A unoccupied educational campus on the East Side would be transformed into a residential community made up of as many as 50 houses under a plan under quiet discussion by city officials and Houston real estate investor Scott Wizig.
Mayor Anthony M. Masiello confirmed that he and Wizig recently toured the property on Dodge Street near Humboldt Parkway. The 5.3 acre site formerly housed the Diocesan Educational Campus, which includes eight main buildings and a couple of smaller structures. A few of the buildings are in deplorable condition, Masiello said.
The Catholic Diocese of Buffalo also has been involved in the talks, and church officials said they would eagerly market homeownership opportunities to East Side parishioners. The site is adjacent to St. Martin DePorres, a new church.
The diocese owned the property for decades. It was originally used as a German Catholic orphanage when it was built around 1900, and later became the Diocesan Preparatory Seminary. The diocese sold the property to private interests in the 1990s, and Wizig purchased the parcel at a foreclosure auction last fall.
The $36,000 transaction was the largest of 245 properties that Wizig acquired. Masiello concedes that the multimillion dollar project hinges on finding a developer with a track record in building inner-city housing. At least one major developer said late last week that his company is eager to pursue discussions.
"We're vitally interested," said Dennis M. Penman, executive vice president of M.J. Peterson Real Estate Corp. "With five acres, you could put in 40 to 50 homes and create a brand new neighborhood. You could make a real statement, rather than revitalizing on a scattered-site basis."
Penman said the proximity of the Stanley Makowski Early Childhood Center on Jefferson, as well as numerous churches, would be major selling points. He added that many people who were born and raised in the neighborhood have a strong desire to buy homes there. M.J. Peterson has built about 20 homes on scattered sites in the immediate area, Penman said.
Wizig declined to discuss details, except to confirm that he has had meetings with city officials regarding the future of the property.
"It's a big piece of contiguous land right within the city," said Wizig. "Something is definitely going to happen there, but it's a question of picking the option that makes the most sense."
Fred K. Heinle, the city's director of residential development, also recently toured the site with Wizig. Heinle speculated that most of the structures would have to be demolished if a large-scale residential community were to be built there.
"Some of the buildings are in poor condition," he said. "And the structures are situated on the site in a way that would make it tough to develop without doing a lot of demolition."
The Catholic Diocese is "eager" to see residential development on the Dodge Street parcel, said Director of Finance John O'Brien.
He confirmed that church officials have had discussions with Masiello and Wizig about the fate of the site.
"We have a new church right next to the property. New housing would be of great interest to us," said O'Brien. "We would like to promote it in whatever way we can."
Over the past decade, two separate attempts by outside investors to convert the site into apartments faltered. But Masiello thinks the timing might be ideal this time around.
"We think we have a good chance at making this work," he said. "It would be the perfect opportunity to promote home ownership on the East Side."
Meanwhile, city officials said they intend to closely monitor Wizig's progress in rehabilitating dozens of dilapidated properties that he has purchased over the past eight months. The Texas investor has come under fire in some neighborhoods for allegedly failing to address many code violations.
The most recent criticism came last week from members of the Pooley Place Block Club who claim Wizig purchased a West Side property, then sold it to an unknown party without performing any work. Neighborhood residents claim a swimming pool is still filled with "smelly water and bags of garbage." Wizig said he was unaware of any problem with that specific address, but would look into it.