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West Side performing arts center faces pushback

Urban planner Rachel Heckl has been trying for years to create a new performing arts center in a vacant West Side church.

She bought the former Richmond Avenue Methodist-Episcopal Church at Ferry Circle in 2014, convinced lenders to finance it, pursued tax credits and grants and dealt with structural problems in one of the buildings.

She has modified her plans multiple times based on financial needs, changing circumstances and neighborhood feedback.

Now her hopes of turning the church and adjacent property into the new Rosanna Elizabeth Visual & Performing Arts Center campus are within sight. But first she has to overcome one more obstacle: the opposition of her immediate neighbor. That led the city Planning Board on Monday to delay action on a key element of the larger project until at least September, when the board reconvenes.

Neighbors, arts advocates and others are supportive of the $11 million project. They note that the church has been languishing and deteriorating for years, and Heckl's proposal represents an opportunity to save it.

"There's a whole number of things that this project will do to change the face of the neighborhood and bring the communities together," said Griffin Grady, of the Buffalo World Music Dance Academy, a potential tenant.

To support the project financially, Heckl and her team added two floors with eight market-rate apartments above a proposed art gallery, creating a three-story building in place of a one-story garage.

That is rubbing her immediate neighbors the wrong way, especially since the 41-foot-tall building would be situated just 10 inches from the lot line with one of them.

"This would permanently block the sunlight from my bedroom," said Derek Bateman, an Erie Community College social science professor who has lived on Richmond Avenue, just south of the church, for 35 years. "It'll make my backyard a canyon."

Such comments at a community meeting last week led Councilmember David Rivera to ask the Planning Board to hold off on the project so that a second meeting could be held "to try to figure this out," said Rivera staffer Sean Mulligan. The board agreed, even though several members voiced support for the project and a readiness to approve it. Heckl already obtained zoning variances.

"The residents have raised concerns and the councilman wants another meeting," said Board Chairman James Morrell.

Heckl acknowledged her disappointment with the delay, noting that they'll miss most of this year's construction season as a result. But "the complexity was always there from the beginning," she said.

"It was a little bit of an unfortunate decision, but I understand community dialogue. I live in the neighborhood, and I appreciate the folks who have concerns," she said. "I'm committed for the long run on this."

She noted that while the new building would be just 10 inches from the lot line behind Bateman's garage, it would be 60 feet from his house. And it's in compliance with the Green Code, including for height.

Heckl's plans call for converting the Richmond Ferry Church, which dates to the late 1800s, and adjacent properties at 467 Richmond Ave. and 527 West Ferry St. into a collaborative social and arts campus that would include space for artists and touring groups to rehearse and perform. It would also include corporate and business meeting space, a recording studio, an arts incubator, a resource center and the Benjamin Art Gallery. "It's going to be a cultural treasure," said her architect, Brad Wales.

The overall project at the 36,000-square-foot church, which has been vacant for 20 years, is not yet before the Planning Board. But Heckl, who bought the property in 2014 for $170,000, first needs approval to take down a former warehouse and garage on the property and construct the three-story building.

That $1.8 million mixed-use building will account for 43 percent of the projected revenues for the overall project during the first year, according to Planning Board documents. It's "critical for the overall viability of the arts campus," and for the loan underwriting and grant funds that are necessary, the filing says.

Developer Samuel Savarino, who is helping Heckl, said she had originally wanted to convert the garage into the gallery and then add one floor of two or three apartments above it. But after crews stabilized the building, they found from exploratory digging and engineering studies that the building has no real foundation and had deteriorated too much to retain and build upon. Replicating it was too expensive, he said.

So the project ground to a halt until the team came up with the new-build concept. Based on the current plans, U.S. Bank committed to purchase the tax credits, while KeyBank and another lender agreed to additional financing, Savarino said.

Heckl, Wales and Savarino said they have been meeting with neighbors as recently as last Wednesday, trying to address concerns about noise, lighting and parking. In response, Wales lowered the height by 2.5 feet.

Bateman says he supports Heckl's project and even conceded the need for one floor of apartments on top. "While this would be an intrusion on my property, I figured I could tolerate a 25-foot-tall building," he said.

A third floor, however, went too far, he said.

He suggested that Heckl "disperse" the apartments across the three properties that make up the larger site instead of "cramming" them onto one corner.

But that won't work, Savarino said, because the historic site cannot be modified significantly under State Historic Preservation Office guidelines, or it won't qualify for historic tax credits. That means they can't build more structures. They also can't hinder fire truck access to the site.

"So we have zero leeway to change this right now," he said. "There's a reason why this building has sat empty for so long. If it doesn't go forward, that church and building will likely sit in desuetude for the next 25 years."

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