Developer Karl Frizlen has temporarily pulled a controversial proposal to convert the first-floor gym and kitchen in the former St. Rose of Lima parish school into a banquet facility, giving him time to revise the plan in the face of strenuous community opposition.
Frizlen, an architect and real estate developer, had wanted to renovate the 5,000-square-foot space at 500 Parker Ave. into a commercial banquet facility. That would enable him to use the space for catering and events, with limited alcohol service, while also setting aside an area for art exhibitions and five artists' studios.
The Buffalo Planning Board and a Common Council committee were slated to review his application for an adaptive-reuse permit today and Tuesday.
But now he's shelved his plan, after angry neighbors voiced their protests to city officials and at a community meeting at the Daily Planet Coffee House, with about 75 people in attendance.
Residents argued vehemently that the neighborhood is zoned for single-family residential use. So any commercial use would be "totally inappropriate and illegal," and would constitute an example of "spot zoning," said Craig E. Speers, a neighbor and former vice president of the parish council.
Neighbors also cited concerns about inadequate parking onsite or on the street, as well as increased traffic, trash disposal, safety and "noise pollution" from sound systems in a new social hall.
"This is a quiet, peaceful neighborhood of nearly exclusively single-family homes," Speers wrote in a letter to Common Council member Rasheed Wyatt. "As such it desires protection against commercial intrusion."
Frizlen says he is no longer pursuing the arts center or studio space, and he insists he has no plans to use the space for commercial purposes anymore. Rather, he just wants to make it available to the church again, for its own uses for events.
"I'm not going to make it an arts center, because there's obviously some opposition to that," Frizlen said, acknowledging the battle he would face. "They think I'm going to do their big commercial banquet center in that gym space. It's going to be church-related. That's the plan right now."
He's resubmitting his application to the Common Council and Planning Board, and says he is willing to include restrictive language that would limit the use of the space to the church. "We're trying to make this clear to the neighborhood what the intent is," he said. "I think it was just a big understanding."
There's still a lot of confusion, however. "The issue is totally unresolved," Speers said. "This community is 100 percent against any and all commercial uses for the former school hall. The tone at the community meeting was clear and unequivocal."
Speers accused Frizlen of trying an "end-run" around neighbors, by citing the intended parish use of the space as a way to get a permit for commercial banquets, even though he said the developer hasn't allowed the church to use it since the building sale. He also said St. Rose hadn't used the hall for social events for several years before the sale. And since it is now linked with St. Mark's Roman Catholic Church on Woodward Avenue, it can use those larger facilities instead.
The partially subterranean gym is on the first floor of the three-story former school building, a historic landmark at the corner of Winston Road, which Frizlen acquired in late 2014. He already spent $3.8 million to convert the rest of the 30,000-square-foot building into 21 loft-style apartments – one of three such church school renovation projects for Frizlen.
That 26,000-square-foot project – now dubbed the School Lofts @ Parkside – was completed in 2016 under state and federal historic preservation standards, with a mixture of one- and two-bedroom units. Those apartments have been filled ever since they became available, according to documents submitted in support of the application.
But Frizlen didn't yet have a use for the gym, which state and federal preservation officials barred him from dividing into more apartments. So he proposed using it for banquets, which the church itself had done at various times for over a century.
"I'm trying to find some kind of a use," he said. "I inherited that space. I've got to do something with it."
Frizlen said Monday that he now envisions the space being used for church fundraisers, celebrations, funeral breakfasts and other such parish events. He plans to meet with church officials, hopefully this week, to see whether his new plan would work for them, before he holds another meeting with neighbors.