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Arguments over Gates plans go full circle; Residents divided over best use: veterinary school or mixed-use development

As debates go, this one doesn't quite rise to the level of, say, Duff's versus the Anchor Bar, but Buffalo is taking sides over a new issue.

The latest discussion is how Kaleida Health should reuse Millard Fillmore Hospital, after developers this week unveiled two radically different proposals for the Gates Circle facility: a veterinary school or a mixed-use development.

"To me, the much more exciting one is the mixed-use, rather than the veterinary school," said Jerry Kelly, a leader in the Delaware Park South Neighborhood Association. "Anything to create density and livelihood in the Gates Circle area."

"I was really intrigued by the veterinarian school," said Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto. "It's one of those things that seemed to come out of nowhere, but when you thought about it, it made a lot of sense."

"I keep going back and forth," said Jeff Carballada, an active member of the Linwood Preservation District and Friends, a block club and preservation group next to the hospital. "A vet school would be really cool, but I really like what Uniland came up with."

While Kaleida's board of directors will make the final call -- probably later this summer -- part of the goal was to involve the community in the process, said Edward F. Walsh Jr., past president of the Kaleida Health board and head of a Millard Fillmore advisory committee.

And true to form in Buffalo, where there is never a shortage of opinions, there has been a strong response.

"We're not asking the community to make the decision; we're asking the community to help us make the decision," Walsh said.

"I think we've learned from some who have been down this pathway before, so we're trying to avoid some of the contentiousness and not repeat the mistakes that were done earlier," he said.

Operations ceased at Millard Fillmore at the end of March and moved to new facilities on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, where Kaleida Health is consolidating many services.

Kaleida Health decided to offer a $1 million prize after failing to attract a proposal from developers it contacted during the lead-up to the hospital's closure. Eventually, 13 firms registered as potential competitors, but only four submitted proposals by the contest deadline in May.

In the end, two are left: Uniland Development Co., one of the largest commercial real estate developers in the region, and Chason Affinity, another local, family-run real estate management and development company.

Affinity, under president Mark Chason, boasts a number of medium and large real estate projects around Western New York, including office space, single-family homes and student housing.

One of its more notable projects was its redevelopment of the World War II-era Kensington Village Apartments into Collegiate Village.

The company wants to keep major sections of the hospital and transform them into a school of veterinary medicine for about 600 students.

Meanwhile, Uniland -- founded by company president Carl Montante -- has a wide-ranging urban and suburban portfolio, from the Canisius College townhouses to a hotel and luxury condominiums on Delaware Avenue to the CrossPointe Business Park in Amherst.

Uniland would demolish the hospital and replace it with Chapin Place -- townhouses, condominiums and luxury and market-rate apartments for some 500 people. Space for office and retail, a boutique hotel, a wellness center and small park would be mixed in on the 10-acre site. The project also calls for extending Lancaster Avenue to Linwood Avenue.

While the two proposals are dramatically different, both are generally seen as good ideas and respectful of landscape architect Franklin Law Olmsted's vision for the historic Gates Circle.

"They both have positives," LoCurto said. "I liked that they both included green space and public gathering spaces. The extension of Lancaster Avenue in the Uniland proposal was another good idea."

"If either one is successful in its complete form, it will benefit the neighborhood -- in different ways, but it will be a good thing," said Carballada, who serves on the hospital advisory committee, as well.

But there's some skepticism in the community about both projects, Carballada said.

"Both ideas seem interesting," said George R. Grasser, a real estate consultant and executive director of Partners for a Livable Western New York. "Whether they have the ability to carry it out, I don't know."

The question is whether there's really a demand for a veterinary school -- there are just 28 in the United States -- and what college, or other institution, might step in to lease the building and run a program.

On the other side, would Chapin Place -- which would be built out over six years -- generate enough demand in the Buffalo housing market?

"The devil's in the details," Walsh acknowledged. "There are a variety of considerations as to what are the hurdles that have to be overcome to implement the strategies, and we're just now starting to work on some of the details."

Still, it has been nice to have the attention focused on this part of the city, Carballada said.

"The most important thing is we're not going to have a vacant building or an empty lot, and if you ask anyone in the neighborhood, that's what they're concerned about," Carballada said.

"It's a beautiful, beautiful circle," Carballada said, "and hopefully if one of these plays out, we're going to get something really great."

Proposals for both projects, as well as a form to submit public comment, can be found at www.kaleidahealth.org/uli.

email: jrey@buffnews.com