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South Campus neighbors seek revival; City of Buffalo has yet to commit

Cheektowaga is on board with the idea.

So is Amherst, Erie County and the Town of Tonawanda.

Together, they want to embark on an "unparalleled" effort to revitalize once prosperous and now struggling neighborhoods around the University at Buffalo South Campus.

One problem.

No one is sure if Buffalo will take part.

City officials say they know nothing about the project even though sources familiar with it say the Brown administration has said "no" to joining the effort.

"We'll have to take a look at it," Peter Cutler, a spokesman for Mayor Byron W. Brown, said last week.

At stake is federal funding for a first-of-its-kind project to stabilize and grow neighborhoods surrounding UB's Main Street campus.

Ultimately, the four governments involved in the effort hope to become a national pilot project as part of President Obama's Sustainable Communities Initiative.

"We're trying to reverse some of the bad land use scenarios we're facing and become a more attractive community," said Town of Tonawanda Community Development Director James Hartz.

So why isn't Buffalo part of the effort to grab what could be millions of dollars in federal money?

Sources close to the project say Brown was asked to sign a letter of support to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development but declined the invitation.

The mayor's name is listed at the bottom of the April 19 letter, but his signature is absent.

"Nobody has ever seen this letter," Cutler said of Brown and his top staff. "And why nobody saw it, I can't say."

>Belmont leads efforts

None of the town officials involved in the project would comment on Buffalo's lack of participation but several sources attributed it to the involvement of Belmont Housing Resources, which manages and builds low-income housing in the area.

Belmont, which is spearheading the effort around UB, was at odds with Brown last year over a different housing development -- this one on the East Side -- that Brown eventually killed.

Brown's action resulted in the loss of $2.2 million in state funds set aside for the project, as well as federal tax credits worth an estimated $7.4 million.

The mayor said his decision was based on his discomfort with the project, but he also made no secret of his unhappiness with allegations made by Belmont's partner, NRP Group of Cleveland.

NRP claimed the East Side project stalled because it refused to hire an organization associated with the Rev. Richard T. Stenhouse, a prominent Buffalo pastor, to oversee minority hiring and related aspects of the project.

Belmont executives declined to comment, but Cutler said the two sides get along well enough that the city recently awarded Belmont a new contract to oversee another city-sponsored housing program.

"What's the relationship between this administration and Belmont?" Cutler said. "It's very good."

While Buffalo's interest in the project is uncertain, the three towns -- each has a neighborhood abutting UB South campus -- have come together to push for funding from HUD.

"It's always good when municipalities can work together, said Susan DiVita, associate planner in Amherst.

>Federal funding hopes

Initially, the funding would be a relatively small amount for planning but, ultimately, the municipalities hope to tap into Obama's new multimillion dollar strategy for linking cities with the large metro areas around them.

"Maybe down the road, HUD would provide additional funding for implementation," said Jerome J. Gabryszak, Cheektowaga's director of community development.

Despite uncertainty over Brown's interest in the UB project, there are city officials who think it could benefit University Heights, the Buffalo neighborhood bordering the South Campus.

"Come one, come all," said University Council Member Bonnie Russell.

Russell is hoping University Heights and the other neighborhoods she represents can still take part in Belmont's initiative.

"I'm really looking forward to it," she said. "Being able to obtain money, especially in this economy, is very hard these days."

The towns' initial request for funding is for technical assistance from HUD to help in the development of revitalization strategies for the neighborhoods.

The request came in the form of a correspondence on Belmont letterhead and signed by the supervisors of Amherst, Cheektowaga and Tonawanda, as well as County Executive Chris Collins.

"The need to strengthen University Heights is important to the county because the Main Street corridor is considered a growth corridor," said Collins spokesman Grant Loomis.

>Areas are declining

DiVita said Amherst is eager to take part because Eggertsville, the neighborhood closest to UB, is experiencing some of the same urban ills as Buffalo.

The same is true of the Cleveland-Hill neighborhood in Cheektowaga.

"What happened to Buffalo is now happening to us," said Gabryszak. "And we want to nip it in the bud."

Together, the targeted neighborhoods cover an area that extends 1.5 miles in every direction from the intersection of Main Street and Niagara Falls Boulevard.

Once known as strong, stable neighborhoods, many have become transitional areas that are now home to declining housing values, absentee landlords, foreclosures and predatory lending.

Town officials see their request for HUD funding as the first step in reversing that trend by tapping into Obama's new sustainable neighborhoods strategy.

The ultimate goal is to attract funding for everything from housing rehabilitation and recreation development to improved human services and neighborhood leadership development.

"It's another way," said Hartz, "to support good neighborhood planning."

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com