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Behind Elmwood building boom, a clash over neighborhood’s character

The first sign was a large apartment building with chain stores that juts out between two sunk-back buildings near Auburn Avenue.

Then a developer in October said he wanted to build two four- to five-story apartment buildings with retail stores near Bidwell Parkway.

And now, steel beams rise four stories high at West Delavan Avenue for an L-shaped glass-and-brick building that promises a first for the neighborhood: high-end apartments above a large ground-floor restaurant.

Changes along Elmwood Avenue are becoming more apparent, and it’s giving some who live near and shop along the two-mile stretch an unsettled feeling.

“I think the Elmwood district is on the verge of a crisis,” said Martin Wachadlo, an architectural historian. “It seems to now be almost at a tipping point.”

They worry about the strip losing its charm. The thought of higher rents and chain stores also fills some with anxiety for the future of what the American Planning Association named one of the nation’s “10 Top Neighborhoods” in 2007.

More change could come. A developer is expected to soon propose replacing nine houses on Elmwood, south of Forest Avenue, with a mixed-use project.

Four proposals vying to replace Women & Children’s Hospital all call for development on Elmwood near Bryant Street. Amid the new and proposed development, the Green Code – the city’s first rewriting of the City Code in 63 years – is heading toward approval this summer with ramifications for Elmwood’s future.

Retaining the charm

Shop owners welcome more people and activity along Elmwood, said Edward “Ward” Pinkel, who has owned Urban Leisure & Luxury for 24 years.

“More density is better because it will stabilize the neighborhood and make it grow,” Pinkel said. “A lot of people like the way Elmwood is right now. Elmwood is nice, but it’s not the shiny penny everybody thinks it is. It’s a shiny penny for Buffalo, but it could be a lot more.”

Pinkel doesn’t think Elmwood should strive to be free of national chain stores.

“A couple of solid chains on this street would actually draw more people here,” Pinkel said. “All the independents on the street always want more business. We go through these ups and downs – yeah summer is great, Christmas is great, but there’s all the other times of the year when we need more people down here.”

Therese Deutschlander, owner of the Thin Ice gift shop, said she is concerned about retaining Elmwood’s charm.

“On one hand, I think it’s great that we’re doing well and all the developers want to come in,” she said. “But while they are good at what they do, we want to see charm added to Elmwood Village. I think they have a different angle.”

The Elmwood Village Association is in the middle of the debate over changes on the commercial strip.

Carly Battin, the Elmwood Village Association’s executive director, said there needs to be a balance between keeping Elm- wood as it is and allowing for changes that add density.

“I believe we have to be careful about not viewing this influx of interest as a threat, but also as an opportunity,” Battin said. “People have said in surveys that there are more things they wish they could buy on Elmwood, and more density makes that a possibility.”

Elmwood Avenue was a residential area before businesses began moving in about a century ago, she noted. That’s evident by the number of storefronts that still front homes.

“The Elmwood Village Association feels that evolution is not complete yet, and that there are still more opportunities to improve when you look at the street,” Battin said.

The association’s pro-growth outlook bothers some who feel it tilts toward businesses over homeowners.

“The Elmwood Village Association has gone from being the gatekeepers for what is good and valuable and unique about the Elmwood District, and sold out our community,” said Clare Poth, a former business owner on the strip.

The interests of residents and developers are often different, Poth said.

“You have this city, with all this integrity and history, finally attracting people who are searching for that gritty, untouched-by-time authenticity,” Poth said. “Then you have these people with no connection to the city seeing an opportunity. But the way they choose to invest doesn’t dovetail with what people want.”

Quality of life

A movement that took flight around 20 years ago touts a variety of housing that emphasizes aesthetics, design standards and sense of place. Surface parking lots are frowned upon.

Examples of this New Urbanism abound in Elmwood Village. A key ingredient is creating density of buildings, residences, shops and services built close together so people can walk to them and also use public transit. Several stretches on Elmwood still lack that mix.

“Density is something that makes a city work. It isn’t something to shy away from,” said Bill Tuyn, who co-chaired the Congress for New Urbanism conference in Buffalo in 2014 and is vice president of development for Forbes Capretto Homes.

“If you want vibrancy in your community, you need meaningful destinations for people to walk to, within reasonable pedestrian distances. And then you also need the density to support those businesses and provide the customer base.”

The first sign of Elmwood residents’ unease occurred when Benchmark Group of Amherst built a three-story building at 770 Elmwood in a former parking lot between a 7-Eleven and Globe Market.

The modern-looking, mixed-use building was built up to the street with parking in back and offered small storefronts, considered good urban practices. But with a design that’s drawn criticism, and it’s location next to a sunk-back 7-Eleven, the building became a target.

A Jimmy Johns sandwich franchise and an AT&T store that opened in two of the three storefronts, with a Panera Bread across the street, raised fears of more chain stores coming to Elmwood, where locally owned shops are an integral part of the street’s vibrancy.

