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Leaders target Broadway Barns; Advocates of planned heritage corridor want garage removed from landscape

A Buffalo neighborhood that played a defining role in shaping the nation's civil rights movement has been waiting patiently for years to blossom into a cultural tourism magnet.

Project planners have taken steps they insist will trigger the creation of a long-awaited blueprint for the Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor. The goal is to complete the management plan for the historic district by this summer.

But some community leaders -- including Mayor Byron W. Brown -- believe that a city-owned garage that hosts a parade of garbage trucks and snowplows has no place in a neighborhood that aims to become a nationally renowned corridor for living history.

A cavernous structure at Broadway near Michigan Avenue that has been known for generations as the Broadway Barns finds itself in the cross hairs of heritage corridor advocates.

So does a dilapidated city-owned building at 509 Michigan Ave., a vacant structure that sits right next to the historic Michigan Street Baptist Church.

The Broadway Garage and the empty building on Michigan need to be torn down as part of a long-range plan to deliver the heritage corridor, said Bishop Clarence W. Montgomery Jr., of El Bethel Assembly, who has been active in the heritage corridor project and whose congregation uses the historic church.

"When you come through the neighborhood, you look at these atrocities and [say], 'Good grief, they're still standing,' " Montgomery said of the two buildings.

Common Council President David A. Franczyk sits on the board of a city agency that will administer $120,000 in state grants that aim to improve the heritage corridor. Franczyk said he believes the master plan should include demolition of the garage and relocation of the city's snowplowing and garbage-collection operations.

The garage at 197 Broadway is near the Nash House, a historic structure that was the home of the Rev. J. Edward Nash Sr., a leader of both the local black community and of the multiracial religious community. The home has been turned into a museum that celebrates the life of the leader of the community's NAACP and Urban League chapters.

The neighborhood is dotted with milestones in black history and could be spotlighted when the National Trust for Historic Preservation meets in Buffalo this fall. For example, fugitive slaves hid in the basement of Michigan Street Baptist Church during their passage on the Underground Railroad. The Colored Musicians Club hosted many jazz legends in its heyday.

But efforts to showcase the neighborhood's rich heritage will be marred by the garage, Franczyk argued.

"You go to the Nash House and you see this monolith there that just takes over a third of the block," Franczyk lamented. "It's out of proportion. It totally takes away from that experience."

The Council president tries to imagine a day when busloads of out-of-town visitors roll into the neighborhood, then begin exploring attractions that include the Nash House, Michigan Street Baptist Church and the Colored Musicians Club.

"If you're a tourist coming in, you see this building with trucks going in there -- garbage trucks and plows," Franczyk grumbled.

Brown told Franczyk last week at a meeting of the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency that he agrees the garage should be razed. He said his administration is "actively engaged" in trying to pinpoint plans to move plowing and garbage operations out of the neighborhood.

"Now is the right time to look at potentially relocating that facility," he said.

There has been sporadic talk of moving operations for years. The city even set aside more than $267,000 about four years ago to study such a move. The money still is sitting in an unspent fund.

Still, some City Hall insiders viewed the costly project as being relegated to the back burner in an era when Buffalo has been on a self-imposed "debt diet." Public works officials released estimates a year ago projecting that construction of a new structure on vacant land could cost up to $25 million.

One concept that continues to be studied involves a project that would create a public works campus that would consolidate operations under one roof. It could include accommodations for trash collection, snow-removal operations, the animal shelter and the city's auto impound. While construction costs would be substantial, a consolidated campus would also produce some savings and more efficient operations, public works officials maintained.

Brown didn't specify a timeline for moving forward with plans to replace the Broadway Garage.

Franczyk noted that the garage hosted many sporting events when it was the Broadway Auditorium, including celebrated boxing tournaments. Hall-of-Famer Jimmy Slattery, a local boxing icon, would sometimes attract standing-room-only crowds of 11,000 fans.

The city transformed the sports complex into an operations center for its then-Streets and Sanitation Department about six decades ago.

The owner of a downtown chocolate factory and shop that is a block from the garage thinks it's a good idea for the city to consider relocating its operations. But Dan Johnson of Choco-Logo said it would also be important to find a new use for the site -- one that would attract "critical mass" to the neighborhood. Johnson said perhaps a small-scale sports facility, recreation complex or another people-friendly attraction could be pursued.

Meanwhile, planners who have been working on the heritage corridor ever since the state created the Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor Commission in 2007 believe the project is ready to take a big step forward.

Attorney Laurence K. Rubin, who has been working with the group, said the comprehensive plan would address many issues involving the heritage corridor, including tourism, economic development and academic research.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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