A former Hospice facility in Buffalo’s Fruit Belt will become a residential care center for mental health patients in crisis, after St. John Baptist Church and a Gowanda nonprofit agency won city approval this week.
Recovery Options Made Easy wants to convert a one-story building at 111 Maple St. into a medically supervised treatment operation, with two wings for overnight patients, a day-treatment wing, and a separate behavioral health urgent care facility that will be open to the public.
According to documents filed with the city and designs by Long Associates Architects, the two residential wings – called Respite Houses – would include 12 bedrooms, three bathrooms and common space for staff and residents, such as a kitchen, living room, laundry room and an activity area.
The respite care operation is aimed at people experiencing a mental health crisis but who don’t need the higher-end services like a hospital emergency room or in-patient admission.
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It would provide short-term care, with 24-hour peer support and other services to help patients before they return to independent living, as well as more intensive care that also includes 24-hour nursing support.
« These are individuals that are able to be independent in the community and are experiencing a mental health crisis, » said ROME CEO Shannon Higbee. « This is not a detox facility. We cannot accept individuals who are actively using substances. »
All spaces would be monitored and patients are supervised throughout a stay that usually ranges from one to 28 days, according to the documents, submitted by attorney Corey Auerbach, who represents ROME. The average stay is four days.
« The setting is naturally calm and therapeutic, geared towards healing residents, » Auerbach wrote in the application to the Buffalo Zoning Board of Appeals for a needed « use » variance, which was granted on Wednesday.
The 1,100-square-foot daytime-only urgent-care center would be run by Spectrum Health and Human Services, as an offshoot of an existing clinic at 1280 Main St.
The respite and urgent care programs are licensed by the state Office of Mental Health. Additionally, the Renewal Center – run by ROME and Western New York Independent Living – will help patients who are not staying over, using peer engagement and nursing support to link them to other services.
« We want individuals to come and feel at home while they are working through their mental health crises, » Higbee said.
ROME provides supportive housing and community assistance services for people suffering from mental health problems or substance abuse in a 19-county region from Western New York through the Finger Lakes.
It already offers the services planned for Maple at other facilities in Buffalo. The Renewal Center currently operates at Restoration Society’s Empowerment Academy building on Elm Street, while the short-term respite program is just off Military Road, and the urgent-care is on Main Street. The intensive respite is new to Erie County.
However, this is the first time the agency has co-located all of them, avoiding the need for someone in crisis to be transported across the city if they show up at the wrong place.
The project is a simple $500,000 conversion, since the 11,464-square-foot building was built in 2009 for 24-hour care of Hospice patients, after parishioners at St. John noted a disparity of such services for the black community. Besides being relatively new, it’s already handicapped-accessible, and its mechanicals and utility connections are designed for the same use. And it has four off-street parking spaces already.
The 0.76-acre property, which is zoned for neighborhood residential, is an irregularly shaped site that sits mostly along the east side of Maple between Virginia and Goodell streets, but also juts back toward Mulberry Street in two places. It’s just north of the Kensington Expressway and southeast of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, and it sits across from the nine-story, 151-unit St. John Towers Apartments.
The $2.8 million building was constructed by St. John Fruit Belt Community Development Corp., and Hospice operated there from 2009 until 2017, when it terminated its lease and moved to its location in Cheektowaga. WECGOD II – another church affiliate – bought the empty property in September 2019 for $1.5 million.
Since then, it was mostly mothballed, but also used for emotional support services and medical massages, until ROME came along, said Rev. Michael Chapman, pastor at St. John.
« Because our community is desperately in need of mental health services, we agreed to work with them, » Chapman said. « We think it’ll be a great match in the community. »
The Erie County Legislature approved more than $325,000 in funding to support the project.
The variance was needed because the Green Code changed the property’s original zoning in 2017. In its application, WECGOD pleaded « unnecessary hardship, » arguing that it « cannot realize a reasonable return and the lack of return is substantial, » because the market value of the property as « neighborhood residential » is much lower than the nonprofit’s $1.522 million investment into it.
Specifically, according to an independent appraisal report, the « highest and best use » currently would be as a « group home, » appraised at $690,000.
WECGOD also noted that the hardship is unique to the property, as a « low-impact medical use amongst multiple single and two-family dwellings, parking lots, churches and commercial buildings. » The nonprofit says it has one of the few properties in that area that doesn’t permit a residential care facility.