“People have said to me, ‘How do we stop something like that from happening again?’ ” Delaware Council Member Joel Feroleto said. “They don’t want to see Elmwood turning into a street full of buildings like that. That building has galvanized people.”

“It’s extremely displeasing, aesthetically,” said Poth, the former business owner. “Then it attracts two chain tenants. The problem is, the way these new buildings are constructed and the way rents are structured are not conducive to small, independent business people.”

Pushback on Bidwell

Meanwhile, work proceeds on a four-story L-shaped building at Elmwood and Delavan avenues, where Ellicott Development is putting 21 high-end apartments in a charcoal brick, glass and wood building.

The building also will be home to a wood-fired pizza restaurant operated by Henry Gorino, former owner of Oliver’s, and Charles Mauro, who operates Rocco’s Wood-Fired Pizza in Clarence.

Feroleto said the building didn’t draw much opposition because it is replacing a gas station and the two restaurateurs bring stellar reputations.

The proposed project at Bidwell and Elmwood has drawn more pushback.

Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. plans to put up four- and five-story buildings, with the top floors stepped back from the street, on the west side of Elmwood between Bidwell Parkway and Potomac Avenue, and a stretch of the next block occupying the former J.P Bullfeathers and three houses to the north. Three houses on Potomac would be part of the development. Incorporating the facade of the existing 2ø-story brick building near Bidwell is part of the plan. So is an enclosed public parking ramp.

Dennis Penman, Ciminelli’s executive vice president, said the company knows the neighborhood is sensitive to what’s built. The company has held several community meetings.

“The corner is the center of Elmwood’s universe,” Penman said. “People are pushing toward a more traditional approach, and the use of materials would be consistent with that. It’s not going to look like something that was dropped in from East Amherst. We want to put in something that respects the building fabric, including use of materials.”

The project’s design, by HHL, a firm with expertise in preservation architecture, should be ready by summer.

The high rents projected to come to Elmwood in these new projects could boost nearby home values. But some are concerned about the long-term impact it will have on Elmwood.

“You’re talking about replacing $600 apartments with $1,400 apartments,” said Jessie Fisher, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara. “You might be increasing density, but you’re definitely decreasing economic diversity.”

Changes to Green Code

The city’s intent with the Green Code is to bring uniformity, clarity and simplicity to zoning and land-use decisions, and to reduce contentious disagreements and delays for both business owners and residents.

Since the Green Code was introduced in 2010, there have been 230 community meetings and thousands of public comments. Residents of Elmwood Village, reacting to new or proposed developments, have ramped up their participation over the past several months.

“There is a new constituency that has organized itself that we are happy to engage with, but that wasn’t there even six months ago,” said Brendan Mehaffy, who directs the city’s Office of Strategic Planning. “I think it’s because the development there has become real.”

More than 600 Elmwood residents have signed a petition recommending changes to the draft Green Code.

The main issues are limiting building heights to three stories instead of the proposed five stories; setting a maximum of 2,500 square feet for commercial businesses, rather than 10,000 square feet; limiting the number of apartment units on residential streets; and urging greater historic preservation safeguards to preserve Elmwood’s character.

“We’re not anti-development,” said Martin Littlefield, a member of the Community Working Group that organized the petition. “We’re pro-development within the scale and character and history of the Elmwood Village.”

Feroleto, whose district includes Elmwood north of Highland Avenue, favors a height of three stories, which is what he said his constituents prefer. But Feroleto doesn’t want that to be an absolute limit. He wants developers to be able to seek a variance from the zoning board if they want to build higher.

He thinks 10,000 square feet for a commercial space could open the door for national chains.

Pinkel said some of the negative reaction to the new building by the 7-Eleven wouldn’t have happened if the Green Code had been in effect when the convenience store was built. The 7-Eleven would have been required to be built close to the sidewalk, with parking in back. If that had happened, the new building would not stick out like it does now, he said.

“When that (7-Eleven) building is looked at in the years to come, hopefully they will knock it down and build up to the corner,” Pinkel said.

Battin, of the Elmwood Village Association, called the Green Code good for Elmwood. It could be even better with some changes, she said.

“I think there is widespread support for the Green Code,” she said. “But a lot of the concerns we are hearing have to do with preserving Elmwood’s character.”

Wachadlo, the architectural historian, said Elmwood Village’s design still retains most of its historic character. He worries new construction, if not done right, and without strong zoning safeguards, could degrade what makes Elmwood special at a time when the area is valued for its distinctiveness.

“Greenwich Village and Boston’s North End are seen as special, and they are because they didn’t change,” Wachadlo said. “The very thing that makes the Elmwood area probably the most attractive place in Buffalo is the very thing that is now in danger of being lost.”

email: msommer@buffnews.com