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Ohio Street rebirth stalled by dispute over housing complex

Ohio Street, an industrial road once built for truck traffic, will be converted next year into an attractive parkway, with trees and flowers, decorative light standards, informational signs, a pocket park and biking and running lanes.

But even with the planned improvements, neglected remnants of the area’s past – from weeds poking out of cracked asphalt and crumbling foundations to broken-down fencing – are visible on private vacant lots on either side of the street between the Michigan Street and the Ohio Street bridges.

It’s possible most of the blight could remain even after the parkway is due to be completed in 2015.

Developer Carl Paladino, the largest landowner on the street with more than 10 acres on both sides, says he is eager to build housing after accumulating property in the area for decades. But he says he has no intention of building while the Commodore Perry public housing complex, just blocks away, remains in disrepair.

Paladino recently took out demolition permits to knock down a gas station that looks like it was the victim of a zombie attack – with pumps whose covers are missing, exposing their inner components – on land he owns on Ohio, as well as a former pallet company behind that property he recently bought on Mackinaw Street. But he said those sites will remain undeveloped until the housing development up the street, whose occupants are predominately black and low-income, is addressed.

“These hollowed-out buildings are decrepit and all boarded up, and gives the area a gangrene atmosphere. It’s just terrible,” Paladino said. “Until it’s cleaned up, how can you actually put residents who will be concerned for their safety down there?” Paladino said.

Paladino blames the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority for failing to address problems there for years. But change is planned for the 23-acre Commodore Perry development, located between the New York State Thruway and South Park Avenue, and bounded by Chicago Street to the west and Hamburg Street to the east.

A 10-year plan developed by the Housing Authority, in conjunction with the University at Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies and the Community Action Organization of Erie County, envisions a mixed-income neighborhood with tree-lined streets, a new public park and a 105,000-square-foot community and recreation center.

Called the Perry Choice Neighborhood, the phased $140 million development calls for using public and private money, and low-income housing tax credits, to replace 444 public housing units with 900 to 1,000 mixed-income units featuring market-rate apartments, private homes and public housing over 10 years.

Commercial businesses would share space on the ground floor in some cases, and a marketing plan has been developed to reinvigorate South Park Avenue.

“I don’t want people to think we are going to just tear down and bring back what we currently have. What we are going to build is a signature ‘green’ replacement and rebuilding of an entire neighborhood that is comprehensive in scope and design,” said Dawn Sanders-Garrett, Housing Authority executive director. “With all the additional redevelopment going on around Perry, this is the best opportunity we have to transform that entire neighborhood into a vibrant community.”

Sanders-Garrett pointed to the phased redevelopment of A.D. Price public housing as an example of how Perry homes could proceed without a large pot of federal housing dollars if that funding is not forthcoming.

But Paladino, who said the Housing Authority had squandered opportunities in the past, was skeptical.

“They’ve been talking about doing something and on three different occasions had the money to tear it down and didn’t. It’s blight at its worst, with kids having to grow up in World War II projects,” Paladino said. “I don’t think it’s going to happen within my lifetime.”

At the same time, the developer and former gubernatorial candidate said the conversion of Ohio Street into a parkway makes him more inclined than before to want to build housing.

There are some projects in the works that herald significant change.

• Developer Sam Savarino plans to build 80 one- and two-bedroom luxury apartments, and a promenade overlooking the Buffalo River, at the site of the former Erie Freight House further up the street. The project is expected to be finished in spring 2015.

• The RiverWorks project would turn the eight-acre Wheeler-GLF grain elevator site into an entertainment complex on Ganson Street, across the river from River Fest Park. It won approval Tuesday from the city Planning Board.

• River Fest Park, which opened in 2010 overlooking the Buffalo River, is the first sign of rebirth on the street. The pocket park, with a bandstand, held a number of events the past two summers.

Immediately past the park is a six-acre undeveloped parcel of Paladino’s that on a recent day held seven trucks, a motor boat and construction equipment behind barbed-wire fencing.

Beyond it is a launching site – also owned by Paladino – that’s leased to the Buffalo Scholastic Rowing Association. Ground was recently broken there on the Patrick Paladino Memorial Boathouse.

Past it is a Department of Environmental Conservation fishing and boat launch site. Across the street is the former Sam’s Gasoline Station, and then Father Conway Park.

Paladino is not the only landowner with unsightly property in the area.

The Seneca Gaming Commission also owns 4.5 acres, including a blighted parcel across the street from River Fest Park that was used as a staging area for construction of the new Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino nearby. A Seneca spokesman said there are currently no plans to do anything. And Clinton Brown, who announced plans five years ago to develop affordable and market-rate housing at the former Cooperage factory on Chicago Street at Ohio, has yet to break ground.

Paladino is currently redeveloping the former Fairmont Creamery that sits one block from the Commodore Perry high-rises, but he said he doesn’t have a problem with those, just the other units. He said he wants to do more, but the Housing Authority first has to take action.

“We would love to build, but the rents are going to be different than what we could achieve by actually building nice units with boat docks. We could make it beautiful,” Paladino said.

Henry Taylor, a UB professor who is the planning coordinator for Perry Choice Neighborhood, said there is a $30 million implementation grant pending before the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. He said they should know in three to six weeks whether the local application has made it to the semifinal round. If successful, Taylor said work could begin soon on the Perry homes.

Taylor said that he doesn’t understand how Paladino could object to building on Ohio Street when he’s doing the Creamery building blocks away.

“The logic doesn’t make sense, and it’s not even supported by his own activities,” Taylor said.

Brown, who said he is looking for a development partner at the Cooperage, said the parkway upgrades could be a shot in the arm for his stalled project.

“The challenge for my project has been the image of a distressed building in an industrial setting. What the Ohio Street project will do for the Cooperage’s front door is upgrade a truck route to a boulevard. It will attract confidence and investment,” Brown said.

Phil Pantano, a spokesman for the Seneca Gaming Commission, said no decision has been reached on the Seneca property, but community input will be considered.

“We are currently analyzing what potential needs the new Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino may have for services or activities from the Ohio Street site. At the same time, we remain actively involved with a number of community groups in the area and are interested in all activity in the vicinity of our parcel.”

Rep. Brian Higgins, who played a key role in securing a large federal grant for the project, expressed confidence in the parkway’s future.

“What’s happening isn’t coincidental. It’s part of a strategic vision for the continued build-out of the riverfront.

“The good thing is, things are happening and people are recognizing it. That renewed confidence is driving a lot of investment decisions,” Higgins said.