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Church should be more forthcoming with the tenants of McCarley Gardens

The residents of McCarley Gardens deserve to know where they will be living once the University at Buffalo buys the property from St. John Baptist Church.

The low-income housing complex in the shadow of the burgeoning Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is in limbo, as recently featured in The News. There are big plans for the Medical Campus, with thousands of new workers expected to flood the area in the next few years. That’s good. But with that progress comes the fact that people who have been living on the 15-acre townhome site next to the campus may soon be displaced – to who knows where?

The 150-unit McCarley Gardens was built in 1978 by St. John Baptist Church, one of the largest and most prominent churches in the African-American community. It is populated mainly by blacks and Hispanics and bounded by Michigan Avenue and Oak, Goodell and Virginia streets.

The church three years ago offered to sell the property to the UB Foundation for $1 million an acre. The Rev. Michael Chapman, pastor at St. John, has said that the church’s development organization would use the proceeds to help revitalize Buffalo’s Fruit Belt and East Side.

It’s been a few years and now, with contract talks between UB and St. John resuming, some residents are upset with how they are being treated and want the deal quashed. And there are reports that the church wants more money. While the tenants should not be allowed to block expansion of the Medical Campus, the sale must respect the tenants’ rights. And if the land is now worth more than $15 million, well, that’s business.

Chapman is not only pastor but head of the St. John development arm, Oak-Michigan Housing Development Corp. According to UB, Chapman approached UB in 2009 and 2010 and agreed to sell the property for future Medical Campus expansion. That agreement calls for St. John to demolish the buildings and provide UB with a shovel-ready site by 2017.

McCarley Gardens is a federally subsidized development and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires that the church relocate all tenants to housing that is equal to or better than their current housing at no extra cost to residents, and the relocation plan must meet HUD approval.

An important deadline passed three weeks ago when the church failed to deliver an approved tenant relocation plan. However, the contract remains in effect and allows for an extension of the deadline.

Chapman has fueled residents’ concerns by not revealing his plans for them, while at the same time announcing various projects. He has talked about using the $15 million from UB to leverage a major neighborhood development in the Fruit Belt and East Side. He has also obtained federal and city money to build 50 townhouses in the Fruit Belt, but has said those are not for McCarley Gardens residents.

So, what is in store for them? Not a move from their safe neighborhood to a crowded, gang-run, drug-infested Fruit Belt neighborhood, they hope. McCarley residents maintain an attractive neighborhood, exhibiting pride of ownership even though they are just tenants. They’ve earned the right to know where they’re going.

Chapman has done little to earn their trust. He has an obligation to change that dynamic and start dealing forthrightly with the residents of McCarley Gardens.