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Proposal for four-story building with grocery store draws resistance from Fruit Belt residents

A proposed four-story building in Buffalo’s Fruit Belt neighborhood, with a fresh-food grocery store on the first floor, is meeting resistance from some neighborhood residents who object to the height of the structure and complain that the developer is not considering their input.

The fight over the proposed Sweet Pea Market, 228-238 High St., between Mulberry and Locust streets, represents the latest clash between members of the East Side neighborhood and the Rev. Michael Chapman, pastor and CEO of St. John Baptist Church.

Fruit Belt residents have said that Chapman’s focus on redeveloping the area around the church at Michigan Avenue and East Tupper Street, including their neighborhood, sometimes fails to consider their interests or concerns.

In this case, Chapman wants to bring a small grocery and pharmacy to the neighborhood, to address the perception of the area as a “food desert” because of the lack of such stores now.

That part appeals to residents, but they objected to the rest of the project that was needed to support the store: higher-end apartments.

The most recent iteration, which was presented to the Buffalo Planning Board late last month, called for a 4,000-square-foot, four-story structure at High and Mulberry streets, with the retail on the first floor and apartments on the upper levels. Parking would also be included.

The mixed-use project already received a variance from the Buffalo Zoning Board of Appeals to allow the fourth story in an area where buildings are normally restricted to three floors, but the height of the building was still an issue of contention for local residents, who want to preserve the character of the historic neighborhood.

“We know we need a market in the community, but the question is how high is that market going to be,” Annette Lott of Fruit Belt United said during the meeting last month.

Residents were also upset that the building would include “upscale rentals that the residents from Fruit Belt and other East Side residents cannot afford,” Fruit Belt/McCarley Gardens Housing Task Force coordinator Veronica Hemphill-Nichols said in an email.

The Planning Board last month tabled the proposal to allow time for residents to meet with Chapman in a public community forum.

In the meantime, though, the Fruit Belt Advisory Council – which includes representatives from most of the community organizations, churches and schools in the neighborhood – convened a meeting for its members “so we can have clarity and understanding without going off rumor and conjecture on the project,” said Benjamin Cashaw, a member of the council who is overseeing the group’s response to the Sweet Pea proposal.

Cashaw said the meeting helped to address some of the group’s questions and concerns, including understanding that the apartments were needed to enable the market to be self-sustaining for the first few years.

As a result, 16 of the 19 board members voted in favor of the project, which has also received 38 petitions of support from area residents.

Still, Cashaw acknowledged that some people have concerns, and he said Fruit Belt residents who “want to voice their opinion” may go to the Fruit Belt Coalition office at 150 Maple St. to get more information.

And Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen, whose Ellicott District includes the Fruit Belt, said he also would offer to hold a community meeting under the aegis of the Common Council “to again try to bring the community to the table.”

Meanwhile, though, the project itself also may be changing. Chapman wants to team up with developer Nick Sinatra, who said the proposal is “still very, very much in its planning stages” and is now being revised. Chapman has also switched architects, from Tommaso Briatico Architects to Watts Architecture & Engineering.

The project will still include the market, which is “really important to the pastor,” Sinatra said. But the scale of the building may be reduced otherwise, so it’s being removed from the agenda for Monday’s meeting of the Planning Board. Sinatra added, “There’s been good feedback from the community.”