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Dream grows on Broadway ; Market's rooftop plots part of plan to bring people, vendors to area

This garden occupies a serene spot high above a neighborhood scarred by empty lots and boarded-up buildings. It is a haven where gardeners tend to tomato plants, herbs and flowers.

Some call it the start of an "urban oasis" in an area where vacant lots account for 43 percent of all parcels.

This experiment in urban agriculture is being conducted on the roof of the Broadway Market, which has struggled for decades with anemic sales and a shrinking vendor base.

"This keeps me and my dad out of each other's way," Amherst resident Ann Marie Awad chuckled, referring to her new garden where tomatoes, sunflowers, squash and watermelon have been planted.

Until recently, the University at Buffalo student hadn't stepped foot in the market since she was 4 or 5.

And that's the goal of this garden, one ingredient in a plan aimed at giving people more reasons to visit a market that faces a shaky future, according to some neighborhood leaders and city officials.

Market managers plan to place more picnic tables and benches on the roof in hopes of making the deck a spot where families can picnic and friends can enjoy the commanding views of historic East Side churches, the Central Terminal and the downtown skyline.

There's even talk of working with classic-car buffs to stage cruise nights and setting up a driving range where youngsters could take golf lessons.

If the other plans receive as much response as the rooftop garden, market managers would be ecstatic.

Original plans called for 30 plots. But so many people applied -- some seeking multiple spaces -- that 71 raised beds were built by volunteer crews from WNY AmeriCorps. When Awad heard about the garden, she was intrigued. Her dad is a bit "territorial" when it comes to yard pursuits, she explained.

The fact that Patricia Fendt is in a wheelchair hasn't deterred her from making frequent stops at her rooftop produce patch.

"It's wonderful to get out in the sun, work in your garden and watch other people's things growing," said Fendt, who has lived on Broadway near Coit Street for about 25 years.

Volunteers from True Bethel Baptist Church are growing vegetables that eventually will feed the needy.

Lewandowski Produce, a longtime market vendor, has planted sage, rosemary and thyme, with plans to sell some of the herbs at its stand.

Even a weight-loss group called "Take Off Pounds Sensibly" has planted produce for nutrition-savvy members.

The garden is the brainstorm of Thomas A. Kerr, who was hired last year to try to engineer a turnaround for the city-owned market.

The former senior manager for the Internal Revenue Service has already started implementing some ideas. They include a Sunday farmers' market that Kerr admits has had a sluggish start. He has been talking with golfing experts about offering kids instruction at a rooftop driving range. He also has been trying to land a classic-car cruise night for the sprawling top deck of the parking ramp.

"And the nice thing is that, if it rains, we could just move the cars to lower levels in the ramp," Kerr said.

Still, there's an undercurrent of dissension in some pockets of the community. One East Side businessman who is a member of a task force set up to help chart a vision for the market has been critical of Kerr's tenure.

"Instead of embracing people who are passionate about contributing new ideas, he blows them off," Eddy Dobosiewicz said. "I think it's a control issue with him. It's an ego thing."

Urban gardens and car shows are "nice activities," he continued. "But how do they really strengthen our core mission? We need to keep our focus on the food aspect of the market."

There is no long-term marketing plan and no serious focus on neighborhood revitalization as a key component in strengthening the market, said Dobosiewicz, who organizes East Side tours and events such as Dyngus Day festivities.

He complained that neighborhood initiatives have been largely confined to demolishing structures -- some of which he believes could have been saved for future rehabilitation.

Kerr denied that he has turned a deaf ear to other people's ideas. But he agreed with Dobosiewicz that the market's future hinges on rejuvenating the neighborhood.

Buffalo's chief planner said city officials also recognize this reality. "If we just focus on trying to make the market a success, it can't happen," said Brendan R. Mehaffy.

While few would deny that the neighborhood is undermined by vacant homes -- some in deplorable condition -- Mehaffy thinks progress is being made. Since 2007, the city has demolished 353 blighted structures in the neighborhood. It has taken steps to accommodate urban agriculture on Wilson Street and community gardens on other nearby streets.

The city also has been forging closer bonds with community groups in hopes of strengthening the neighborhood, Mehaffy said. Some talks have centered on finding ways to encourage new housing in a neighborhood ravaged by an exodus of residents.

"We need new housing," said businessman Thomas Handley, who owns two buildings in the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood. "Housing is what would strengthen the market."

The market's future has also been clouded by concerns about crime. Crime in the neighborhood surrounding the market was down nearly 31 percent last year compared with 2008, according to data released Thursday by the Police Department. Crime in the first five months of 2010 was up 5.5 percent from a year ago but down 38 percent from the same period in 2008.

"These people who are afraid of their own shadow have to come back," Fendt said. "I've been here all these years, and everyone has been kind and decent."

Kerr and Amanda Beale, the market's special-events coordinator, hope the market can attract new target audiences by continuing to build the vendor base and offering an array of activities.

Some events will focus on the market's mainstay -- food. Cooking demonstrations will focus on ethnic recipes. The market also plans to be host to music and dancing programs.

But will the efforts be enough to save what local leaders have touted as the nation's oldest continually operating public market?

Only time will tell, said Mary Lewandowski, whose family has operated a produce stand in the market for more than 25 years. "I think they're trying to do different things," she said. "I don't know if it's going to be enough, but at least they're trying."

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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