Starting over from scratch
A plan to tear down a declining Cheektowaga neighborhood and put up a mix of homes, stores and offices has divided residents and officials
By BARBARA O'BRIEN
News Southtowns Bureau
In order to save the neighborhood, it must be destroyed.
The concept is difficult to explain to the residents of Cheektowaga's Cedargrove area, and difficult for them to accept.
Every one of the 300 homes would be torn down, along with the 700 apartment units there. In their place, a new neighborhood - with a new vision - would go up.
It would be a mix of single-family homes, row houses and brownstones, as well as park areas, stores and office buildings with apartments above the offices.
If the idea seems radical, it is. While housing developments are proposed all the time in Buffalo's suburbs, a plan like the one in Cheektowaga is all but unheard of here. It comes from Dominic Piestrak, who has built some of the most successful housing developments in the area, including Spaulding Lake.
Cheektowaga officials take the proposal very seriously.
"If it happens, this becomes a textbook case for the rest of the nation on how to change a neighborhood," Supervisor Dennis H. Gabryszak said. "We keep it the way it is, it's going to be the East Side."
Residents agree their aging neighborhood has fallen victim to the problems wrought by absentee landlords and their tenants: a deteriorating housing stock, junk, rodents and crime. They have pleaded with the town to help them. But this is more than they asked for, some say.
"It just needs fixing up. It doesn't need tearing down," said Joan Adams, president of Cedargrove Neighborhood Action Committee.
Other neighbors are excited at the prospect.
"I see hope, I see light," said Pam Walters, who has lived in Cedargrove for 20 years. "Our houses, they depreciate daily. Ten years from now, you're not going to be able to pay someone to buy your house."
The demolition and construction would be completed in phases over a three- to five-year period, so that not everyone would have to move at once. And Piestrak wants the existing residents to help in planning its renovation and to live in the reconstituted neighborhood.
Affordability an issue
The plan has not gone over well with some longtime residents, who believe they would not be able to afford the new homes - which are supposed to start at about $120,000.
"I don't like it. What am I going to do, give up my home?" said Robert Atwood, a retiree whose home is paid off. "They want to build $80,000 homes here. If we could afford an $80,000 home, would we be here?" said Adams, 61, who has lived at Cedargrove her whole life.
About 40 percent of the roughly 1,900 residents own their homes, and 21 percent live in poverty, according to the 2000 Census. The median household income is $27,550.
Piestrak, who has built exclusive subdivisions in Clarence and Orchard Park, said he wants to build market-rate housing that is affordable. He is working on financing that would make it possible for residents to stay in Cedargrove. It might involve paying property owners more than their property is worth and finding low-interest loans for new mortgages.
A tough sell
He figures it will cost about $50 million to buy all the property, relocate residents and prepare the infrastructure for the new neighborhood.
"You can't expect the people to pay the cost of getting a moving van," he said.
Constructing the new houses would be millions more.
"Some people will take the money and leave," he said.
Others will take the money and put it toward a new home in Renaissance Village, as the new development is being called.
But not everyone will agree to sell, which would require the town to condemn the holdout properties.
"If we need to, the town could use eminent domain," Gabryszak said.
There is not unanimous support on the Town Board. Councilman Thomas M. Johnson Jr. said he opposes any plan to displace residents from their homes.
A case argued last week in U.S. Supreme Court may have some sway on the extent to which the town could use eminent domain.
The court heard the case of seven families in New London, Conn., who refused to leave when the city condemned their property and more than 90 other acres. That city wants to build a hotel and convention center, office space and condominiums. The court will decide when governments can condemn property to encourage private development.
The focus on inner-city redevelopment and attention paid to outer suburban growth leaves first-ring suburbs in a "blind spot," says Robert Puentes, a fellow for the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program.
Court decision awaited
The biggest problem is in assembling enough contiguous land for a new development, which is when eminent domain would be used, he said, and that's why he's waiting for the Supreme Court decision.
Cedargrove is situated next to the Kensington Expressway, minutes from the Thruway and airport and 10 minutes from downtown Buffalo.
It's a neighborhood of apartment houses and single-family homes that was created during World War II for hundreds of workers making planes at Curtiss Wright Corp. on Genesee Street. Some of those workers stayed in Tiorunda, as the neighborhood now bounded by Harlem Road, the Kensington Expressway/Maryvale Drive, the Thruway and Beryl Drive was known. There are about 700 apartment units and about 300 single-family homes in the 155-acre section. Many people have lived there for years, like Atwood, a 40-year resident. He said the neighborhood should be revitalized, not reconstructed.
"Since World War II we've separated people so efficiently by income," said William W. Tuyn, project manager for Greenman Pedersen, who is working on the proposal. "That's not the way communities used to be built."