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Despite setbacks, Bailey Green project pushes ahead with houses, urban farms

The Bailey Green project on the East Side was started by a neighborhood business, guided by an internationally acclaimed plan and has had the involvement of the University at Buffalo and community organizations like Habitat for Humanity Buffalo.

About two years ago Harmac Medical Products became the catalyst for a partnership pledging to bring new houses and apartments, a community garden, soccer pitches, greenhouses and a cafe to a seven-block area between Bailey and Leslie Street, reaching between Genesee and Scajaquada streets.

But there have been setbacks to the plan for the 33-acre area.

"I think we have good forward motion," said John Somers, owner of Harmac Medical Products, a maker of single-use medical devices at 2201 Bailey Ave. "But the project is not always on a straight line. Some of the partners have dropped out, and some have moved faster than others. That's the nature of the process."

One community leader has voiced concern about the direction of Bailey Green.

Momentum for the project and community engagement waned after Heidi Rosmer, the company's community advancement liaison, left in 2017, said Stephanie Simeon, executive director of Heart of the City Neighborhoods, a nonprofit that builds affordable housing.

"She was the linchpin," Simeon said. "We had the direction. We had the map. But we lost the conductor who helped us navigate the plan. This is now a shell of a plan, and the only one standing – and they’re standing with shaky legs – is Habitat."

Here's the progress so far:

  • Habitat for Humanity Buffalo has built five ranch-style homes on Wende Street, has two more nearing completion and will start six more houses on Kilhofer Street in April. The nonprofit expects to build or rehab additional houses in the neighborhood in 2019.
  • Groundwork Market Garden is growing organic produce on Genesee Street and has purchased a 40,000-square-foot building next door to its 2.5 acres of farmland. The building will be initially for packing, cold storage and youth education.
  • Urban Fruits & Veggies plans to break ground in April for the first of two hydroponic greenhouses at Zenner and East Ferry streets. More funds will need to be raised for a second greenhouse, community garden, fruit orchard and wellness center that includes yoga instruction and a small medical practice.
  • A carpentry training center by artist and architect Dennis Maher, working with Albright-Knox Art Gallery's Innovation Lab, is expected to begin rehabbing a building in 2018 that was removed from the city's demolition list, with help from Harmac and a grant from Lovejoy Council Member Richard Fontana.

Two key projects from the original plan are no longer involved.

Heart of the City Neighborhoods Inc. planned to build eight four-unit affordable apartments on four streets, but could not obtain funding.

And Algonquin Sports for Kids backed out of plans to build two mini-pitches for soccer over concerns about cost, maintenance and liability.

"If things like this were easy, it would have been done as soon as we talked about them," said Allison DeHonney, owner of Urban Fruits and Veggies. "You need to have partners who will be able to overcome the challenges. This is a big project in a severely neglected neighborhood."

Civic-minded business

Harmac has been the catalyst for Bailey Green. The company has been located on Bailey, near East Ferry Street, for 37 years.

The company has maintained a nearby, once-derelict stretch of Bailey from Genesee to Scajaquada for eight years. The company bought 20 blighted parcels, demolished broken-down houses, converted more than 4 acres to green space and planted 150 trees. Harmac still pays for the trash pickup.

Harmac owns some of the land being used for Bailey Green. It is working with the city's Division of Real Estate to obtain other parcels for redevelopment.

"It's a great public-private partnership," said Brendan Mehaffy, who directs the city's Office of Strategic Planning.

The company had an economic incentive to clean up the surrounding area, since it wanted its surroundings to look more appealing to out-of-town job applicants. At one time, Somers said Harmac considered moving out of the city past Clarence. But when Harmac realized 25 percent of its employees lived within its ZIP code, the company decided to rejuvenate the area instead.

Somers said Howard Zemsky, the Buffalo developer and state development head, suggested the creation of a 10-year plan to guide the neighborhood's revitalization. The company reached out to the University at Buffalo Research Institute, which, under the direction of Hiroaki Hata, an associate professor of urban design, became involved in fall 2014.

Three architecture and urban planning student teams helped create the first phase of a Bailey Green master plan that won second place in the 2016 International Making Cities Livable Design Competition.

