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Photo: Douglas Levere, BA '89
Town-gown interests converge in revitalizing area surrounding South Campus
By Ann Whitcher-Gentzke
Owner John Fusco serves up pizza to his largely UB customer base (top) while horticultural enthusiasts enjoy the annual Capen Garden Walk. (bottom) Photos: Nancy J. Parisi
It's a hot July afternoon at Zetti's Pizza & Pasta on the edge of the South Campus and a central casting moment for a would-be UB sitcom. Three University Facilities employees, all wearing UB shirts, chat about their work. A member of the UB men's basketball team lunches nearby. A young woman in scrubs hastily puts in her order before returning to her South Campus lab.
Owner John Fusco affably puts out the welcome mat for the entire UB community, accepting campus cash and displaying signs in his store window for events like UB in the Green. Doing so is only good business, says the Bronx native, who learned about his neighborhood's economic potential from a cousin who lives around the corner. “I thought it would be a great place to open a pizzeria—we served our first pie in 2004,” he says. The business is so successful that Fusco plans to open a second location near the North Campus this fall.
“Our business flies off the university—we work off each other's successes,” he says. “During lunchtime and during the day, we have a lot of people from the dental school or other graduate students or UB professors. At nighttime, we have all the undergrads. During the summer, it's mostly students from gross anatomy and nursing.”
Fusco's enthusiasm is precisely what campus officials hope to harness and replicate, as UB seeks to help revitalize the area around the South Campus. Most notably, it's funding a loan guaranty program for qualified UB employees who wish to buy homes there and help stabilize the neighborhood. It's also investing heavily in South Campus infrastructure by retrofitting or renovating several existing buildings. These university initiatives—including examining how UB interfaces with its neighbors—are part of a comprehensive plan to guide its projected 40 percent growth between now and 2020.
In a development Fusco says can only strengthen his pizza business, UB is retrofitting the former Acheson Hall as a new home for its School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, now on the North Campus. The building, to be completed in 2011, has been renamed in honor of John N. Kapoor, PhD '72, the pharmaceutical industry leader who has invested more than $10.8 million in his alma mater.
Beyond the bricks and mortar, though, UB is trying to rebuild subtle ties of fidelity and emotion, mending fences with some South Campus neighbors who were put off by the university's decision to move most of its academic operation to Amherst, beginning in the 1970s.
“Part of the strain on the relationship with the community has to do with this perception that UB had abandoned the South Campus and, therefore, the community,” says Vincent Clark, UB's director of community relations. “Yet the fact is we remain inextricably linked to the neighborhoods surrounding our three campuses. So the increasing investment you see with the pharmacy school move, for instance, is proof positive of our commitment to rebuild trust with the community, generating a feeling that ‘Maybe they do care about us.' That's what the community wants—tangible signs that we care.”
Dilapidated properties and student misbehavior are among the specific problems UB plans to address, working with residents. Indeed, like other universities located in urban areas—Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and Yale in New Haven, for instance—UB faces challenges in community relations and the expectations of its immediate neighbors. According to Clark and others, UB's goal is to come up with solutions that are tailored to Buffalo characteristics and traditions. It's also important, he says, to build programs with the full involvement of UB's neighbors.
“Oftentimes, the university is viewed as an ivory tower, as opposed to allowing community programs to develop more organically, which is what we're trying to do here in Buffalo,” Clark says.
In addition to the loan guaranty program, initiatives now under way include a farmers market, UB on the Green concert series, YMCA summer camp at Clark Hall and a successful community newsletter.
The 21 UB employees who've purchased homes through the loan guaranty program join about 500 fellow faculty and staff already residing in City of Buffalo neighborhoods adjacent to the South Campus that are covered by the program, Clark points out. Most of these new neighbors are settling in, enjoying and refurbishing their properties, and becoming active in South Campus community concerns as well. Their collective purchase price of $1.7 million represents another sign of neighborhood progress.
Barbara Cross, BA '04, assistant director of special events at UB and working on her MBA, is the kind of young professional the loan guaranty program hopes to attract to the immediate environs of the South Campus. Cross lives with her husband, Weston (BA '06), a graduate student in the UB geology department, on Montcalm Avenue in their 1925 home, purchased through the program.
“We have all the original woodwork,” Cross enthuses. “We really enjoy the character of the house and of the entire neighborhood. When we sit on our porch, we can look down the street and see that everyone has the same porch design,” she says, explaining that a common architect designed a half-dozen of these period homes. “We bought our house from an individual who had been trying to use it as a rental. But the previous owner was there for 30 years. So it needed updating—but it was a well-kept and well-loved house.”
