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Banking on a historic revival ; Nonprofit group buys a former bank on East Side, plans new 'Polonia District'

Less than two miles from downtown Buffalo are the elements of what could be a really vibrant community.

Bounded by Broadway, Fillmore Avenue and Memorial Drive, the 121-year-old Broadway Market is there.

So are HSBC and M&T Bank branches, and a post office.

The long-standing Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center on Broadway serves some of the poorest neighborhoods on the East Side, and the Central Terminal is among Buffalo's most architecturally significant structures.

Now a local group intends to tie them all together to reinvent that section of the city with the recent purchase of the former Bank of America branch at 848 Broadway.

Despensata Corp. -- a nonprofit group named for a Felician nun who ran charitable organizations in the neighborhood -- plans to reopen the building at the corner of Broadway and Fillmore Avenue and use it as an anchor to revitalize the community.

"We're calling it the Historic Polonia District," said Eddy Dobosiewicz, president of Despensata Corp.

The first step in the community renewal process was to save the building. The group's next goal is to get it designated a historic landmark and the neighborhood deemed an historic district, Dobosiewicz said.

"That area is historically significant in so many ways," he said. "We have lost a lot of structures due to demolition. It's really sad because some of these structures are about 100 years old. To lose them is such a tragedy."

The bank branch closed in August 2009, although the ATM inside continued operating until a couple of months ago. Since the 2009 closing, bank officials had been working with Common Council President David A. Franczyk to find a suitable group to sell it to that would find some creative, productive use for the building instead of tearing it down or letting it fall into disrepair.

After negotiations fell through with another organization, the bank agreed to sell the 100-year-old building. The $100 purchase price, combined with closing costs and lawyers' fees, brought the price tag to about $4,000, Dobosiewicz said.

Some of the funds came from the Dyngus Day Parade committee. Franczyk also provided $35,000 in seed money to stabilize the structure and to help Despensata get organized. The money also offsets security and maintenance costs, Dobosiewicz said.

"I think it's great what's happening," Franczyk said. "I support what [Despensata is] doing. The building is too important just to let it go."

While "it took some time" for bank officials to decide who would get the building, it was worth the time and effort, a spokesman said, because Despensata will be good stewards.

"Ultimately, the building stays as is from an architectural perspective and in the hands of someone to preserve the building and to use it as a model to revitalize the neighborhood," said Kevin Murphy, Buffalo market president for Bank of America.

Plans call for using the main area of the building for fundraising and exhibit space. Eventually, the idea is to provide office and studio space for architectural students at the University at Buffalo.

Jordan Geiger, an assistant professor in UB's School of Architecture and Planning, said the collaboration may start with a public forum that includes people in the field of architecture and planning, community members and City Hall officials. The event may take place in late spring 2011, Geiger said.

Dobosiewicz said as soon as activities start happening at the building, the focus will turn to reinventing the neighborhood. And the way to do it is by capitalizing on its historical legacy, something other developers of East Side communities have been ignoring for the past 15 to 20 years in their revitalization efforts, Dobosiewicz said.

"They're all trying to build Lancaster or Depew. That thing on Sycamore [and Jefferson Avenue] doesn't even blend with existing architecture. It's glaringly different and screams suburbia. If I want to live in the suburbs, I'll move to Orchard Park," he said. "I want to feel like I'm living in the city."

The historical heritage strategy is similar to the approach taken in Cleveland's Tremont District, Dobosiewicz said. There, it took neighbors about 12 years to transform a drug- and crime-ridden community into a great place to live.

Dobosiewicz visited and talked with Tremont residents, who shared horror stories and success stories of what the neighborhood was like and what it has become. He said one man purchased a house there about 15 years ago and for the first year, he had to sit on his front porch at night to ward off crime and drug activity.

One thing that made the difference in Tremont was attracting artists, artisans and young people to invest in and move into the area. It helped transform the community from a rundown ghetto to a bustling area with restaurants, art galleries and great places to shop, Dobosiewicz said.

"It was really tough, but it's kind of the same thing that's going on here," Dobosiewicz said. "[Tremont is] a cool, funky urban environment that parallels this [community] in so many ways -- beautiful old churches, beautiful architecture, what was once a vibrant business district. It's almost a mirror image of what going on in the Polonia district."

Dobosiewicz acknowledged Despensata members will have to raise money through a combination of grants, foundations, donations and government funds to implement many of the ideas, but the hope is the Historic Polonia District will have similar success. The belief is that it will start by reviving an old bank building at Broadway and Fillmore Avenue.

"I didn't want to see it become a [corner store] or turned into a check-cashing operation, something that screams poverty and blight," Dobosiewicz said. "It was important visually and psychologically to preserve that building."

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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