Niagara Gazette

December 8, 2012

Memorial facility slated for former Evelyn Apartments now heading to Highland Avenue

By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette —

A new state-of-the-art health center that was set to be built in the Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center's 10th Street corridor will now be going up in the city's North End.

Community Health Center of Buffalo, Inc., the not-for-profit that operates the Community Health Center of Niagara Falls out of the Hamilton B. Mizer Primary Care Center on 10th Street, revealed plans to build right next door to the Mizer building in early June. The organization planned to move out of the dated Mizer building and into the new facility upon completion. Those plans came shortly after U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., announced in May that the not-for-profit would receive a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to build the health center.

But Avery Bates, a spokesperson for the not-for-profit, presented plans to build the facility at 2715 Highland Ave. at a planning board meeting in early December. He said that the change in plans was the result of the not-for-profit's need to hit deadlines tied to the federal grant. The board passed a recommendation to the city council asking the city to sell the property to the not-for-profit so that they can move forward with the project and retain the grant.

"We were at risk of not receiving those funds," Bates said.

The not-for-profit had risked losing the grant earlier this year as well. The 10th Street site is home to the Evelyn Apartments, a 96-year-old building where former Niagara Gazette publisher Hamilton B. Mizer and Lily Rush, the first woman to earn a master's degree at Niagara University, once lived. 

The building was on the local registry for historic properties until June when the city council amended the city's historic preservation ordinance, allowing the council to strip historic sites of their local designation without the approval of the City of Niagara Falls Commission on Historic Preservation, the body with the authority to grant and rescind the local designation. That designation provides strong protections against demolition. The council amended the ordinance in an effort to expedite the land transfer from the hospital to the not-for-profit and meet the deadlines tied to the federal grant.

Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center bought the property from long-time owner Evelyn Pullo — the woman who fought hard to have the building designated as a local landmark — in June 2011. Pullo has said that she would like to see the building used as part of the medical campus if possible.

Memorial spokesperson Pat Bradley confirmed that the hospital never transfered ownership of the parcel and still holds deed to the land.

Mark Golden, the chief operating officer of Community Health Center of Buffalo, Inc., said that the delays caused by the process of stripping the Evelyn Apartments building of its local landmark designation caused the not-for-profit to miss the first set of deadlines associated with the grant and so the organization had to find a new location.

"We had federal deadlines that we could not meet and we just had to move forward," Golden said.

Golden said that the organization is still at risk of losing the grant if they can't meet deadlines tied the construction of the building.

"We're looking at about a year to get everything done," Golden said.

Golden said that the new facility will add 12 new positions to their workforce and maintain 14 full-time jobs — as was planned on 10th Street — and that the organization might be able to add a few more positions at the Highland Avenue health center.

"We'll add a few providers and staff members," Golden said.

The organization will also maintain plans to move out of the Mizer building when the new health center is complete, Golden said.

Representatives from the not-for-profit are scheduled to present to the city council at its Monday meeting and the council will vote on a resolution approving the sale of the parcel to the Community Health Center of Buffalo Inc. at the assessed value of $14,000.

The proposed Highland Avenue health center would be the same size as the one that was drawn up for the Memorial corridor - 23,000 sq. ft. -  but would have an expanded list of health services including dental, medical, radiological and pharmaceutical services, Bates said.

The center now operating out of the Mizer building is the first federally qualified health center — a clinic that takes patients regardless of their income or insurance status — in Niagara County.

"We believe that this project will enhance the community as well as enhance a much needed service to the neighbors of Niagara Falls," Bates said.

Tom DeSantis, the city's senior planner, said that the site is one of many in the north side that the city has considered using for development over the years, but never made progress.

"We're happy that somebody is interested in developing anywhere in the city, particularly in one of the areas that is most desperate for development," DeSantis said. "The planning office is, obviously, happy to make these sites available."