Alexander Hurd, an assistant professor of music, bought his house through the UB Home Loan Guaranty Program. He says his neighborhood “is incredibly quiet and peaceful.” Photo: Jessica Biegaj
“One of the key things is that the homeowner be present,” says Kenneth Ehrenberg, assistant professor of philosophy, who also bought his University Avenue home through the loan guaranty program. “It makes the biggest difference. Places that are among the nicest neighborhoods in Buffalo and those closer by that aren't quite as nice—it comes down to zoning. If some areas are single-family zoned and others are zoned for multiple dwellings, it's a lot harder to get everyone on the same page.”
“Failing a change in zoning, the challenge is to figure out ways to get the short-term residents or renters to be more participatory—to help keep up the neighborhood and to do their part.”
In this spring's “Neighbor to Neighbor—UB Paints” event, teams of volunteers—including students, staff, alumni and community members—did just that along Englewood Avenue, where many rental properties remain eyesores to longtime residents.
Meanwhile, throughout the year, student renters are being prodded to pick up after themselves, and, especially, to refrain from loud parties and behavior that upsets their neighbors. UB's “door hanger” campaign, for example, advises students of their responsibilities as neighbors while warning them of the hazards implicit in an urban setting. Likewise, language on the flipside of the door hanger tells residents whom to call if they're experiencing nuisance issues with UB students.
“The door hanger says it all,” says Dennis R. Black, JD '81, UB's vice president for student affairs. In his view, such targeted pieces convey that “together as neighbors we can build partnerships that will benefit our entire community. The best way to build community is through cooperation and consideration—that's what we work toward.”
If there are problems involving UB students, an off-campus liaison is available to troubleshoot and offending students are brought before UB's Student-wide Judiciary. Clark reports a low recidivism rate among past offenders who've been disciplined in this manner.
David Ellerbrock is a research scientist and engineer at Delphi Thermal who's currently president of the University Heights Collaborative. The Michigan native describes the collaborative as an umbrella group for residents and business owners without block clubs to call their own. In fact, many block clubs in the neighborhood no longer exist “because of the high ‘rentification' of neighborhoods,” Ellerbrock explains. “One of our main objectives is to reestablish neighborhood-watch training as a precursor to more active block clubs—this has been happening.
“Residents are primarily concerned about loud student parties, about quality-of-life issues with blight and neighborhood deterioration, about crime—robberies and even a homicide,” says Ellerbrock, referring to the December 2007 shooting of a young man, not a UB student, outside a high school fraternity event on Winspear Avenue and his death 11 days later.
“That's in their face when it comes to thinking about relationships with the university,” says Ellerbrock. “My sense is that it's getting better in terms of our conversations with UB about ideas that can be implemented.” For example, he reports “good cooperation” with the University Police and with District E of the Buffalo Police Department and NFTA Police concerning crime issues. (The university recently extended its police patrol to campus perimeter streets, including Bailey, Main and Winspear.)
For her part, Maureen Milligan of Winspear Avenue relishes the collegiate feel and thinks fellow residents could do more to welcome students nearby. “I love diversity—I thrive on it,” says Milligan, who runs her own math tutoring business and also works at Buffalo State College where she coordinates a grant providing professional development to middle school science teachers. “The vast majority of UB students residing in the neighborhood are really good people—especially if you get to know them,” she says.
“When I moved into the neighborhood 10 years ago, I knew what I was getting into—I had been a college student not so long before,” Milligan states. “However, I now expect certain things from my new student neighbors. I introduce myself and I tell them, ‘You're moving into a community where mutual respect is called for.' I talk to people in the beginning—I set the tone.”
Helping to forge cooperation and tackle specific problems, Clark's office regularly convenes the Problem Properties Task Force, in which law enforcement and other interested parties meet to find solutions to such issues as code violations, neighborhood blight and underage drinking.
Shortly after he moved into his home on University Avenue in 2003, Michael Pietkiewicz, UB's assistant vice president for government relations, had a sour introduction to the neighborhood but remained undeterred in his enthusiasm for what it had to offer.
“The first year we were there, somebody broke into the garage,” Pietkiewicz says. “I looked around for a block club to help address the issue and finding none I took the reins.
Members of the UB Bulls football team sign autographs
for youngsters participating in the YMCA
camp held this past summer at Clark Hall.
Photo: Nancy J. Parisi
“I love the neighborhood and I believe that if you have love for something, you fight for it,” says Pietkiewicz, who is now president of the University Park Block Club. “I didn't want to passively accept the situation, put out a sign and head to the suburbs, because they have the same problems out there.”
While certainly there are peak occurrences of nuisance issues, such as student noise, Pietkiewicz believes these have more to do with quality of life, rather than safety. “We also have an issue when students become easy targets for more unscrupulous individuals in terms of preying on kids going home late by themselves who've had a couple of drinks,” he says.
