South Buffalo enthusiasts who gather this weekend for The Partners for a Livable Western New York Walk will do so along a thoroughfare remarkably made over since the last such walk two years ago.
"Back then, we were focusing on the problem properties and some things that could be done on different points of the street," said Marc Pasquale, president of the nonprofit South Buffalo Coalition for a Vibrant Seneca Street. "We've already addressed so many things."
– Hook & Ladder Development is among investors that continue to restore residential and commercial properties along the key artery, including the H&L headquarters at 2111 Seneca.
– The nonprofit DePaul development company has completed a $23 million affordable housing project just over the border in West Seneca on a once-fallow site that in recent decades played home to a revolving door of department stores, including Twin Fair, Hills and Ames.
– Schneider Development continues its work on the redevelopment of the historic Shea's Seneca Theatre, most of which was demolished in 1969.
– Architect Karl Frizlen has redeveloped the former St. Teresa School into a residential building.
Walkers wishing to get a glimpse of those gems will start about 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 4, from St. Teresa’s Parish Center, 33 Mineral Springs Road. Those who gather at 8:30 a.m. will see a slide show of best practices for streetscape improvements, then two groups will fan out in different directions along Seneca Street, return to the church, and talk about what they've seen.
Refreshments will be available before and after the walk, which also will be hosted by the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo, with support from WNY Refresh.
"Last time, some people walked both routes because they were really curious," said Pasquale, 49, a former Baker Victory Services operations manager who has become a residential property redeveloper. He still lives in the Sage Street house where he grew up and during the last two decades has slowly purchased and renovated homes on his street, including an apartment house at Seneca Street.
Walk participants also will get to explore several parks that still need work.
Seneca Indian Park: On Indian Church Road, several houses in from Seneca Street, this patch was the original burial ground for Red Jacket and Mary Jameson. "A big thing that isn't well known is that this area was once all territory for the Seneca Nation of Indians, Pasquale said. The park has some nice monuments recognizing that but most people see the park and don't know about its history. The coalition is looking to change that."
Bulter Park: A larger, triangular-shaped park at the far ends of Roanoke and Seminole parkways.
Seminole Park: Named for the Seminole Indians, this pocket part sits at the intersection of Seminole Parkway, Mineral Springs Road and Seneca Street. "We want to use Seminole to pull all the parks together," Pasquale said. "Frederick Law Olmsted's idea is the parkways would help pull one park into the other, so they'd flow."
All are key to helping make Seneca Street a more walkable community, Pasquale said.
"We're trying to use these parks as a major draw for the Seneca Street area but also for the connectivity of Abbott Road, to pull it through Cazenovia Park into Seneca Street," he said. "We want to redesign the entrances on both sides of the park to bring the community together. Mercy Hospital is at one end of Cazenovia Street and Shea's Seneca Theatre is at the other end.
"Here in South Buffalo, people saw themselves defined by the Catholic parishes, People would say, 'I'm from St. Tommy's' or 'I'm from St. Teresa's,' and they didn't really see themselves as one. We're trying to get people to see that they might live out by Abbott Road but Seneca Street is still part of South Buffalo, still part of their neighborhood. We want everything to work together."
Q. What else would you like to see to help make South Buffalo more walkable?
The most important thing is that people feel safe. It's a safe community but we have to keep educating people about that so they feel comfortable walking. With the parks and other assets, they were getting so underutilized. We put $3 million into Cazenovia Park – the basketball courts and sprinkler systems – and we're seeing so much more use. ... Another great thing we have is the Seneca Bluffs at Elk and Seneca streets. It's a natural park and Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper just put about $3 million into shoreline improvements. We're putting pads in for kayaking and have the trails going through the bluffs so people can go on nature walks. This is stuff that's happening now and a lot of people don't really know about it.
At Bailey and Seneca Street, the bridge that goes behind Southside Elementary was a $23 million project that just opened this week. That's where the shorelines have been upgraded and we see kayakers on a daily basis. There's so much happening, I could talk for hours.
Q. What are the mission and goals of the South Buffalo Coalition for a Vibrant Seneca Street?
We're looking to encourage work that people would feel good about coming home to every day. So many people have believed in the neighborhood and never gave up on it. We want them in their lifetime to be able to enjoy the neighborhood and benefit from the assets that are here that have simply faded into the woodwork. We want to revive what's here and tailor it to the needs people have today. We're not looking to change the neighborhood. We're merely looking to get back what was once here in a way that complements the needs of today.
A lot of things we're bringing back – the theater, a number of restaurants, the shops – those are all things that people enjoyed in 1930 and we believe that people will still enjoy. That includes the parks, too.
You feel better when you walk down a street that looks nice. You feel better when everything is kept up. We're trying to promote that. People have been living in the same house for decades in South Buffalo and we want them to do that in a way they can feel good about their lives and their homes.
Q. How has the Seneca Street streetscape changed during the last century?
The downfall for Seneca Street came in 1969, when they got the grand idea to build the Seneca Mall (in West Seneca, which closed in 1994). Seneca Street was a hustling, bustling retail street before that. Stores like Fishman's were very big. You could buy anything you wanted for your home right on Seneca Street. There were hardware stores. There were meat markets. You could go to Liberty Shoes. Slowly, a lot of the stores started moving to the mall, leaving the shops they were occupying. From that moment on, it became a big challenge. What do we do with these storefronts?
In time, the buildings sold but people didn't want to put a lot of effort into them. They did a handyman's special on the front of each building. Plywood would go where at one time you had beautiful plate glass windows.
Shea's Seneca Theatre turned into a warehouse. You went from this elegant building down to something that looked like Fred Sanford's junkyard.
The changes now involve so many people coming and bringing their own funds. They're redoing these buildings and saying, "Let's get it back to what it once was, back to where the architect originally designed it," so all of these buildings are going back to their original character. People are just thrilled.
Q. Are there places that are going to look different to the walkers if they haven't been to South Buffalo for a while?
There are so many different things going on. The biggest one is the Shea's Seneca Theatre restoration. I love to watch the people peeking in through the window at all the work being done. At the same time, Hook & Ladder bought a magnificent building across from their main offices and renovated that. A project that I'm really proud of is Schupper House and Hook & Ladder-bought buildings on the corner of Kingston. Hundreds of thousands of dollars went into these buildings and they've restored them to complement one another. They put in flower boxes and bay windows.
Hook & Ladder is supposedly the oldest structure on Seneca Street in South Buffalo. It probably looks better now than on the day it was built.
At the same time the Schupper House was being done, the Blackthorn restaurant bought the two derelict buildings on each side of them, took them down and built a magnificent beer garden and parking lot; they put a second-floor patio on the space, too. That's a big thing accomplished this summer.
Now we're excited because Jake Schneider, after buying Shea's Seneca, was so happy about what's happening on Seneca that he bought the old Liberty Bank Building across the street from the theater. The inside has stained glass. It's a shame that this was ever a bank building. He's planning that as maybe a banquet facility or restaurant.
Another great project since walkers were here last is that Karl Frizlen has redeveloped the St. Theresa School building. Those apartments have come beyond what anyone could ever have expected. When you walk into the building, you still think it's a school. They respected all the architecture of the school. I just had Sister Alice (Roach) out. She was the longtime principal of the school. She couldn't believe how warm and homey the school was. She was excited the school lives on in a different form and is still serving the neighborhood.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon