Expansion of the Peace Bridge Plaza is suddenly on a fast track. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo last week announced a $15 million infusion of state money for the $85 million project. Meanwhile, the Public Bridge Authority continues efforts to rid itself of the properties it purchased along Busti Avenue, including the landmarked circa-1863 Wilkeson House at 771 Busti, while using eminent domain to acquire others.
Leading the plaza push is former assemblyman Sam Hoyt. He was elected chairman of the Authority board of directors in February and also serves as regional president of Empire State Development Corporation.
Hoyt told The Buffalo News last week that the state would use its powers of eminent domain to acquire the Episcopal Church Home complex, a residential property at 775 Busti and even sections of Busti and Plymouth avenues from the City.
Hoyt questioned the need to use eminent domain for the bridge project back in 2003. At the time, the PBA was working on an agreement with the City to use its eminent domain powers to acquire property or have the State grant the PBA eminent domain authority directly. Now, he’s proudly bringing in the NYS Department of Transportation and its eminent domain powers to the neighborhood.
From The Buffalo News:
But any project associated with the Peace Bridge has long been marked by delay, and Hoyt said the state Department of Transportation — and its power to condemn lands for public projects by eminent domain — will now be introduced as a partner in the project. The idea now is to put the plaza on the fast track — by order of Cuomo.
“He’s directed me to do whatever it takes to get it done,” Hoyt said.
Hoyt also said the binational Peace Bridge Authority is unanimous in its desire to accelerate the proposal.
Rob Wallace, president and CEO of Episcopal Church Home, was in Housing Court on February 28 to answer to code violations for their vacant Busti Avenue complex. Wallace told Housing Court Judge Patrick M. Carney that they’ve been “victims” of the PBA for the past 17 years.
The Episcopal Church Home was shuttered in 2005 and has been vacant since. While the buildings are reportedly structurally sound, the interiors have been ravaged by vandals. Most of the main building’s copper and metals have been stripped and there is no fire alarm or sprinkler system. The grounds have been a mess but were recently cleaned up by the City’s Impact Team.
Wallace told the court that their business began to decline in 1994 when the PBA began talking expansion and patients didn’t want to move in with eminent domain being considered. It “left us no choice but to leave,” said Wallace. “It’s taken a toll on all of us.”
Wallace said the building has “no productive use” yet told the court that the property value has increased from $11 million in 2008 to $15 million today.
The rundown complex is in contrast to ECH’s Canterbury Woods facility in E. Amherst. Canterbury Woods opened in 1999 becoming the first senior living community in the Western New York area to offer a Life Care continuum. It offers “resort-style living” in a mix of apartments, patio homes, and assisted living and nursing care facilities.
Episcopal Church Home owes over $500,000 in 2010 and 2011 city and county taxes for the Busti Avenue site. All totaled, ECH owes $15 million in back taxes and liens from mortgage-holder U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Wallace also told the judge that State Senator Kennedy, Assemblyman Ryan and Congressman Higgins assured ECH that $15 million would be in the New York State budget for property acquisition. Just in time for Easter, Cuomo and his team delivered the golden egg last week.
Judge Carney told Wallace, “I find your claims to be disingenuous.” He ordered ECH to maintain the property and stop using the PBA as an excuse. He also ordered a $150/day fine for every day that ECH fails to comply with keeping the grounds neat and clean.
Kathy Mecca, President of the Columbus Park Association, laid out a different timeline. Eminent Domain legislation for the Peace Bridge project was passed in June 2004, not 1994. ECH even had extensive expansion plans in mind in 2003 and told ArtVoice that it closed in 2005 due to declining Medicaid reimbursements making the business unsustainable.
Mecca also says that ECH has been non-responsive to both neighborhood residents and local elected officials and has spurned interest in the property from D’Youville College and a charter school.
ECH and neighborhood residents will be back in court on April 19. Judge Carney told ECH to bring in “Plan B.” Governor Cuomo is giving them their out they’ve been waiting seven years for.
“All the Episcopal Church has to do is sign off on this sweet deal paid for by the taxpayers,” says Mecca. “Their bad deeds wiped clean. They walk away knowing this historic property is going to be demolished for a Duty Free Store.”
On April 4, the Public Bridge Authority held a meeting to share its plans to demolish seven vacant Busti Avenue structures. The seven are currently owned by the Authority but will allow anyone interested in relocating the structures an opportunity to do so as long as they can accomplish that by the end of June. Of this year.
To prove they’re a good neighbor, the PBA is making the architectural elements of each house available for salvage prior to demolition and will implement a “site restoration plan” as soon as demolition is completed. They are also going to document the structures at 771, 777 and 793 Busti including drawings, history and pictures prior to hauling them away for disposal. They have also have pledged to save the ECH chapel and repurpose it.
The PBA hasn’t shown the public what the ultimate end-use of the cleared land is- only simulations of the “green space” they’re going to create as an interim measure. It is likely the end goal will be released once the Episcopal Home and 775 Busti are acquired and the plaza can expand to the north.
A slice of neighborhood will be removed to expand a duty free store and enlarge a truck plaza to better accommodate 18-wheelers passing thru the region. That’s what passes as economic development in WNY. It likely qualifies for the William Hoyt Environmental Excellence Award as well.
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