A school door closes, an apartment door opens?

I walked past the corner of Saranac & Hertel yesterday evening. Lloyds Taco Truck was serving a healthy line of people and there were a few small groups gathered on the St. Margaret’s School grounds eating, picnic style.

It was nice to see some activity in the shadow of a huge, empty building. Sadly, the purpose for my walk wasn’t for Tricked-Out Nachos, but to attend a town hall meeting held for parishioners of St. Margaret’s Church to discuss the future of a piece of their property they are struggling to keep viable. If you weren’t aware, the catholic elementary school that sits in the heart of the burgeoning Hertel Avenue district closed in 2012 and the building now joins the neighboring convent in dormancy.

st margarets schoolLarge, empty structures are surely not uncommon in Buffalo, but now more than ever we’re seeing thoughtful renovation and reuse in the city. Not surprisingly, a similar opportunity lies in waiting here. Iskalo Development Corp., a proven developer that focuses on redevelopment and revitalization of established neighborhoods, has made an offer to buy the property, keep the buildings standing, and convert them into 30 high-end apartments, along with adding 42 parking spaces for the tenants. 

The parish council shared full details of the proposal, included the financial considerations of the church, and offered a number of very personal and sentimental opinions – all in full support. It was clear that this situation was not taken lightly. It was also clear that they realized this opportunity could be a Godsend (pun intended).

However, despite being presented what I saw as a no-brainer, there was a wary, almost reluctant sentiment displayed by the 60+ people in attendance. A barrage of questions (and gripes) followed the presentation. Understandably, people that attended the school and have come to know it only as a school over the past half century didn’t want to just say goodbye without a bit of a debate. But I think deep down everyone knew it was the right thing to do.

Here are the pros of the proposal:

  • Proceeds will enable St. Margaret’s Church to satisfy some significant upcoming financial obligations owed to the diocese, afford them the opportunity to make some repairs and cosmetic improvements to the property, and have a long sought after emergency fund.
  • Ongoing maintenance and utility bills of the two buildings will no longer be a liability to the church.
  • The general appearance of the structures remain, and the existing church parking lots would be unaffected.
  • Empty buildings become active again, and the property that was designed like a small campus can return to its previous vibrancy.
  • Inventory of residential units in high demand in North Buffalo will be added, bringing even more life (and likely, youth) to a neighborhood on the rise.
  • True economic impact. These buildings will go back on the city tax roll. And more residential means more foot traffic on the streets, more shopping in the stores, more tables filled at the restaurants.
  • And maybe, just maybe, a few of the new apartment residents become parishioners of St. Margaret’s.

The cons:

  • The parish will need to find new space to hold meetings and gatherings (the reply of the council offered the rectory space as well as the available halls at Holy Spirit).
  • Any consideration of reopening or reusing the school permanently goes away (noting, commercial reuse isn’t really an option as the parish would lose their tax exempt status if they were to charge for activities unrelated to their religious mission).
  • A handful of residents (about seven houses) on the small Saranac South block would see increased car traffic.
  • A sentimental landmark to many will forever be changed.

In my opinion, not much in the way of cons.

For those that know me, they know that often I can’t withhold comment. So I spoke up once everyone said what they had to say. I am 100% in favor of the sale and proposed plans and I applaud the parish council for their extensive due diligence and for giving residents a voice in the discussion. I am also thrilled with the plans and extremely fair offer from Iskalo. 

In this case, it’s more than just rehabbing a few empty buildings. It’s about restoring the vitality of a church community. A huge blessing could be bestowed upon us…that is, if we don’t get in the way.

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