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Adieu to big development Amherst has no space for huge projects

If you're looking to build big in Amherst and haven't yet made the investment, look elsewhere.

The region's largest town enjoyed a three-decades-long reputation as the place where large-scale office campuses, giant commercial plazas and sprawling subdivisions could quickly set roots on open land and prosper.

Those days are over.

Major developers agree that finding large, available tracts of green space in Amherst is no longer realistic. Opportunities for redevelopment and smaller-scale new construction still abound, but finding room for bigger projects on virgin land is daunting.

"You're just not going to find those types of properties anymore unless you go out to areas like Millersport," said Jim Dentinger, president of McGuire Group, "and then you're dealing with environmental issues like wetlands."

Developers know that Amherst's heart -- the southern end stretching across Eggertsville, Snyder and Williamsville -- has been squeezed tight for years.

Large-scale builders responded by moving farther north, increasingly building on subprime locations and taking greater investment risks. Many are now left to consider land riddled with sewer line, zoning, access and environmental problems.

"There are very few viable parcels," said Elliot Lasky, a large-scale residential developer in the midst of building out the 100-acre Lake Forest subdivision along Campbell Boulevard.

Amherst has ridden the suburban development wave to its crest since the construction of the University at Buffalo North Campus in the 1970s.

But these days, developable green space is scarce, and town leaders want to preserve what little open land remains.

The town's comprehensive plan, adopted earlier this year, moves away from a "suburbanization" model that encourages the development of open land to a conservation model that protects remaining green space and encourages redevelopment of older, commercial parts of town, said Amherst Planning Director Eric Gillert.

According to a Buffalo News mapping analysis of Amherst parcels, the town has fewer than 10 developable greenfield parcels with 50 or more contiguous acres -- mostly to the north and developer-owned. While other large plots exist, most have been reserved for public recreational purposes or are located in the farming district.

>Developers took risks

Executives with Uniland and Ciminelli have both taken huge risks trying to develop land in northern Amherst.

Uniland purchased 178 acres of farmland along the north end of Millersport Highway a decade ago for a new business park that now serves as home to the likes of GEICO, Citigroup and Bank of America. Many had initially questioned whether a project located so far from the town's commercial hub could succeed.

"At this point, it's difficult to find greenfield sites that are still within the commercial activity zone," said Uniland Development Vice President Carl Montante Jr. "You get to a point where businesses just feel like it's too far a drive. We really took a risk with CrossPoint, but it was a calculated risk and one that's paid off."

The CrossPoint development is about 60 percent developed and home to 5,000 employees, Montante said.

Ciminelli Development has had considerably more trouble getting its 326-acre Muir Woods project off the ground. The mixed-use development, on the drawing board since 2000, has been mired in wetlands issues and negotiations with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

"Obviously, it's had its challenges, and we're still moving through them," said President and CEO Paul F. Ciminelli.

Though a building has yet to go up on the property, located near the I-990, the company was right to attempt development there, Ciminelli said.

"Communities should always take advantage of property that's adjacent to a university and interstate," he said. "It was worth it."

CrossPoint and Muir Woods are the most recent of the huge Amherst developments. In both cases, developers bought up more land than they would need for immediate development to safeguard their future.

Many of the big developers have "land banked," buying available town parcels and sitting on them with the intention of developing them years down the road.

Lasky said he currently owns or co-owns about 230 acres of vacant land in Amherst, broken into roughly 10-, 25- and 50-acre parcels.

Marrano Marc/Equity Vice President Victor Martucci, head of land development for the area's largest residential developer, said the town is more likely to see residential redevelopment than new, large-scale subdivisions of 200-plus homes. "I don't know that you're going to see subdivisions of that size anymore," he said.

Uniland owns about 500 acres ready for business development in Western New York, and the majority of them are in Amherst, Montante said. "We feel we're still in pretty good shape for large development projects."

>Retail is different

Retail developers don't have the same freedom to hoard property that residential and office developers do, because retail success depends on other nearby development. Finding an appropriate location for new retail development requires an analysis of surrounding population demographics and traffic studies.

"Generally speaking, you'd be forced to look at redevelopment," said Eric Recoon, vice president with Benderson Development Co. "Redevelopment opportunities are still not abundant but are more abundant than land opportunities."

Benderson was thrilled to complete a rare land purchase near the University at Buffalo when it bought 32 acres along Maple Road last year formerly owned by the Buffalo Shooting Club adjacent to the Audubon Golf Course, Recoon said.

The company seeks to redevelop the property as a combination of retail, hotel, condominium, office and community spaces, Recoon said. The design features a "Main Street" village design and attractive, well-landscaped streets.

"This is one of the truly last major parcels in that area of Amherst along a major arterial," Recoon said. "It really is a uniquely positioned site, between [Niagara Falls Boulevard] and Transit [Road]. It's in the heart of Amherst, next to UB, adjacent to golf courses."

>Town will still grow

Many residents and community leaders say they would rather see developers reinvest in older and more blighted commercial areas than eat up remaining green space and contribute to traffic congestion and the destruction of nature.

"Conservation does not have to counter growth," said Gillert, who estimated that 20 percent of the town remains undeveloped.

Many builders also agree that, despite the lack of giant greenfield parcels, Amherst will continue to grow, though more development will come in the form of in-fill housing, commercial renovations and modest new projects designed to house smaller companies and service providers.

Superior quality-of-life amenities and the economic engine of UB will also keep Amherst a high-demand, growth location, they said.

"I think there's still going to be a steady pace of moderate growth in Amherst," Lasky said. "I don't see Amherst closing down right away."


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