Getting together with the neighbors: a common cause
About twenty people are gathered in a large meeting room at the Gloria J. Parks Community Center at the corner of Main and Heath Streets and near UB's South Campus. Present are a few local business owners, neighborhood residents and a few landlords; two UB students; a representative from University District Councilmember Kevin Helfer's office; a Buffalo police officer; Danis Gehl, from UB's Center for Urban Studies; Ed Brodka, from UB's Office of Student Life, who has called the meeting; and other interested parties.
The group, in one configuration or another, meets informally at least once a semester to deal with problems that arise between the people of the University Heights community and UB-problems that more often than not concern the several thousand UB students who live in the neighborhood. Brodka has called this session to discuss pedestrian safety after a hit-and-run fatality on Main Street.
Dave Mercer, who is cochair of the Englewood Avenue block club, says he also wants to talk about the university's plans to build apartments for students near its North Campus in Amherst.
When the meeting finally moves to that topic, Mercer makes an impassioned statement denouncing what he suspects are UB's plans to draw students away from the neighborhood. "If we lose the students, then this area becomes a slum." Business owners and residents nod in agreement.
It's a convenient cue for Brodka to introduce Danis Gehl, who is there, coincidentally, to make a presentation on something called the University Community Initiative. She distributes a handout that summarizes the planning and development project ("with the emphasis on development"). She starts to describe it. She doesn't get far.
"You talk about 'reinventing' the neighborhood. What if we don't want to get reinvented?"
"Take this back with you: They spent billions of dollars out there and the students still live here. Why keep fighting us-join us."
"The money's going north!"
"I'm under the feeling that the neighborhood is stable-because of the students."
The neighborhood is not, in fact, as stable as some of the participants at the Gloria Parks meeting suggest. Dave Mercer's concern that his neighborhood would become a slum if the students left acknowledges an uncomfortable perception that all is not well in University Heights.
A 1994 proposal drafted by UB's Center for Urban Studies for what would become the University Community Initiative calls Buffalo's University District "a fragile community standing at the crossroads." After detailing demographic changes that have occurred there since 1970, the report states that "most significantly, field observations suggest that neighborhood confidence is waning. 'For Sale' signs are omnipresent, and higher-income groups-black and white-are leaving. Today it is a trickle, but unless something is done it will become a flood."
The proposal that contained this warning was an early step in what has become an increasingly concerted effort by UB to create a unique working relationship among university faculty, Amherst and Buffalo city planners and housing specialists, politicians, civic leaders and other stakeholders and community residents.
"UB has both moral and self-interested reasons to act," says Dr. Henry Taylor, director of UB's Center for Urban Studies and a principal force in crafting the University Community Initiative. "Whatever happens in the community will have some effect on the campus."
Although a large part of the university has indeed "gone north" to Amherst, the campus on Main Street, which serves primarily as UB's health sciences center, is there to stay-and to stay in a large way.
UB expects to invest as much as $100 million in the South Campus over the next decade, and projects that external research funding for South Campus-based programs will reach $40 million annually by the year 2001. South Campus health-care clinics and research centers currently average almost 100,000 patient visits a year, and this figure will grow with the addition of expanded ambulatory medical care facilities. UB is also enhancing its South Campus recreational facilities and programming for community use.
But can the university change its neighborhood? UB is, after all, just another resident, albeit a large one. As the draft proposal states, "the University Community's future is jeopardized by a complex set of interacting social, economic and political forces operating within the context of metropolitan development."
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