Converting Ascension Church into senior housing becomes confrontational

Nov 7, 2017

The fight over converting historic Ascension Church at Linwood Avenue and North Street into senior housing turned into something of a confrontation between Buffalo's Preservation Board and its Planning Board during Monday's Planning Board meeting.

The Episcopal Diocese and an affiliate want to convert the century-and-a-half-old church into 28 units of low-income senior housing, wading through regulations on three different levels of government and concern the rules for financing the project might change.

The project has been in the works for more than two years, as various approvals were sought and various design changes were made, shrinking the project and moving a new building.

Charles von Simson said it is still not worth building in his neighborhood and other residents agree.

"Many of them, most of them, including me, are stewards and I keep using that word of 100+-year-old houses, many of them as old as this church, and we do it at great expense as a labor of love to keep these things up," von Simson said, "and to just have this disregarded, to put the toaster in, as we christened it, put the toaster on this churchyard, just really disrespects the work and the commitment people have made to the neighborhood."

The Preservation Board does not like the project design. However, Diocese lawyer Marc Romanowski said the design has to work financially.

"You hear a lot of people when you are dealing with historic properties say, 'Oh, just leave it and someone will take it.' That's not how this works," Romanowski said. "Someone needs to make financial sense to make it work and part of the Episcopal Church's mission, their mission is to hold on to assets like this and use them for the community. So from their perspective, it's critical to their mission to be able to provide low-income housing in this area."

Romanowski is trying to get quick approvals - from the Planning Board Monday and from the city Zoning Board of Appeals and Preservation Board next week. He said without quick approvals, the project might die, leaving the building vacant, with the Preservation Board delaying approvals.

That board's chair, Paul McDonnell, was at the meeting, but said Romanowski was not completely accurate in his portrayal of what was going on.

"Approval, I think, was back in May from NPS, so we did not get it until October," McConnell said. "Therefore, it seems to be putting us into a really, really difficult situation of being said, 'we'll take it or leave it.' I mean, if it was approved in May, why couldn't they have been working with us during the summer, during the fall."