Hata and urban planner Ji Dai remain involved with the project.

Harmac has helped its partners with startup funding and other kinds of assistance, Somers said. The company also has facilitated minor home repairs working with the Urban League of Buffalo. Prime Time Energy offered reduced-cost weatherization to homeowners, and Doyle Alarm Systems, based in Rochester, donated alarm systems last year and in 2018 for the Habitat homes.

Buffalo Peacekeepers and Stop the Violence Coalition also are involved.

"I think it’s about safety and stability, and rejuvenating the community," Somers said. "It’s a grassroots effort and building relationships one person and one partnership at a time. It's probably taking longer than people expected, but I think we are making a positive impact."

John Somers, owner of Harmac Medical Products, walks down Wende Street near the company's Bailey Avenue plant in this file photo from Feb. 29, 2016. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

This year saw the third annual Bailey Green Day, with several dozen community members attending.

"We were a stop on the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo's bus tour of the city," Somers said.

The company's involvement outside the building is in league with what it does inside.

Educational programs, a scholarship, a fresh produce market in the summer and onsite mammogram testing are some of the extras Harmac makes available to its employees.

Urban Fruits & Veggies' DeHonney said Somers has been a big help and source of encouragement to her.

"I can't say enough about John," she said. "He is just so supportive, and he really wants this to come to fruition."

Urban Fruits & Veggies plans to begin work this spring on its first of two hydroponic greenhouses with Harmac's support and the support of the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and First Niagara Foundation.

At Bailey Green, an oasis emerges in neighborhood around Harmac Medical Products

Housing variety questioned

Simeon, executive director of Heart of the City Neighborhoods, believes the project is too focused on owner-occupancy rather than including multifamily housing.

Her plans for eight four-unit apartments on four streets had to be abandoned after the group couldn't obtain the necessary funding.

"The way we were going to do sustainable development was unheard of," Simeon said. "We were going to address the issues of food access, recreation and affordable housing in three different ways."

Simeon said homeowners in the immediate area were going to be helped with small repair grants. Those wanting to own their own homes would be aided by Habitat. Renters would have places to move into as well.

"It's great Habitat has built its homes, but not everybody can afford to own their own home," and diversity of housing stock adds to a neighborhood's stability, she said.

 

This is one of the houses that Habitat for Humanity Buffalo has built on Wende Street as part of the Bailey Green project. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Habitat expands role

Normally, Habitat for Humanity builds one new house for every three homes it renovates. At Bailey Green, it's been all new builds.

Habitat has nearly completed seven houses with six more on the way. The potential is there to build 15 more, said Teresa Bianchi, the group's executive director.

Doing clusters of housing at a time, she said, helps create a closeness even before people have moved in. That's because each family is required to put in 500 hours of sweat equity. The first 250 hours are used to help others to build their home, and the second 250 is used to build theirs.

"If you're building together on one street, you're building community before you ever move into your house," Bianchi said. "That helps solidify the neighborhood."

A Harmac employee was able to become a homeowner through Habitat. Two people were hired by the medical devices manufacturer after moving into their new homes.

"Everyone thinks Habitat is about building houses, but we're really here to build communities," Bianchi said.

"That's what Bailey Green is. We'll stay committed to Bailey Green as long as there are houses for us to work on."

A farm in the city

Groundwork Market Garden wasn't initially part of Bailey Green when Mayda Pozantides and Anders Gunnersen began preparing their plot of land for organic vegetable production in 2016.

But their work in producing affordable and nutritious food – including more than 300 pounds of tomatoes weekly in a hoop house – within Bailey Green's boundaries ties in perfectly with the project's mission.

Groundwork Market also grows arugula, spinach, lettuce, kale, eggplant, squash, zucchini, turnips and radishes. The produce is sold to 10 restaurants, farmers markets and to 20 families through a small CSA program.

The small farm also is used as a teaching site, with children tending to a dozen raised gardens through a national organization for children.

"When I go to the quarterly Bailey Green meetings, I feel energized about the neighborhood and the initiative and the future of this area," Pozantides said. "There are more people getting involved at every meeting, and you can see the energy."

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