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Planning Board backs Ascension Church project despite Preservation veto

The Buffalo Planning Board gave its backing Monday to the planned redevelopment of the former Ascension Church at North Street and Linwood Avenue, despite the rejection of the very same proposal by the city Preservation Board last week.

Board members acknowledged the ruling by the other agency but noted that they are bound by the city's Green Code, not the Preservation Board's decision, while the latter acts outside the confines of the zoning code. And, they said, the project as presented fit within that city ordinance.

"Preservation does not have an impact on what this board does," Planning Board Chairman James Morrell said.

The Episcopal Diocese of Western New York, through a subsidiary of Episcopal Church Home & Affiliates, wants to transform the old stone church at 67 North and 16 Linwood into 28 affordable senior housing apartments. Built in 1872, and added on in 1889 and 1925, the church and parish house have been vacant since the congregation moved in 2015.

Plans call for about eight of the units in the church basement and adjacent parish house, with the bulk of the new units going into a new 17,000-square-foot, four-story building that would be constructed on a side yard 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 or meeting space, possibly even by a dance troupe.

The Preservation Board, echoing comments by neighbors and others in the community, objected to the second building's size, as well as other design features. The site is located within the Allentown Historic District, a local preservation area in which the board holds sway, so its approval is necessary before the city can issue building permits, even if the other agencies are supportive.

"One of the things that we think is great about this project is it's a preservation of all the historic resources," said Mike Conroe of Architectural Resources, part of the project team. "It was disappointing that Preservation Board thought otherwise."

Meanwhile, project attorney Marc Romanowski said the Diocese plans to appeal the Preservation Board's decision to the Common Council. He noted that the project was carefully vetted by the National Park Service and the State Historic Preservation Office - which had rejected an earlier version - and also received two needed variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals last week.

Planning Board officials noted, the Green Code standards match those used by the state and federal agencies.

Romanowski and Conroe also laid out a detailed presentation of the project's evolution since early 2015, including the back-and-forth discussions with the park service and the state historic preservation agency, along with the designs that were proposed and rejected earlier by the community or by regulators.

One such design, for example, used a pitched roof to mimick the church design, but the park service said the church needed to stand out on its own. It also had to be lowered to the height of the parish house, not the taller church. The developer also could not fill in the auditorium space in the parish house or replace all the windows.

Church officials said any changes they made now would have to go back to the agencies for new approvals that they might not get.

"I'm a little torn here," said Planning Board member Martha Lamparelli. "I understand Preservation Board's concerns. I drive down there all the time. But I think that the developer has done their due diligence. They have to do what they have to do according to the National Park Service and SHPO."

The church expects only a modest return on its investment of $27,000 by 2022.

"They're not here to make money on this project," Conroe said, citing the extensive renovations and restrictions on the project. "It's very limited returns."

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