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Youth home plan at ex-church denied

Buffalo's Zoning Board has rejected a controversial proposal to turn an empty church on Lincoln Parkway into a residence for homeless or abused teenage boys and young men.

Wednesday's unanimous vote could set the stage for a court fight. United Church Home, which is partnering with Compass House on the project, said it's weighing numerous options, including a lawsuit.

Advocates want to use the former Plymouth United Church of Christ, 400 Lincoln Parkway at Amherst Street, as a residence for up to 16 individuals. The occupants would be males between 16 and 20 years of age who are homeless, abused or neglected.

Zoning Board Chairman James A. Lewis said the panel viewed the project as a boardinghouse that would be incompatible with the fabric of the neighborhood.

"There was an overwhelming amount of opposition to this particular project, given the location and everything," Lewis said.

Sean Hopkins, attorney for United Church Home, contended that opponents don't have a problem with the project -- they just don't want homeless people living in their neighborhood.

"That's questionable in terms of legalities when you start discriminating," Hopkins said. "It's very, very clear that there is a dramatic need for housing for the homeless in Buffalo."

Hopkins said it's incorrect to classify the project as a boardinghouse, insisting that it is permanent housing for the homeless.

More than 200 people sent letters opposing the project.

But not all neighborhood residents are against the plan. Nancy Karp, of Chatham Avenue, said turning an empty church into a home that helps individuals "at a vulnerable stage in their development" is a laudable project.

"These young people are going to be in a supervised dwelling. I don't know how that increases our risk of crime," said Karp, who is a psychologist.

But Meadow Road resident Susan O'Connor Baird said she believes it's clear that the project sponsors did not meet the requirements to obtain a use variance from the city. She added that residents had justifiable worries about the proposal.

"There was concern because we are talking about homeless young men and putting them right in the middle of a significant and dense residential community, as well as right across the street from one of the premier [grammar] schools in the City of Buffalo."

Olmsted School 64 is located across from the former church.

At earlier hearings, Carol Halter of United Church Home stressed that the occupants would not be delinquents and would go through screening with skilled professionals. She said no residents would have criminal backgrounds or any history of violence, drug abuse or mental illness.

Among opponents of the project are Common Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. of the North District, Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, and at-large School Board member Christopher L. Jacobs.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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