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A change of direction on Sweet Home; New developments, many housing-based, are altering long-vacant landscape near UB

Sweet Home Road is changing. The busy north-south Amherst corridor used to run through a vacant landscape, which University at Buffalo officials hoped would one day flourish.

Since 2004, giant multimillion-dollar apartment and student housing projects have sprouted on both sides of the street. The area has seen a 40 percent leap in population growth from census to census.

And with six new projects in the pipeline, including a $15 million to $20 million hotel-retail-apartment project just approved near Sweet Home and Rensch roads, stretches of this cut-through road may become virtually unrecognizable to many.

"The amount of development there has been significant," said Amherst Planning Director Eric Gillert. "I think that and Sheridan Drive are the hottest corridors we've had to deal with in the past few years."

As the university's North Campus has expanded, more private developers have chosen to pursue the time-consuming and expensive process of rezoning parts of Sweet Home Road from "research and development" to "multifamily residential" and "general business."

The 800-bed University Village, across from Sweet Home High School, was the first mammoth student-housing development to break ground on Sweet Home Road, in 2004.

"That was really the start," said lawyer Sean Hopkins, who represented American Campus Communities in that project.

Since then, four other private apartment complexes have sought similar rezoning from the Town Board.

Meanwhile, UB is moving forward with a "physical master plan," adopted in 2009, which calls for the continued building of new on-campus housing both in Amherst and in the city, said Dennis Black, vice president of student affairs. The 600-bed Greiner Hall, an apartment-style dorm, opened on the North Campus last fall.

These housing developments are slowly being followed by the construction of banks and coffee shops. University Place, which received rezoning approval in March, is expected to bring in a hotel, restaurants and retailers ready to cater to the students, faculty and other professionals who live and work around the campus and in nearby office parks.

"This is an underserved market," said Jonathan Bevilacqua, whose company submitted the proposal for University Place, which would be located just west of UB between Sweet Home and Rensch roads.

Developers have touted the Sweet Home corridor as the place where the Town of Amherst will finally break the perceived isolation of the North Campus, creating a flourishing and exciting college-friendly community beyond John James Audubon Parkway.

Some local residents and UB advocates, however, worry that the concentration of high-density housing and lack of other commercial development will result in little more than a high-crime "student ghetto" years from now.

Even Supervisor Barry Weinstein once threatened to block the development of the 600-bed Villas on Rensch project if the developer, American Campus Communities, was unable to come up with a satisfactory security plan to deal with student misconduct without draining town police resources.

UB had also sued the developer and the town when that project was rezoned, arguing that it went against the town's comprehensive plan, which originally encouraged that area to be redeveloped to foster university-related research and start-up business models.

"That was the plan the university was supportive of," said Black. "That's a plan that won't come to fruition, given what's taken place over the last several years."

The university ultimately lost its expensive court battle, leaving the door wide open for future student housing developments along Sweet Home Road.

Town planning officials said the land west of UB had been zoned for research and development since the 1970s. With few takers over 30 years, it seemed reasonable to consider a different development model.

These days, no one denies that huge investments are being made to the Sweet Home corridor, but some continue to question the types of projects being approved. Black pointed out that while Sweet Home Road and nearby Chestnut Ridge Road have a huge concentration of apartments, they have little else.

"Everybody's going to have to pay attention to ensure that 20 to 30, 40 to 50 years from now, we aren't creating a student neighborhood that could have some undesirable impact," he said.

There are signs, however, that a more diverse mix of projects is coming to the Sweet Home corridor.

The University Place mixed-use development and Sweet Home Federal Credit Union project just received rezoning approval in the past four weeks. The credit union would target Sweet Home School District employees, while University Place would target a broader mix of college faculty, young professionals, parents and students.

Town planners said they've also heard from other developers who want to build similar mixed-use projects in the area that cater to a broader chunk of the local market.

Bevilacqua, who owns Bevilacqua Development and lived in New York City for six years prior to 2009, said he has been surprised at how little mixed-use development has occurred in this area to date.

"I think we're playing a little bit of a catch-up here," he said.

Black agreed.

"If you visit other colleges and universities of our size and scope," he said, "you find the land around them far more developed with those kinds of mixed-use projects."

University Place, which is now awaiting site plan approval, would feature a six-story Staybridge Suites hotel anchoring the west end of the 4.6-acre site near the Villas on Rensch and the Center for Inquiry. Two other four-story buildings, totaling 80,000 square feet, would feature first-floor restaurant and retail space, with luxury apartments on the upper floors.

The two-bedroom apartments are slated to rent for $1,550 to $1,850 per month. These apartments and the first-floor retail and restaurant spaces would be constructed by Bevilacqua Development.

The Staybridge Suites hotel would be developed and owned by Ellicott Development.

"Our colleges should be driving our communities," said Ellicott Development CEO William Paladino. "There's colleges and there's community. They're not intertwined in this area. This helps bring it all together."

email: stan@buffnews.com