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Questions Surround Demolition of Episcopal Church Home

BRO Reader Submission

An item was filed with the City of Buffalo Common Council regarding the Episcopal Church Home at 24 Rhode Island Street. That filing was in relation to a June 30, 2014 Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) document that informed “involved agencies” of ESDC’s Determination of No Significant Adverse Effect on the environment of an abatement, demolition, and stabilization project for the site. It was received as an informational item requiring no action and filed at a special session of the Buffalo Common Council on July 29, 2014. Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBN) has reviewed ESDC’s Determination of No Significant Effect on the Environment and other material necessary to provide its membership and the public with further information on the matter.

The Episcopal Church Home Complex is comprised of five contiguous parcels on 3.5 acres. There are six buildings on site. Two of the structures, Thornton Hall and the Hutchinson Chapel, have been determined to be eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. They were designated as local landmarks in 1980. Thornton Hall was built in 1905. The architect was Henry Osgood Holland. The Hall replaced an orphanage on the site that was built in 1866. The Hutchinson Chapel of the Holy Innocents was designed by William Archer and erected in 1895.

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The Episcopal Church Home at one time housed over 1,000 residents with a staff of over 500. In 1988, the Canterbury Woods concept was proposed for the Rhode Island Street site, but was shifted to Amherst in 1995. The Episcopal Church Home & Affiliates spent $76 million to develop the Canterbury Woods project in Amherst in1998.

In 1995, the prospect for a twin span to the Peace Bridge and expansion of the American Plaza appeared imminent. After a contentious environmental review process, in May of 1999, the Episcopal Church Home and the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy filed a lawsuit to prevent the Buffalo and Erie County Public Bridge Authority from proceeding with bridge construction and plaza expansion projects without a comprehensive environmental impact study.

The New York State Supreme Court issued a decision in April 2000 that annulled the permits issued by the New York State Department of Conservation (DEC), annulled the December 1998 Negative Declaration of the DEC, and prohibited segmentation of the environmental review process. In 2001, the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy and Episcopal Church Home received a Pewter Plate Award from the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier for their efforts to protect sites of Frederick Law Olmsted parks.

In the same year, 2001, 200 unionized support staff employed at the 24 Rhode Island Street Home approved a 3 year contract. The following year in 2002, the Episcopal Church Home warned that a pending $2 million recovery action by State Health Department officials could have a devastating effect on their operations. The Episcopal Church Home reached a settlement with the New York State Department of Health over the 1.7 million Medicaid reimbursement dispute in 2003. In the same year, the Episcopal Church Home closed its adult care facility. In 2005, the Episcopal Church Home ceased operations at the 24 Rhode Island Street site. This last November 2013, Episcopal Church Home & Affiliates announced a 10 acre $28 million Canterbury Woods development on the site of the former Millard Fillmore Hospital at Gates Circle in partnership with T.M. Montante Development LLC.

On the same day in May of 1999 that the Episcopal Church Home/Olmsted Conservancy filed their environmental lawsuit, the City of Buffalo filed a suit challenging the environmental review process commenced in 1992 by the Public Bridge Authority. A companion case to the Olmsted action, the City of Buffalo action also sought a comprehensive review in accordance with the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). The 2000 NY State Supreme Court decision required a coordinated review.

After several delays, as a result of the 911 terrorist attack and uncertainties over the scope of the project, the environmental review process moved forward. In 2007, a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) was issued in regard to the cumulative impacts of the Bridge and Plaza construction projects. The DEIS addressed several alternatives for expansion of the bridge plaza and related traffic projects. A Final EIS was not issued since the political will and financing had evaporated over the course of the lengthy wrangling.

When Governor Andrew Cuomo took office in 2011 he made resolution of the impasse at the Peace Bridge an immediate priority of his administration. In August 2012, the Governor announced an agreement between the State of New York, City of Buffalo, and the Public Bridge Authority regarding Bridge and Plaza improvements and the acquisition of two blocks of Busti Avenue. Later that month, August 2012, the Public Bridge Authority acquired an $8 million lien on the Episcopal Church Home, owned by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, for $1 million at auction. That same August, the Governor’s office announced the state’s intent to purchase the Episcopal Church Home for $4 million. In February 2013, within hours of the expiration of a temporary restraining order (in a suit brought by the Campaign for Greater Buffalo), the Public Bridge Authority demolished 7 historic properties along Busti Avenue including the Wilkeson mansion.