“I don't begrudge students having their parties,” he adds. “Rather, it's the lack of respect for the people living there full time. They need to realize it's not just a fraternity party—you're profoundly disturbing people who really love and care about their neighborhood.”
Also working toward increased neighborliness and understanding is Thelma Roberts, BS '71, who lives with her husband, Ira, on Stockbridge Avenue, her home for the past 20 years.
“I started our block club about 10 years ago. One of the things I like most about our street is the stability of the residents—they've been here for a while,” says Roberts. “No one is interested in moving or leaving the area. There's a genuine interest in the upkeep of our properties, and we genuinely care about each other.”
Now retired as executive director of Homespace, a social agency devoted to young single parents and their children, Roberts says she appreciates the fact that UB has become more visible in her neighborhood. “UB on the Green and the level of student involvement—doing clean-up and other chores to help us improve the neighborhood—I really like that,” she says.
“Something else that pleased me is the partnership with the YMCA for an on-campus summer camp, which I read about in UB Neighbor. My two nieces visiting their father from Atlanta were able to participate this past summer, and they loved it.”
Then there's the aesthetic consideration of still-lovely homes, eye-catching architectural detail, and gardens enhanced by walkability and the urban beat. Many residents find this an irresistible combination.
“People don't realize the wonderful architecture that exists in Buffalo,” says Ehrenberg. “The main positive to the loan guaranty program is the fact that new faculty and staff—the ones who are coming out of school—really have access to the great architecture of Buffalo.”
Ehrenberg finds some similarities between New Haven, where he lived while attending Yale, and his current South Campus neighborhood. “In a way, University Heights is a kind of compression of a lot of different areas of New Haven put together in a closer space. There are some great houses here, and it's easy to go back and forth to both campuses.”
“I love the fact that I live in a walkable neighborhood,” adds Pietkiewicz. “It's a suburban enclave when you're on the street in the neighborhood. Then when you turn the corner you're back in an urban environment—with a city feel to it—where there are restaurants, services, things we all can walk to easily. Since I've lived here, I've had several friends and former coworkers move in because I suggested it.”
Milligan also is an ambassador for the area, intent on spreading the word. “Our neighborhood could become much better if more faculty, staff and alumni moved in,” she says. “There are still really beautiful houses available at really great prices.
“I'm thinking of buying another house here and becoming a local landlord, who would really tend to things, including keeping the gardens going and checking on the property.
“It doesn't take that much if everybody does their special part.”
Ann Whitcher-Gentzke is editor of UB Today.
The university has launched several initiatives to spur neighborhood development and to solidify ties with its neighbors:
In 2007, the University at Buffalo Foundation increased to $5 million the total funds available to guarantee home loans for university employees. In addition, three new lending institutions have joined the program. Eligible faculty and staff members can finance up to 120 percent of the purchase price of a home, including renovations and closing costs, without a down payment or private mortgage insurance. Eligible are homes that fall within the boundaries of Kenmore Avenue, Main Street and Winspear Avenue on the north; Eggert Road on the east; East Amherst Street, and Bailey, Berkshire, Westminster and Hewitt avenues on the south; and Main Street and the former Conrail line on the west.
Though only two years in the running, the Farmers Market on Main Street at the edge of the South Campus already is having an impact on the neighborhood. Goods are available for every taste—a first-time visitor in July purchased fresh corn, blueberries, plums, baklava, a homemade sachet and glass earrings. Six thousand people visited the Farmers Market in 2007. There is no charge for vendors to participate.
Photo: Nancy J. Parisi
Opening the 2008 concert series—which provides family-friendly, free entertainment on four consecutive Tuesday evenings—on Hayes Hall lawn July 22, Steve Lucky, Carmen Getit and the Rhumba Bums performed high-energy swing music. Complementing the stage performance were audience antics, such as children's impromptu cartwheels and blowing bubbles and a hula contest, as members of “Swing Buffalo” danced nearby beneath their own tent. The summer's line-up continued July 29 with Dance Brazil and August 5 with the Anat Cohen Quartet. Wrapping up the series August 12 were two crowd-pleasing, culturally diverse dance companies—Live in Color Dance Collective and Illstyle & Peace Productions.
Photo: Nancy J. Parisi
In fall 2006, the university launched UB Neighbor, an eight-page, quarterly newsletter exclusively geared to its South Campus neighbors. In addition to describing upcoming events and campus initiatives, the newsletter has become an important communication tool both from the university's standpoint and within the neighborhood. UB Neighbor, which reaches 17,000 households in the neighborhood, won a 2008 bronze award in a national competition sponsored by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education in the category of external audience newsletters and tabloids.
Photo: Douglas Levere, BA '89