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Ascension Church plan sparks tension

A plan to convert part of a vacant former church on Linwood Avenue into a new senior housing facility is generating a rare display of tension between two municipal agencies in Buffalo, as the Preservation Board sought Monday to assert authority over the Episcopal Diocese's project.

Representatives of the diocese presented their proposal to the Planning Board for 28 apartments at the former Church of the Ascension at 16 Linwood -- repurposing the institution, while ensuring the sanctuary would remain intact and available for community use.

Plans call for about eight of the units in the church basement and adjacent parish house. The bulk of new units would go into a 17,000-square-foot, four-story building that would be built next to them, from similar materials.

No demolition would be involved.

"This is a project that the diocese is looking to advance to house low-income elderly individuals, in addition to helping to stabilize the property," said Marc Romanowski, an attorney representing the diocese. "The mission of the church is to serve the community and this is the best way they see fit to do so. This is not a money-making operation."

Preservation Board Chairman Paul McDonnell spoke up to ask for a delay by the Planning Board -- because his agency has not yet approved the project.

McDonnell cited concerns related to the size of the additional building in comparison to the church, calling it "jarring" and noting that it would take up much of the church's side yard. That would block views from North Street of both the church and E.B. Green-designed rectory.

"It is interesting that nothing has been built here for 150 years," he said. "It was always meant so that the church could be seen."

He said the Preservation Board requested changes weeks ago, but added church officials were "very reluctant to make any changes" because the project was already approved by the National Park Service and the state's Historic Preservation Office.

Those approvals are critical because the financing for the project relies on state and federal historic tax credits. Any changes would have to be resubmitted for review.

"This is the design that was approved. We don't have an awful lot of flexibility with National Parks," Romanowski said. "If we're forced to go back and start over again, we think it would be at significant risk."

He and Stephanie Clark, an architect with Architectural Resources, noted a previous version of the project was rejected in 2016. Developers made changes, appealed the decision, and received approval in May.

"This is the culmination of two years of work with them. This has been vetted significantly," Romanowski said.

McDonnell acknowledged the approval. But, he said, "that does not mean there can't be any changes to the project."

"This is a local preservation district, and it is under the auspices of the Preservation Board," McDonnell said.

He said the city hasn't seen any of the documents from the National Park Service, and wasn't involved in those discussions. He criticized the developers for only bringing this to the Preservation Board in the last three weeks, even though the approval came in May.

Four Linwood Avenue residents echoed some of those concerns -- including Leslie Edmiston, vice president of the Linwood Preservation District.

She noted that the church sits at the district's southern boundary, and neighbors have rejected the project designs twice.

"It does not fit in this area," she said. "It has been likened to a toaster turned on its side. It has been likened to a commercial insurance company."

"It's a stunning piece of real estate now," agreed Margo Moulin of Linwood. "This addition destroys the aesthetic that is currently there."

The Preservation Board has scheduled a public hearing for its next meeting on Nov. 15.

If it denies the application, Romanowski said the church would appeal.

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