[Note: An abbreviated version of this posting was published as a letter-to-the-editor in the Buffalo News “Everybody’s Column” on October 31, 2019. You can read it here.]
Jonathan D. Epstein, the business reporter at the Buffalo News, must have experienced a really slow news day in mid-October. Or, perhaps, Jonathan decided to do a favor and float a trial balloon for the three local firefighters – John Otto, Peter Scarcello, and Gino Gatti – who comprise the Hook & Ladder development company.
On October 15, Mr. Epstein and our region’s largest newspaper treated the following as newsworthy: (1) Hook & Ladder is “exploring the possibility of putting a brewery in the former St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church” on Seneca Street. (2) An existing deed restriction mandated by the Catholic Diocese whenever it sells a former church building bars a brewery in a former house of worship. (3) A brewery would be possible only if the diocese “gives its blessing.”
Former St. John’s church, 2317 Seneca St.
Detail from St. John’s Façade.
This story might have been worth the ink and paper used to produce the Buffalo News print version on October 16, 2019 had the Hook & Ladder boys already reached out to the diocese to discuss the concept of a brewery in the vacant church building. But, according to the article, that critical step had not occurred: “Diocese spokeswoman Kathy Spangler said they have not been contacted yet by Hook & Ladder about future development of the church.”
Whether or not the article was a premature, I found it both surprising and disappointing that Hook & Ladder would be giving any thought to installing a brewery at the corner of Seneca Street and Saint John’s Parkside.
After all, when Epstein initially reported Hook & Ladder’s purchase of the St. John’s property in January 2017 for $175,000 – under the too-cute headline, “Firefighters answer call to revive Seneca Street” – the firefighting team made no mention of a brewery. Rather, they expressed plans for 12 loft-style residential apartments on the second floor (which, I assume, is still part of the development company’s vision), and a deli, coffee shop or similar business in the front of the building, with office or other retail in back.
And, the company’s motto is: “We are committed to improving our community one property at a time.” In my humble opinion as a South Buffalo homeowner and resident, a brewery is not the way to attain that worthy goal.
Here are the primary reasons that I urge the diocese – when and if they are approached by Hook & Ladder – to quickly douse any spark or flame that could intensify into a full-blown brewery in old St. John’s:
– The former church has three sensitive neighbors. On one side is Grace House, a non-profit healthcare hospitality house, which promises patients and their families “overnight stays and day respite in a secure and peaceful guest house.”
Grace House, 2315 Seneca St.
Side yard between St. John’s and Grace House.
To the church’s rear is Baker Victory Service’s St. John’s Parkside Early Childhood Program, which offers “child care in a nurturing environment” on a “safe and accessible campus.”
Baker Victory Service’s Early Childhood facility, 51 St. Park’s Parkside.
View down St. John’s Parkside from Seneca St.
Steps away from the former St. John’s is the entrance to the busy and family-centric Cazenovia Park.
Entrance to Cazenovia Park at Seneca St./Warren Spahn Way with St. John’s in background.
– The zoning status of the property bars a brewery. The former house of worship is zoned “N-3R Residential” under Buffalo’s zoning and development ordinance, the “Green Code” (as are the neighboring hospitality house and early childhood program facilities). Neither a brewery, nor a restaurant, is permitted in a N-3R district.
While I don’t know whether Hook & Ladder’s principals took care to consider zoning constraints prior to purchasing the property, they may want to check out two potential uses for the former church under the Green Code: a cultural facility, or a bed-and-breakfast, would be allowed in the structure if a “special use permit” is approved by the City’s Common Council.
– There are plenty of places to get a drink on Seneca Street. The Seneca Street neighborhood doesn’t need another place to drink beer or other alcoholic beverages. Within four-tenths of a mile of the former church building there are six establishments where you can buy a drink, including the recently renovated Blackthorn Restaurant & Pub, the trendy Rocker Bottle Beer Reserve, and the old-time Daly’s Bar. There are also two liquor stores.
My suggestion: Let’s encourage Hook & Ladder to find a meaningful use for this historic structure, activities that will truly enhance the Seneca Street/Cazenovia Park neighborhood.
With All Due Respect,