Sam Savarino is interested in converting the ravaged St. Mary's-on-the-Hill Church into residences, if he can purchase the property from an out-of-town owner. The landmarked circa-1903 church, or what remains of it, is located at the northeast corner of Niagara and Vermont streets directly behind the Connecticut Street Armory.
Savarino struck a deal to purchase the Prospect Heights property contingent on lining up financing to carry out the ambitious redevelopment project. After spending "over $20,000" on a reuse plan (above and partial elevation at bottom), current owner Julie Myrie-Oyewo reportedly now has an out-of-town purchaser interested in buying the property for more money. Many in the community doubt another potential buyer exists and suspect the owner is only seeking a higher price for the site. Savarino is said to be willing to negotiate on price.
Myri-Oyewo, who lives downstate, purchased the vacant Episcopal church in March 2006 for $17,000 intending to use the building for a daycare center. That project did not proceed and the property's condition deteriorated rapidly.
In 2008, after two decades of water infiltration and several neglectful owners, the City stepped up code enforcement action as the building became a safety hazard. In a calculated gamble to spur the owner to shore up or sell the building, the preservation community supported the City's emergency demolition order. It worked. Myri-Oyewo agreed to a $30,000 "therapeutic demolition" of the building.
That work involved removing the roof, building interior, windows, and shoring up the masonry walls. Today, the building is literally a shell of its former self. A ruin if you will.
The building's Housing Court case was scheduled to be heard on Tuesday but was postponed until March. Neighbors are pushing to move that hearing to next week. A demolition order remains on the property though what remains of the structure is not falling down. Regardless, the community is "concerned" and "disappointed" that the potential deal with Savarino has not been completed.
Neighbors want the court to pressure the current owner to develop the property or transfer it to a capable, willing developer. They do not want the building to deteriorate further or sold to an out-of-town speculator.
"What is there to weigh in making this decision?" asks a frustrated Kathy Mecca, President of the Niagara Gateway Columbus Park Association. "It is a simple choice between economic sustainability and demolition by neglect."
Savarino sees a residential future for the building, last used as a church in 1994. A preliminary plan developed by architect Paul Battaglia calls for a mix of 15 studio, one and two-bedroom units constructed within the historic walls. Several units would be two-level.
A similar redevelopment effort by Savarino is planned for the Livery building in the Cottage District. A residential project there has been delayed but is still moving forward. It would combine the Livery's remaining outer shell with new construction.
"There should be no hesitation in supporting an 'agent of change' like Sam Savarino who brings a demonstrated record of success to this community [as opposed to the current owner]," said Mecca.
"One would think that every elected official including Mayor Brown would be lining up behind Mr. Savarino on this one," added Mecca. "Watching the senseless demise of St. Mary's has been a very painful experience."
Photos by Becky Harbison.