Published by Buffalo News | By Mark Sommer | July 18, 2017
Mohammad Kabir bought a vacant and dilapidated neighborhood church on the Buffalo’s East Side five years ago at the city's tax sale for $1,000.
The city ordered the former Salem Evangelical Reformed Church at 413 Sherman St. torn down last week, and the job cost taxpayers $211,000.
City officials said they will try to force the owner to pay for demolition, but they aren’t hopeful.
After all, Kabir of Brooklyn did little with the building as it deteriorated.
And the reality is that there are a lot of deteriorating churches and other large properties that are likely to meet similar fates in the years to come at hefty taxpayer expense, said James Comerford, commissioner of the city’s Department of Permit and Inspection Services.
“We have St. Matthews on East Ferry that’s falling in,” he said. “It’s so frustrating that we get to this point. It upsets me that it’s going to happen again, but unfortunately a lot of these properties are beyond saving. And our first priority is public safety.”
Only the south bell tower remains of the 7,000-square-foot church on Sherman, a concession to neighbors who wanted it saved.
“I didn’t want to tear that building down, but we had to,” Comerford said, “It was getting worse and worse, the neighbors were complaining, the council president was complaining and it was a hazard to the community.”
Comerford said the building was shown to a would-be buyer in the past two years, but the person couldn’t enter because the inside was too unsafe. An attempt to interest others also failed, he said.
Kabir has been fined $21,000 in Housing Court for code violations, but hasn’t paid anything, Comerford said.
“We will force the owner to court and make him pay the bill for the demolition,” Comerford said, though he conceded the chance of success is low. “He will never buy property around here again.”
Council President Darius Pridgen was among those who pushed for demolition of the yellow-brick building, located adjacent to Sycamore Street.
The church was founded by a German congregation in 1873. The building torn down opened in 1908 at a cost of $30,000.
Cornell Schultz, who has lived on Sherman Street for more than 50 years, said it was a shame to see the building torn down -- but also necessary.
“I never thought this would happen in my lifetime, but they let it go too far, and it needed too much repair,” Schultz said. “If it had been taken care of all along, then it’d be something that you still want to see. But it was too far gone.”
Stephen Karnath, executive director of Broadway Fillmore Neighborhood Housing Services, intervened to save the south bell tower from being torn down. He also was able to salvage several curved pews, three candeliers and the front doors.
Kabir seemed well-intentioned but ill-equipped to tackle such a big project, Karnath said.
"He was in over his head," Karnath said.
Kabir is willing to sell the property to the organization for $1, he said. That’s something the board will discuss, along with purchasing an adjacent lot at Sycamore from the city and then combine the lots to develop as low-income housing using tax credits. The bell tower could be incorporated into the design, he said.
Comerford said a housing project there would be welcome.
“At least we would have some kind of a positive outcome from what turned out to be a negative situation caused by an out-of-town owner who let the property deteriorate,” he said.
A house next to the church was also severely damaged by the demolition last week. The owner and Metro Environmental are negotiating on a price and are $10,000 apart, a source said.