It was in 2011 that Matthew Newton purchased a city owned property via the City’s Homestead program. At the time, the abandoned house at 16 Harwood Place was worth $1, which is exactly what he picked it up for. Actually, the second he signed the contract, Matthew immediately found himself in debt, with a relentless money pit on his hands. Regardless of the enormity of the project, one of Matthew’s first orders of business was to secure the driveway and the side lot (12 Harwood Place) that was historically part of the property. Over the years the parcel had been split up, which meant that he needed to work with the City to piece it back together. In 2014 Matthew secured a signed purchase contract to homestead the lot from The City for another dollar. Matthew felt that was all he needed to move forward with the acquisition, and, in good faith, he began to care for the side lot by mowing and planting trees, vegetables and perennials on it.
In the meantime, he had made huge progress in the serious work of fixing up the house (the historic Lyth Cottage, circa 1873) using reclaimed materials sourced mainly via Buffalo ReUse. Matthew rebuilt the entire interior of the house, floors, walls, chimney, roof, etc. He did this hoping that someday the City would honor his request to secure the driveway and the side lots (at market value if need be). Every year he continued to submit new applications to The City, and continued to inquire about the parcel. In 2014, after he received the signed purchase contract, he continued to visit City Hall frequently, trying to close on the property. After a year, Matthew was told that The City had no record of his contract, and would “never” sell him the entire lot at 12 Harwood Place. Fortunately Matt had kept all of his records and was able to show that he was not simply trying to hoodwink The City.
In 2016, after submitting new applications to develop 2 other lots on the street, Matthew was told that The City no longer had to honor his original contract, and that the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency was proposing to build houses on all the plots around his home. Much to Matthew’s dismay, he realized that his grand vision of creating a unique space on Harwood Place was quickly becoming a grand illusion. He had taken a huge risk saving the derelict house, on an at-risk street, with the hope that he would be able to control his destiny, in a fair process.
A week ago, Matthew and his wife, Sarah Schneider Newton, learned that The City would be leveling their trees and gardens on 12 Harwood Place because their contract had never been executed within City Hall. Matthew reached out to members of the community who had helped him to navigate City Hall, when he first purchased his home. Besides seeing the potential in fixing up the Lyth Cottage itself, the street held allure for Matthew because of the open green spaces surrounding it.
Since moving onto Harwood Place and saving the historic home, new neighbors had moved onto the street because they saw his investment in the unique property. When he first purchased Lyth Cottage, there was only one other resident on the street. Now the neighborhood showed signs of promise, and Matthew knows exactly how much he had contributed to the turnaround of the street. However, he is now watching his hard work head in a different direction. “There are countless City-owned lots on the East Side,” Matthew told me. “I want to work with the City to create something special here. I am willing to purchase these lots at fair market value – a value that has risen thanks to my financial commitment to this house, not to mention the countless hours restoring it. Now all I ask is that the City work with me, and not just simply build for the purpose of building. Together we could create something very special that could be duplicated in other parts of the City. I’m not asking for a handout – I’m asking for a chance to do something great for the East Side and this neighborhood. I am hoping that The City honors my contract, and I am asking that they let my wife and me play a role in the organic growth and democratic design of the street. We feel that we have something extremely special here that we can elevate and share with others.”
Thanks to the efforts of a few friends with connections, Matthew and Sarah have been able to derail the City’s efforts to fulfill automaton directives that state the land including their driveway must be used for “higher and best use.” Who is to say what “higher and best use” is without an open conversation with the homeowners on the street, who are all supportive of Matthew and Sarah.
I’m not asking for a handout – I’m asking for a chance to do something great for the East Side and this neighborhood.
“When I bought this house, I got a lot of coverage from the press,” said Matt. “A lot of people thought that I was crazy, considering the condition of the street and the house. Since that time, I have proven that anything is possible if you believe in it enough. I’ll never forget the time a man from Lockport drove an hour to the city after hearing my story. He knocked on my door and handed me $100. He told me that he was once an optimist like me, but over the years he had become jaded. He wanted to help the cause, and he felt that this was a good place to start. Sarah and I got married in the yard next door. We have planted trees and gardens, always knowing that we had a contract in place with the City. It’s not just about fixing up a house, it’s about building a home and contributing to a neighborhood.”
Hopefully the City will learn to reevaluate its directives when it sees that seeds are beginning to grow. If Matt and Sarah can continue to turn this small street into a haven for others who want to build in a non-cookie cutter neighborhood, then why wouldn’t the City want to jump onboard with the movement? In the City’s eyes (I believe), they have managed to create a success story out of the Homestead program, and now they want to capitalize on it by the book. Once a plan is in motion, it’s like trying to steer a freighter around an iceberg. The City has the ability to do something great, and unprecedented. I would hope, that in this day and age, The City would want to work with homeowners to create something truly special. Isn’t that the new Buffalo that we are coming to love and root for?
At this point, the couple is attending and trying to organize meetings with the Hamlin Park Tax Payers Association to propose a more innovative alternative to standard infill housing. They have ideals for the place they have lived in and grown to love, but they are working with the community to develop a plan and design, which can turn the vacant block into a resource for the community that has seen it through its ups and downs. The historic Jefferson Avenue thoroughfare was once a bustling civic center, where residents were able to access everything they needed without leaving their neighborhood. Sarah and Matthew want to work with the community to develop a plan, which will bring that lost commerce back to the neighborhood. If you’re interested in following the progress of this east side block, please like the Newton’s “Friends of Harwood Place” page on Facebook.
It’s not just about fixing up a house, it’s about building a home and contributing to a neighborhood.