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Buffalo News,   September 14, 1998  by Dick Dawson

      Now comes the hard part.

       Five million dollars for 100 rolling, postcard-pretty acres of parkland in the heart of their densely populated suburb was too good a deal for Amherst officials to pass up.

       But the package includes a four-story building that has housed an order of nuns for the past 70 years.

       What do you do with the building?

       Town officials are just beginning to wrestle with the question as a November closing approaches on the purchase of the Sisters of St. Francis property and St. Mary of the Angels motherhouse off Reist and Mill streets, just outside the Village of Williamsville.

       A few months ago, people were caught up "in the excitement over getting the park," Amherst Council Member Jane S. Woodward said last week.

       "Now, I think the realization is just sinking in that, oh my God, we've got an aging, 110,000-square-foot building. What are we going to do with it?"

       Town Board members say that although it isn't for sale, they want no part of the $200,000 a year it has been estimated it would take just to maintain the aging but beautifully kept-up motherhouse -- not to mention the $8 million architects say it would take to renovate it for most uses.

       Active municipal involvement in the building "would be like Hitler invading Russia -- easy to get in, very hard to get out," quipped Bill Kindel, another board member.

       The $5 million deal, half financed by state environmental bond money, will give the town the motherhouse and 19 acres around it, plus about seven acres off Sheridan Drive with commercial potential.

       For its money, the state gets 61 acres, including an orchard and meadows, for a new state park, which will be leased to and maintained by the town, officials say. Flynn Battaglia Architects, the firm hired to solicit interest from private developers, met with town officials twice this week to get an idea of what uses town fathers have in mind for the building -- but, more importantly, what they won't tolerate.

       Already out of the picture, according to board members, are a senior citizens center, a new Town Hall, a shopping mall, and virtually any other high-volume retail use.

       "Sensitivity to the neighborhood is more important to us than dollars" from a private developer who might lease the building from the town, Kindel said.

       "We're not in the business to make money, although if we could stop losing money, now that would be refreshing," he said.

       "Just as long as you realize that there must be some level of profitability before someone will take it off your hands," a Flynn Battaglia executive said.   Architects invited board members to send them their comments and ideas in writing. A community meeting on the motherhouse issue is tentatively planned for Oct. 3 at a time and location still to be determined, officials said.

       The more restricted the possibilities the town will allow, the less interest a project is likely to have in the development community, architects said.

       "Developers appreciate -- and require -- some specificity about the kinds of activities that the community will find acceptable before they will commit much effort to developing a response," Flynn Battaglia explained in a written report this week.

       "At the same time, developers also appreciate a degree of flexibility so they can tailor their proposal to their perception of the real estate market, and also distinguish themselves from the competition with a creative approach," the report added.

       "For some private uses, and for some potential developers, there may be a minimize size threshold, under which the project would not be worth their effort," Flynn Battaglia said, adding that "a private use component of 80,000 to 100,000-square-feet or more is most likely to attract the interest of non-local private developers.

       Officials say potential private uses include senior housing, conference facilities, residential condominiums, rental apartments, leased or condominium-owned offices and institutional.

       Possible public uses suggested at a community meeting in May include a youth center, library, concert venue for the Amherst Symphony Orchestra and art gallery.

       Mrs. Woodward this week urged her colleagues to keep an open mind on possible ventures, be they public or private.

       "There might be something out there we haven't thought of," she said. "I'm not in favor of municipal uses there, but there may be some public uses . . . that would be good for the community and bring in some money," she said.

       MARK MULVILLE/Buffalo News

     Amherst faces a dilemma over the St. Mary of the Angels motherhouse.

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