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Progress in Fruit Belt; Townhouse project will help rebuild neighborhood near Medical Campus

The proposal to build 49 townhouse units in the city's Fruit Belt will give a badly needed boost to the neighborhood near the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

St. John Community Development Corp., an arm of St. John Baptist Church on Goodell Street, has been moving forward on the project as a way to enhance the community, offer housing to low-income families and create jobs.

The corporation wants to construct 17 buildings of two, three and four units to be rented to low- and moderate-income individuals and families.

Pastor Michael Chapman says the homes will be open to anyone in the community. Mayor Byron W. Brown and the Office of Strategic Planning have given their support, and the Common Council recently approved the transfer of 50 city-owned parcels for the project. Although lawmakers voted 8-0 to approve the transfer, they will still have to approve a final price for the land at a later date.

The church has previously built 28 townhouse units, a charter school and a hospice facility. Last October, the church unveiled plans to build a $1.5-million, two-story market at High and Mulberry streets.

The new townhouses on Maple, Carlton, Mulberry, Locust, Lemon, Rose, Peach and Grape streets will have a fair-market value of $80,500.

The proposal ties into a broader planning vision, with the city working diligently to make sure the Fruit Belt benefits from the rapid growth taking place on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

City officials say the project draws on lessons learned in other cities where such economic anchors were isolated from the surrounding community.

The project is receiving about $11 million in tax breaks through the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal. Work could start as early as August and be completed in 12 to 18 months. Construction will create about 150 jobs, many going to community members with statistically high unemployment.

Sixty percent of the work force building the federally subsidized housing will be African-American males, according to Chapman.

The units will be energy efficient, with new appliances and other green features, and designed to fit into the neighborhood.

Chapman was quick to respond to community concerns that creating more tenant-occupied homes would hurt the neighborhood. He offered residents a seat on a committee that screens potential tenants, and pointed out that the church will pay a management company more than $100,000 a year to care for its properties.

Well-planned development that draws on community input is a welcome spinoff of the Medical Campus: Good for the city, good for the neighborhood.