A battle royale is raging over the future of one of the city's storied public housing projects.
The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority wants to tear down the vacant A.D. Price Courts buildings to make way for a smaller but more modern low-income development, designed for today's needs.
Its critics want to prevent demolition, arguing that the buildings are worth saving and can be renovated instead.
On the surface, it sounds like a simple and familiar fight. But this debate speaks directly to Buffalo's history of race relations, segregation and economic divide before and after World War II.
It's about the "separate but equal" treatment afforded to the city's black community, and the unique but surprising role – both positive and negative – that A.D. Price played in raising up a black middle class in Buffalo.
"We should do whatever the community can do to hold onto some remnant so that the capacity to learn from it lives on," said Alfred D. Price Jr., a professor of architecture and planning at University at Buffalo, and son of the former property manager that the East Side complex is named for. "Because the built-in, structural racism is not going to evaporate anytime soon."
That's the context in which BMHA officials came to the Buffalo Planning Board a week ago, hoping for approval to replace 170 outdated and vacant apartments at the A.D. Price Courts with 52 shiny new ones.
The new units will still be available to anyone eligible for public housing, with preference given to former residents who want to move back, said Modesto Candelario, the housing agency's assistant executive director. Rents will still be set at 30 percent of income.
But instead, they ran squarely into a wall of fire from agency critics, housing advocates and preservationists, who are determined to put a stop to a $20 million plan that would demolish most of a 10-building historic complex dating back to 1939.
"I’m always concerned when somebody wants to take something that has a value to it," said Joseph Mascia, a city resident and former BMHA commissioner, who spoke out against the plan.
Price said he also originally supported saving and renovating the buildings, citing 14 separate design options that Foit-Albert Associates had generated for BMHA. Since then, though, the buildings deteriorated from neglect, so "it's not economical to try now to do something."
Instead, he urged the agency to photograph the old buildings and artifacts, preserve and incorporate the sculptures into the new complex, and install historic plaques and markers to commemorate the history. "What is important is that the community not lose a piece of community history that is already by and large forgotten," he said.
Originally named Willert Park Court, the A.D. Price complex was designed by Buffalo architect Fred Bacchus and was constructed by the U.S. Housing Agency under the Housing Act of 1937, as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
Buffalo already had public housing projects in other areas, such as for the Italian and Irish communities on the West Side and in South Buffalo. But the black community in Buffalo had been informally barred from those other projects, which were largely for the white population, and blacks demanded one of their own.
So under pressure from the Buffalo Urban League and others, the BMHA built Willert Park Court as the city's first public housing project aimed specifically at the black community, under the "separate but equal" policy that had largely existed nationwide since an 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Preservation Buffalo Niagara member Terry Robinson, who is also a member of the city's Preservation Board, called the complex "one of the most historic properties not just in Buffalo but in the nation." He said it was only the second example of subsidized housing anywhere that was dedicated to the black community, and the "finest example" of garden-style public housing. It even included specially designed bas-relief sculptures by Robert Cronbach and Harold Ambellen.
The new solid-brick complex, with its new and modern amenities, proved to be stunning. It was such a desirable place to live in the 1940s, Robinson said, that nearby white Jewish and Italian residents wanted to move in – but could not because it was segregated. Indeed, it had a waiting list of nearly 1,000 eligible black people by 1941, according to Preservation Buffalo Niagara documents.
Moreover, Robinson said, while the complex was part of the city's story of segregation, it also gave rise to the growth of today's black neighborhoods in other areas, such as Hamlin Park and the Fruit Belt. "It was the pinnacle of black society at that time," he said.
But as time went on, the needs and desires of the community have changed, and such projects became outdated and unpopular among public housing clients, who didn't want to rent such apartments. So BMHA began looking at how to update or reimagine them, using federal dollars since 1996 to pay for renovations or demolition and reconstruction.
The A.D. Price Courts buildings have been vacant since 2009. That's when the last residents decamped for new apartments as part of the agency's larger redevelopment of the overall surrounding neighborhood, which began in 2006. Already, BMHA has constructed 199 new units over three phases.
"We always identified this portion as a very critical portion of the redevelopment," Candelario said. "Now the time has come when we have to make a decision about what the future of the Courts has to be."
The city's public housing agency is now seeking to demolish nine of the 10 dilapidated buildings at 373 Spring St., replacing them with an array of smaller single-family, stacked and duplex houses, holding a mixture of 36 two-, three-, four- and five-bedroom units. The new houses, constructed along Spring, Mortimer and Peckham streets, would feature a variety of materials and colors, to set them apart from each other.
The 10th structure, the former Administration Building, would be renovated to include 12 new modern, energy-efficient one- and two-bedroom walk-up apartments, plus a community center, laundry facilities and administrative offices on the ground floor. A new entrance and glass atrium would be added.
Four more duplex units would be constructed in two buildings on undeveloped space at 390 Jefferson Avenue nearby. And the agency would convert the area between the administration building and the new structures into public open space, with a “pedestrian mews” linking a public plaza at the southeast corner to Willert Park to the north. A new city street is also included.
Additionally, officials plan to retain the intricate bas-relief sculptures and artwork that adorn the buildings, either incorporating them into the one building that is remaining or including them for display in a planned new pedestrian park that is still being designed.
"We recognize the historic significance of the site, and the significance of the artwork," Candelario said. "It is our hope to preserve the historic artifacts."
But Mascia and others said the city agency shouldn't be taking away from the total supply of housing units, in this case eliminating 128 options. "With 6,000 people looking for housing, we're giving them a negative option for property," he said. "We're reducing apartments, especially for low-income individuals."
John Schmidt, who described himself as "an organizer" at BMHA's Shoreline Apartments, complained that "this is a trend throughout the city," citing plans to cut more than half the units at that project as well.
"The people being displaced here have zero financial mobility," he said. "If the Office of Strategic Planning and the Planning Board are planning to create a massive homeless population within 10 years, this is exactly the way to go about it."
And Mascia said demolition is unnecessary. "The buildings are structurally sound. By being open to the elements, they've deteriorated," he said. "Housing Authority policy has always been demolition by neglect."
Most of all, though, the redevelopment will destroy a piece of history, said Robinson. And he ridiculed the idea that preserving the artwork was sufficient.
"Talking about demolishing this, it's like talking to me about tearing down the Notre Dame Cathedral and saying you want to keep the gargoyles," Robinson said. "There is no way to estimate the historic significance of this. There is no way to capture the aesthetic significance."