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Buffalo plan raises question: Who wants a dollar store?

The budding gentrification of the neighborhood near Main and East Amherst streets in Buffalo has created a sticky situation for a developer who wants to build a particular kind of store.

Simply put: “dollar stores” are no longer welcome.

A proposal to put up a Family Dollar store on the southeast corner of Main and East Amherst is facing stiff opposition from neighbors, LPCiminelli, and politicians. They all want a higher level of retail at the site.

Hutchinson Commercial Real Estate Services, from Williamsport, Pa., wants to tear down a vacant former car stereo building and build the 8,320-square-foot dollar store.

The project – which would cost $1.2 million to $1.7 million, not including the $850,000 for the property at 2675 Main St. – would return that corner lot to active use, almost three years after Main Auto Sound closed. It also would create a second low-cost store in that retail block, after a rival Dollar General that already operates around the corner at 230 Holden St.

“Family Dollar is something that the neighborhood needs,” said Tony Scirri, a licensed real estate broker with GS Management Realty, who brought Hutchinson to the project.

But that’s not sitting well with neighbors in the Masten District, who want something better for their community at a time when the area around the intersection is being redeveloped.

They joined with their representatives in the Common Council and even the state Assembly to voice their objections, prompting the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals to table the project for the last three months.

“Nobody was in favor of it. Most people were opposed to it,” said Masten District Councilmember Demone Smith, who convened at least one meeting between residents and the developer. “There was not one person from the community who said we want this.”

The project has been in limbo since February, but is coming back to the Zoning Board for several variances on May 27. Meanwhile, Scirri and longtime property owner Jim Wojtowicz are puzzled and frustrated by the strength of what Scirri called the “ridiculous opposition,” and the inability of residents to explain exactly why.

“I’m amazed that it is happening. I’m actually shocked,” said Wojtowicz, whose father owned Main Auto Sound for 40 years.

The battle over yet another dollar store highlights the conflict between the rapid growth of that business model – there are now about two dozen such outlets in the city, including two in the vicinity of Main and Amherst – and the gut-level opposition the stores elicit from some nearby residents.

Such stores focus on savings, and tout their wide array of discounted products available for only $1, or not much more. That makes them appealing to shoppers on tight budgets, but not necessarily to neighborhoods seeking a tonier image. It also demonstrates the changing dynamic in neighborhoods experiencing revitalization, which might have welcomed a new location of Family Dollar, Dollar General or Dollar Tree several years ago, but are now raising the bar.

In this case, just over a block away from the project site lies the 27-acre former Central Park Plaza area that local developer LPCiminelli is converting into a new residential community. Plans for the $70 million transformation include 800 apartments and townhomes.

Ciminelli’s concept envisions a “walkable” and “transit-oriented” community that capitalizes on its proximity to bus routes and the nearby Metro Rail station at Amherst Street, directly across Main Street from the proposed Family Dollar store.

Ciminelli and local residents see the intersection of Amherst and Main as the “gateway” to the new neighborhood.

“People are looking for bigger and better,” said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, whose district includes both sides of Main Street. “People are thinking there’s more potential for that space than what’s been proposed.”

Scirri, however noted that the property’s business neighbors include a Cazenovia Recovery drug rehabilitation facility, a methodone clinic and Planned Parenthood.

“The gateway is pretty ugly now. I’m not saying the Family Dollar changes it, but it could go there, and it fits the criteria and economics there,” he said.

The property has been on the market for over two years. There were nibbles, but nothing solid until Scirri, who is also a local representative for Family Dollar, met Hutchinson – a Family Dollar builder – at a real estate conference.

Because of the angle of the intersection and the closeness of Pannell Street behind it, the irregular-shaped lot poses challenges for the developer, who needed several variances to build the store with adequate parking. But when they showed up for a zoning meeting at City Hall on Feb. 25, the developer and Scirri were told to meet separately that day with Smith and community members.

“They couldn’t give an answer as to why they didn’t like it,” Scirri said. “All their questions were answered. We thought we were going forward.”

A subsequent forum hosted by Smith was attended by 20 people, including Peoples-Stokes. But while the developer sought to address aesthetic concerns, others were not satisfied. The two politicians, along with Empire State Development, even tried to persuade the parties to look at other ideas for the property.

“There’s nobody in the community that is advocating for it, except the owner of the building and the developer,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, it’s the Zoning Board that has to make the decision.”