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New development strategic plan begins in Fruit Belt

For many residents of Buffalo's Fruit Belt, recent years have been a battle, trying to save the community against the all-enveloping Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and developers. The neighborhood now has new weapons to save an old community.

The Fruit Belt has had ups and downs, especially downs in recent years. City Hall helped with a moratorium on land sales to keep developers from swooping in and buying the 200 or so city-owned vacant lots and around 100 privately-owned lots, while a strategic plan was developed.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

The moratorium is being lifted in phases, with the first lift allowing homeowners to buy vacant lots next to their homes, perhaps for a garage or a garden. The lots cannot be sold to a random developer. However, it also clears the way for projects like Ellicott Development's replacement of the old St. Paul Mall and a grocery store on High Street, long planned by St. John Baptist Church.

Common Council President Pridgen said he is really excited about the new strategic plan, but one problem cannot be reversed.

"Nothing is totally going to eliminate the negative effects of gentrification, nothing," Pridgen said, "but by having land that is being held for 99 years for low-income and working people, it at least gives people half a chance to stay in the neighborhood."

The new system sets up a Fruit Belt Advisory Committee that will make recommendations to the Council about individual projects, recommendations Pridgen says a smart councilmember will accept.

"They didn't want a fire sale in the Fruit Belt. They didn't want where one developer may come in and just buy up all the lots without a plan," he said. "They want to make sure they had some voice, that there was a rhyme and reason as to why the city would sell any other lot."

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

On Wednesday, the Fruit Belt was so hot the trees were comfortable and residents were in the shade if they could. Kenny Olden was not convinced the residents will get that much of a voice.

"No. No way then," Olden said. "I don't think they will ever get that. (laughter)"

One resident who did not want his name used said one perennial problem still needs to be resolved.

"We're just labeled here," he said. "People come from the suburbs to get drugs from here and take them back out there. That's why they come out here and go to the bars out here and then go back home. It ain't the inner city, it's the outer city coming in. Who's parking on the side? The suburbs people."

Different residents have different hopes for the Fruit Belt, from fixing sidewalks so people will not fall into holes to putting more tot lots around the community so kids can play and parents can watch them.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

"That's comfortable for these parents who got little children, so they don't have to be running up and down the street or in the street, playgrounds," said Beverly Nathan. "And I'm not for one big one. We got a big Fruit Belt. We got lots on every corner, little places for the little kids, with tables and the little swings and the parents can go sit there with their kids and watch them play."

Nathan says she has been in the Fruit Belt all her life and said it needs help, but help residents prepare. She does not like the new controlled parking situation.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.