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Contractor denies inappropriate demolition of West Side garage

The construction manager leading the project to convert the former Richmond Avenue Methodist-Episcopal Church into a West Side arts facility said the controversial demolition of a garage on the property occurred only after the city granted a demolition permit.

Samuel Savarino, whose Savarino Companies is providing development services and acting as construction manager for the nonprofit project, denied the contention by neighbors that workers did anything improper in tearing down the garage, located behind the late 1800s-era church on Richmond Avenue.

The garage is attached to a house at 531 and 527 W. Ferry St. that is also slated for demolition as part of the project, which neighbors in the Ferry Circle area are seeking to block, even after the city approved the development proposal and two courts rejected a lawsuit against it. The house is also being used as a training ground for new Buffalo firefighters, who have ripped holes in the roof as part of their exercises.

Neighbors complained about the demolition in a historic district.

But Lou Petrucci, deputy commissioner of the Department of Permit and Inspection Services, said a garage is not generally considered historic, and is separate from the house itself. He also said the Fire Department is allowed to train in someone's house with the property owner's consent, regardless of any demolition permit. A demolition application is also pending for the house.

The house and the church are owned by Rachel Heckl, who is leading the effort to create an $11 million West Side arts facility, the Rosanna Elizabeth Visual and Performing Arts Center. The project includes renovating the historic 36,000-square-foot, two-story church into the arts campus, with recording facilities, corporate and business meeting space and rehearsal, performance and event space. Additionally, though, plans call for a three-story apartment building on the site, intended to generate enough revenues to support the nonprofit.

After early pushback from neighbors, the project was approved by the city's zoning and planning boards in 2017. The Richmond Ferry Neighborhood Coalition failed in court to try to stop the demolition and proposed apartment building, with an appellate court affirming that decision in a July 5 ruling.

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