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Neighbors worry about apartments that make Richmond arts center 'viable'

The Rosanna Elizabeth Visual and Performing Arts Center has been a labor of love – and frustration – for Rachel Heckl.

But it's become a source of irritation for her neighbors.

For more than three years, Heckl and a team of partners have planned, designed and sought financing for the West Side arts facility that they want to locate in a former church, at Richmond Avenue and West Ferry Street. The goal is to save the historic building, while benefiting the community.

It's been a slow process of proposing ideas, responding to suggestions and criticisms, and working with their lender to make changes that would accommodate its concerns.

That's what led Heckl's team to propose two floors of apartments above the art gallery space in a corner of the property, to generate some regular income for the complex that would reassure its lender.

"We want to give it its best shot at being a viable community space," Heckl said.

But that's also what's irked some of her neighbors. They say they support Heckl's arts center renovation project, but oppose the new three-story building that would abut their backyards because it's too tall and would block the sunlight to their homes.

Since their objections surfaced several months ago, they've mobilized more support from the surrounding area. They've assembled letters, documentation and a petition by 30 households, urging the city Planning Board to reject that portion of the proposal because it has not gone through proper reviews and would violate part of the new Green Code.

"We are in favor of the concept of reusing the church as a performing arts center, and we support the efforts of Rachel Heckl," neighbors Alma and Clinton Brown of Ashland Avenue wrote in a letter to the Planning Board. "But the proposed project to make this happen has become much larger and is out of proportion with the original project and its site. The commercial building 'tail' is wagging the performing arts center dog.' ”

Heckl, an urban planner, bought the long-vacant former Richmond Avenue Methodist-Episcopal Church at Ferry Circle for $170,000 in 2014. She assembled a team to convert the 36,000-square-foot church, which dates to the late 1800s, into a collaborative social and arts campus. The center is named after her mother, Rosanna Elizabeth, who died in December 2009.

Located at 467 Richmond Ave., the $11 million project would include space for artists and touring groups to rehearse and perform, as well as corporate and business meeting space, a recording studio, an arts incubator, a resource center and the Benjaman Art Gallery.

The two floors of apartments would be located above the art gallery, which would be constructed at 527 W. Ferry St., on the site of a warehouse and garage that Heckl wants to demolish. That's a separate $1.8 million project whose rents would generate nearly half the revenues that the arts campus would need in its first year, Heckl's group has said. The project already received variances in July.

Heckl is also seeking to tear down a dilapidated 2.5-story masonry home at 531 W. Ferry St. and use that land as a parking lot, documents say. Built in 1940, the brick residence has been mostly vacant for eight years, and its roof and foundation are deteriorating.

The team had originally planned to keep the home but changed directions at the request of the Buffalo Fire Department. An alley between the home and the church provides the only access to the rear of the property, where the Benjaman gallery and apartments would be. With the house still there, fire officials felt there's not enough room for its trucks to get to the apartments and turn around.

"The original site plan kept the building as is, but the lender would not approve the project with the building on-site," said Kevin P. Hayes, director of development for Savarino Cos., which is helping Heckl.

The demolition request was tabled by the city Preservation Board at its last meeting, after members raised concerns that they didn't have enough information about the impact of the plan, including from the State Historic Preservation Office. The home is part of a historic district. The application will come back up for review on Sept. 21. The project also could be reviewed by the Planning Board on Sept. 25.

"We have to do our due diligence," said board member and attorney Richard Lippes. "That building contributes to an historic district. We're a preservation board. Our first objective is buildings that are historic remain in Buffalo."

Meanwhile, opponents of the apartments argue that the three-story building would harm the neighborhood and violate the Green Code's density rules. They called for a fuller environmental review of the project.

The Browns wrote in their letter that "there are alternatives and alternative funding sources" that would make the project viable "without doubling its size, use and traffic." They cited affordable housing grants and historic tax credits, for example.

"The owner is arguing that she needs this huge commercial building to make the performing arts center project financially feasible, but this should not come at a cost to the neighborhood," the Browns wrote. "If the performing arts center will not work financially, it is difficult to see how doubling its size and doubling the risk of the project will make it work. We may be left with two vacant, blighted buildings, not just one."

Staff Reporter Deidre Williams contributed to this story.

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