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Gates Circle project faces new hurdle

Canterbury Woods’ proposed new Gates Circle project is facing more trouble getting approved than its leaders could have expected.

The affluent Amherst-based senior care community took heavy fire Monday evening from critics including Buffalo Common Council President Darius Pridgen, who accused the organization’s representatives of not meeting in good faith with local residents who object to aspects of the new building’s design.

Canterbury Woods officials were supposed to meet with community members during the past two weeks, but Pridgen and others say the organization gave little or no advance notice of a Sunday afternoon gathering, and garnered only 12 residents during the Buffalo Bills football game.

There appeared to be many more present at the Planning Board meeting, and as many as 300 have shown up for previous public sessions, including two large public meetings at the Burchfield Penney Art Center and smaller gatherings with various neighborhood block clubs and other groups.

Pridgen himself said he didn’t find out about the Sunday meeting until Monday morning. He also said he was unhappy with recent conversations he had with Canterbury representatives, whom he would not identify.

“I’m very uncomfortable with saying there was a public engagement meeting when the councilmember was not there, and the others were not there,” said Pridgen, whose district encompasses Gates Circle. “And if the way I was spoken to in the hallway was the way residents were spoken to, I’m a little afraid of the people doing this project.”

While Pridgen was largely focused on the process, residents also took aim at the substance. They said they were unanimous in their opinions Sunday but the Canterbury Woods representatives weren’t open to the architectural change the community members really wanted in the design.

“What you directed the developer to do was engage with the neighborhood. Going to meeting after meeting after meeting, and being told we’re not going to change anything, is not engaging,” said William Altreuter, an attorney who lives on Lancaster Avenue, near the proposed development.

Sensing the anger in the room, the Buffalo Planning Board tabled the project for at least two more weeks, to give time for yet another forum for community input. And the board recommended that Pridgen schedule the meeting this time, adding that they expected it to be ready for an up-or-down vote the next time it came up on the agenda.

“We have to work together as a community to bring this important project forward. The community is not going to get everything, and the applicant is not going to get everything,” said board Chairman James Morrell. “We will table this action for two weeks or whenever it is, and at that point, the board will be ready to move forward.”

It was a rare setback not only for a prominent project but also for attorney Marc Romanowski, a veteran real estate and land-use lawyer who represents Canterbury Woods’ owner Episcopal Church Home & Affiliates, and usually guides projects through municipal approvals with the deft handling of a skipper. Fearing trouble at the start, he unsuccessfully tried to demonstrate the degree to which Canterbury Woods has done to meet community members since 2013.

Still, Episcopal Church Home CEO Rob Wallace defended his organization’s actions. “We’ve been very respectful. We’ve been very open to meetings. So they’ve all had ample opportunity,” Wallace said in an interview after the contentious meeting. “We feel we have done everything and more to solicit and engage with the community.”

He said his organization would continue to work with residents, Pridgen and the Planning Board to get the project over the finish line.

“Not everybody is going to agree with the ultimate product, the ultimate building, the ultimate design. That’s the reality. But we do respect the process, respect their right to be part of the process, and we will continue respecting the process,” he said.

Canterbury Woods wants to put up a 53-unit independent-living residence, with five additional assisted-living units, on the former site of the Millard Fillmore Hospital tower at Gates Circle.

It’s the first project to come before the Planning Board out of the much larger $150 million redevelopment of the entire 6.7-acre former hospital campus, which itself has faced controversy from residents concerned about too much retail and commercial space in their neighborhood.

Neighbors of the planned $40 million Canterbury project have complained that the colors and materials proposed for the six-story building on the circle don’t fit with the characteristics of the surrounding streets, especially Delaware Avenue itself.

They like the lower half of the building, which is brick and stone, but reject the materials for the upper floors, saying the juxtaposition of light and dark colors, and natural masonry versus metal, creates a jarring appearance that is not in keeping with the tony neighborhood.

In the end, they say, their biggest concern now is the use of metal panels as part of the upper facade of the building facing Gates Circle, complaining that it looks cheap, modern and institutional, in contrast to the all-brick or stone look they prefer, and which they say is more historic and appropriate for the area. “The metal panels simply don’t belong at that location,” said Gretchen Cercone, president of the Lancaster Avenue Block Club, to a round of applause. “It’s the metal panels that cheapen the look of the building.”

Romanowski noted that Canterbury Woods’ architects have made changes in the plans several times, including scrapping the original proposal two years ago and starting fresh, as well as more recent modifications to the colors and materials to soften the appearance. That’s already driven up the costs somewhat to $260 per square foot, which he said is “already extraordinarily expensive.” The most recent change of color and type of brick added $50,000.“We’ve done this over and over again, and ultimately, you get to a point in a project where you wonder if you’re going to get anywhere,” Romanowski explained. “We didn’t feel like the engagement process was going to be effective going forward. I don’t think these folks are going to like the metal panels, and I don’t think my client is going to take off the metal panels.”

And they feel confident in the use of the metal accents to help diminish an otherwise imposing appearance on the circle. “We feel it’s appropriate. We feel it’s a good design element,” Romanowski said. “This is going to be one of the stellar buildings on Delaware Avenue, and we feel very strongly about it, and about the design and materials as well.”

Going with all natural brick or stone, as the residents want, would make the project too expensive, although neither he nor Wallace could put a precise price tag on the additional expense. “We can either continue to use the materials we’ve proposed, or we’ve hit a tipping point where we have to redesign the entire exterior of the building,” he said. “At the end of the day, this is a very, very expensive project, a very expensive development,” Wallace said. “However, the organization is committed to bringing this project to Gates Circle. It’s too bad that there’s a contingent of folks who don’t like the architecture of this project, but we feel that this design is outstanding.”

Regardless, residents said that’s not their concern. “It’s a prominent address. If you can’t afford to build there, that’s a problem,” Cercone said. But “it’s not our problem.”

Residents and community leaders complain frequently that they are not sensing a true partnership or willingness to talk on the part of Canterbury Woods. On Monday, Pridgen said he felt it, too. “What I experienced today, if it is a small example of what the residents have been going through, I understand now,” Pridgen said.