This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

UB joins planning for overhaul
of Perry Choice community

Henry Louis Taylor is spearheading an effort to return Buffalo’s Commodore Perry neighborhood to the thriving, diverse community it used to be. Photo: DOUGLAS LEVERE

Published: January 26, 2012

The Center for Urban Studies has joined a massive effort by the city of Buffalo and the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority to develop a plan to restructure, redevelop and rehabilitate downtown Buffalo’s seriously declining Commodore Perry neighborhood and turn it into the vibrant, sustainable community it once was.

The effort is part of the BMHA Perry Choice Neighborhood Initiative, or BMHA-PCN, now in its assessment/strategic planning stage, funded by a $250,000 planning grant awarded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Choice Neighborhood Initiative.

The grants went to 17 proposals nationwide out of a pool of 119 applications.

The strategic plan is being produced by Henry Louis Taylor, professor of urban and regional planning and director of the Center for Urban Studies, a research and community development unit in the School of Architecture and Planning. It will be submitted by the BMHA to HUD to compete for a $30 million implementation grant.

“If the BMHA receives the implementation grant,” Taylor says, “the $30 million will be used to leverage $200 million or more from local businesses, foundations and other resources, with which to accomplish our aims.”

Those aims include an ambitious overhaul of what was a once-thriving, multi-ethnic, multi-racial neighborhood that in some respects—but not all—has been in decline for more than a half-century.

The Perry Choice neighborhood is bounded by South Park Avenue on the south, Smith Street to the east, Sycamore Street to the north and Michigan Avenue to the west. Historically, working-class African-American Buffalonians shared this industrial-residential community with a mix of Poles, Italians, Germans, Canadians, British, Irish, Russians, Austrians, Hungarians, Swedish, Czechs and Romanians who worked in area grain mills, on the docks and for the dozens of manufacturing plants that continue to flourish there. Today, most residents are African American, and most are poor.

Taylor says the project will require the demolition or rehabilitation of about 414 boarded-up, neglected and/or decrepit public housing units and their replacement with safe, new, clean affordable housing. But it goes far beyond that.

“If we expect positive outcomes, then the only approach to take is one that comprehensively attacks social, physical and educational deficiencies,” he says. “We can’t just replace some housing, physically beef up school buildings and say, ‘There. We’re done.’ It hasn’t worked in the past and it won’t work now.

“We have to eradicate the decay,” he says, “and build a cradle-to-college-and/or-career mini-educational pipeline that will feed students into associated schools. We also need to launch a LEED-based neighborhood development strategy that emphasizes smart growth, green housing and design, walkability, access to transportation and proximity to jobs and services, particularly to jobs (and training for jobs) in the multitude of manufacturing and health care institutions in the community. We are devising a plan to provide for all of this.”

Taylor calls this set of wrap-around services to support education, health, social and physical regeneration outcomes for all residents a tall order.

“Our proposal would establish a healthier community through community agriculture programs and better grocery markets featuring fresh produce, and even includes a plan for in-neighborhood transportation to and from those stores, which are difficult to reach on foot, particularly for the elderly and disabled,” he says.

Taylor acknowledges the plan is exceptionally ambitious and comprehensive,
“but essential if we are to overcome the decades of poor planning, poverty and neglect that have decimated so much of this community,” he says.

What angers him is the assumption that people who are poor or who live in decaying neighborhoods or in public housing don’t care about where they live or about their children or about getting a better job.

“That is absolutely not true,” he says. “These parents care deeply about their kids’ welfare, but many are living below the poverty line and most are grossly unsupported in their efforts to assist their kids’ educations. If there is no place—or room—at home in their tiny apartments in which their kids can study, no accessible libraries, no healthy sources of food, poor transportation, high levels of gang activity, a built environment that is grim and falling apart—what can we expect of these families or the children they are raising?

“They need jobs. They need decent housing, safe streets and libraries. They need their community back. It is a big, big job, but that is precisely our aim here.”

To aid in the effort, the BMHA-PCN will, at its outset, establish a strong research and evaluation component. The goal is to devise a system of data gathering and analysis, develop a set of metrics for evaluating the project and create a system of formative and summary evaluations that will drive the initiative and measure outcomes, transforming the initiative into an evidence-based project.

With this documentation, Taylor expects the Perry redevelopment efforts to catalyze the renewal of two other neighborhoods anchored by two other BMHA housing projects: the Kowal Apartments on Sobieski Street near the Broadway Market and Woodson Gardens in the Fruit Belt. Both neighborhoods are slated for renewed, restored and/or brand new housing programs.

For more information, visit the Perry Choice Neighborhood Planning Initiative website.