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Preservation Board deals blow to Ascension Church project

The Episcopal Diocese of Western New York didn't have a prayer at this week's Buffalo Preservation Board meeting.

The city agency dealt a blow Thursday to a controversial proposal to convert most of the former Ascension Church in Buffalo into senior housing, voting down the plan that would have brought 28 new apartments to the longtime religious building.

The board's actions are often only advisory in nature, but in this case it had asserted its jurisdiction and authority because the church is located in a local preservation district. Its vote means the city cannot issue building permits or allow work to begin, even if the city Planning Board approves the site plan.

The Diocese can still appeal the Preservation Board's decision to the Common Council.

“The Diocese is absolutely committed to this project. We want people of every background to be able to enjoy and participate in the renaissance that Buffalo is experiencing, and creating affordable housing opportunities at the Ascension site is perfectly aligned with our mission to serve the community," said Rev. R. Willliam Franklin, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese.

An appeal process, which would include a referral to the Common Council Legislation Committee and a public hearing, could delay any decision by several weeks, possibly into next year. The next Council meeting is Nov. 28.

Plans had called for about eight of the units in the church basement and adjacent parish house at 16 Linwood Avenue, with the bulk of the new units going into a new 17,000-square-foot, four-story building that would be constructed next to them using similar materials. No demolition would be involved.

The goal was to reuse the vacant church building within the Diocese's mission, while ensuring the sanctuary would still be available for community use.

But Preservation Board members objected to the project's design, which included construction of a new four-story building on a sideyard next to the church building. The board found the size and massing of the new building to be too big, echoing opposition expressed by neighbors.

Ascension Church plan sparks tension

The Planning Board, which is scheduled to review the project on Monday evening, can still approve the site plan since its vote is independent of the Preservation Board, said Phil Pantano, a spokesman for the Ascension project. "We will be there Monday, and if the Planning Board chooses to do so, they can act," he said.

Only a day before the Preservation action, the project had received a pair of variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals that officials needed before the city Planning Board could vote.

"It’s unfortunate that a design that has been approved, and largely directed, by the National Parks Service and the State Historic Preservation Office, has been put in jeopardy by the local Preservation Board," Franklin said. "We will explore all of our options to ensure that our mission can continue.”

Pantano and Diocese officials have previously noted that the current redevelopment project, already several years in the making, had been approved by both the National Park Service and the State Historic Preservation Office. Both agencies' assent is required because the project will rely on state and federal historic tax credits for financing. And those agencies had already rejected an earlier version, sending developers back to the drawing board previously.

So project planners argued that they were unable to make changes now because they'd risk losing that approval and having to start over again. Meanwhile, those federal credits are themselves in dire risk, after the House of Representatives this week passed a budget proposal that would eliminate them.

"If we have to go back and start the process, there is no certainty at all that that vital program would still be available," Pantano said. "So we would be putting at risk an approval that is in place for a design that was approved and largely directed by NPS. We're caught in the middle of different reviewing agencies."

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