In the next month’s March 2013 Environmental Notice Bulletin (ENB), Empire
State Development Corporation published notice of a Negative Declaration for its acquisition and maintenance of the Episcopal Church Home Complex. The Negative Declaration stated, in part, “ It is anticipated that the property will be merely held, maintained, and remain undeveloped unless, and until, at some future time the Peace Bridge Plaza would be expanded, or some other economic development project would be undertaken. “

In May 2013, a Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment of the Episcopal Church Home complex was completed for ESDC. Two months later, in July 2013, the State of New York acquired the Episcopal Church Home for $4.7 million. The state’s appraisal for the parcel was $1.7 million. During negotiations, the Episcopal Church Home stated that an appraisal valued the property at $14 million. The president and CEO asserted that the decline in value was attributable to the uncertainty of the bridge and plaza expansion plans for over a decade. Less than a year after acquiring the parcels, in April 2014, ESDC published a Request for Proposals (RFP) for demolition of the Episcopal Church Home structures with the exception of the Hutchinson Chapel and possibly Thornton Hall. Estimates have placed the cost of remediation, demolition, and site preparation in a range from $3 – $14 million.

On May 30, 2014, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) issued a joint Record of Decision/Findings Statement for the proposed Gateway Project for ramps and roadways onto the Peace Bridge Plaza and removal of Baird Drive from Front Park. The Public Bridge Authority, FHWA, NYSDOT, and City of Buffalo have coordinated several independent plans to address traffic onto and off the Peace Bridge and modify the existing plaza.

Preservation Buffalo Niagara has not been consulted by any of the principals in regard to the acquisition and development of the Episcopal Church Home complex. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo was very much involved with neighborhood efforts for Housing Court intervention in regard to conditions at the Episcopal Church Home and the Busti Avenue historic properties. The City of Buffalo Preservation Board was not an involved agency in any of the environmental or historic resources review processes related to the several independent projects on or near the National Register of Historic Places designated Front Park and Olmsted parkways. Only in July of this year, after the Final Environmental Impact Statement was finalized and the joint Record of Decision was signed, did the NYSDOT request that the Preservation Board review and approve plans that would install ramps to and from the Peace Bridge Plaza, remove Baird Drive from Front Park, replace the Porter Avenue Bridge over the 190, and relocate a portion of the Shoreline Trail/Riverwalk.

When the Preservation Board requested additional information to augment the 3 page application submitted for approval of the proposed $35 million project, NYSDOT referred the Board to the FEIS and related documents and stated that it sought to inform the Board as a “courtesy”. The items placed on the City of Buffalo Common Council agenda for the July 22 meeting of the Council, in regard to the Episcopal Church Home and the Gateway Project (Porter Avenue Bridge etc.) were late files. A diligent search failed to uncover any documents related to the filings in the public record prior to the session.

The indifferent neglect and consequent damage to this locally landmarked site of national significance is regrettable and inexcusable. The preservation community and the public-at-large are ill served by public benefit projects that are not the product of a transparent and open process. Plans that are moved forward by subterfuge and artifice, that circumvent or avoid legitimate scrutiny and oversight, are questionable plans. The matter of the Episcopal Church Home and related projects raises concerns about the destruction of the historic fabric of our communities, the impact on the residents and nature of the affected neighborhood, and the abuse of process to achieve predetermined outcomes.

At this juncture, it is not too late, hopefully, to convene the appropriate stakeholders and allow them to mitigate the most egregious adverse effects of the project. In the alternative, more formal measures are available. Public awareness is critical.

Written by Buffalo Rising

Buffalo Rising

Sometimes the authors at Buffalo Rising work on collaborative efforts in order to cover various events and stories. These posts can not be attributed to one single author, as it is a combined effort. Often times a formation of a post gets started by one writer and passed along to one or more writers before completion. At times there are author attributions at the end of one of these posts. Other times, “Buffalo Rising” is simply offered up as the creator of the article. In either case, the writing is original to Buffalo Rising.

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