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If they build it, prosperity has a chance

It’s rare when a developer has the vision to look at Buffalo’s East Side and see an “underserved jewel.”

But that’s what David Pawlik calls 1490 Jefferson Ave., an address synonymous with the Bellamy family’s business and civic success. Redeveloping the site into Bellamy Commons is an acknowledgment of that history.

But it’s also a recognition of something else: Regions are only as strong as their weakest communities. The waterfront and the Medical Campus will never fully thrive as long as there’s the perception – accurate or not – of a socioeconomic albatross just a few blocks away.

It’s a point that national regionalism experts have been making for at least two decades but that few people around here seem to grasp.

Pawlik and Herbert L. Bellamy Jr. are among the exceptions, combining with Belmont Housing Resources on the $7.45 million plan to rebuild the site into low-income apartments, an NAACP office and a museum of local African-American success stories.

It’s nothing new for Pawlik, who has been working with East Side ministers and others over the last six years on projects ranging from housing to stores. He calls the 1490 site, with its history as a hub of social and economic vitality under the 1490 Enterprises umbrella, “one of those iconic East Side properties.”

But this is no trip down nostalgia lane; it’s hardheaded development.

“I don’t think it can be what it once was, but it can be a better Jefferson,” Bellamy said, reflecting on the heyday of that commercial strip.

“What you can do is make an impactful difference. This … will be impactful because it will bring people to Jefferson who might not otherwise come.”

There already is growth, including new businesses such as the Mandella Market and an Avenue Pizza that joined longtime neighborhood anchors such as Gigi’s restaurant and Doris Records, and more recent additions such as the Tops market, the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library and the renovated Apollo Media Center.

The 1490 plan complements that, using the same template being employed on downtown’s Main Street: Build housing for potential customers, and more businesses will follow.

No one downplays the East Side’s image problem. But Pawlik notes that he has been building there since 2007 and sees crime decreasing.

The people there, as everywhere, are looking for work; development can create those jobs while removing eyesores in an area that sits amid a triangle formed by Canisius College, the Medical Campus and the Ferry-Fillmore police station.

The planned museum as an integral part of combating an image problem that Bellamy thinks exists because “we can’t get our message out.”

“If we begin to learn our history, maybe we can move forward. Some of these things have been done before,” he said, emphasizing the need for young people and others to see that African-Americans before them built businesses in Buffalo and made other contributions. That’s one point of the annual Black Achievers awards ceremony that his father began 41 years ago. The museum will build on that legacy.

But first, someone has to build it. The fact that a developer and a businessman are building it here is a good sign not just for the East Side, but for a Buffalo Niagara region that can’t fully prosper unless that part prospers, too.