land before they were asked to consider its sale and transfer the land. They also were told the project would be for senior housing, not low-income housing managed by Belmont Housing Resources for WNY.

Fred K. Heinle, development director, maintained he had kept the city informed.

"He's been briefed on this from day one," said Heinle of Szymanski. "We sent the mayor and the council a letter in November 2014.

"This would have helped us improve the visual appearance of Ridge Road," Heinle said. "We have to start somewhere. It doesn't start with Trump Tower. You start in increments."

Ground is expected to be broken this spring near the former Friendship House site for a new Family Dollar, said Heinle, who had also tried to attract a supermarket to the site.

"I've sent packages to every possible supermarket entity out there," said Heinle. "I've sent packages to Wegmans, Tops, Price Rite, Save A Lot, Aldi. They all said no, but asked what else was being built there. Three parties of late I've talked to about this particular site were interested in the mere fact that part of the land would be taken up by apartments. But the administration determined it didn't want to work on a project that didn't collect full taxes."

Ridgeway Commons would take an estimated 10 months to construct, said David E. Pawlik of Creative Structures Services, Inc., the general contractor. Pawlik compared the project to one at 1490 Jefferson Ave. in Buffalo, a 30-unit residential project that included a community center.

Developer Cervoni insisted the mayor needs to approve the land transfer. Funding for the project obtained through New York State Homes and Community Renewal was in danger of falling through.

"We applied to the state for funds with Lackawanna as a partner," Cervoni said. "Lackawanna needs affordable housing. Heinle and the mayor supported the project in letters to the state. We have approval from the city to mobilize. We have all the building permits. We needed 10 percent of project complete by year's end.

"We have made more than 25 attempts to contact the mayor," Cervoni said. ”New York State is investing in this wonderful community housing project for Lackawanna and they are just turning up their noses at it."

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