Sparks flew at the Buffalo Preservation Board meeting Thursday.
At issue was a demolition request by a developer that would pave the way for a controversial mixed-use development on Elmwood Avenue, near Bidwell Parkway.
In front of an overflow crowd opposed to the project, the city's advisory group decided to schedule a public meeting required before the Preservation Board can make a decision on Ciminelli Real Estate Corp.'s plan to tear down eight structures on or close to Elmwood.
But when Paul McDonnell, the chairman of the board, said members were helping residents in an effort to create a local landmark designation for the area, it provoked what some interpreted as a veiled threat from an attorney representing the Ciminelli company.
"I'm a litigator," said John Schmidt, an attorney with the Phillips Lytle firm.
"If it does go toward the landmark process, that's where I will get involved. I don't know if anyone in this room is going to appreciate that, other than the lawyer that's retained by you to face me in litigation," he said.
Schmidt's words triggered an angry outburst from people jammed into the meeting room in City Hall, and those spilled out into a waiting area.
"When we hear the threat of a landmark application" -- Schmidt said, before being briefly drowned out, and then continuing, " If these are landmarks, why are they only coming up when a development is proposed?"
"There are many properties that come up when they become of concern, when people become aware they are not landmarked," McDonnell answered.
Creating a local landmark designation in the area would effectively kill the development by making a decision by the Preservation Board binding.
The Common Council would vote on whether to accept the designation.
Board member Richard Lippes, an environmental litigator, said he believed that since the area where Ciminelli wants to build is already in a national historic district, it would make a lawsuit opposing local landmarking "totally frivolous."
"Mr. Schmidt, I would suggest you might wish to audit a course that I teach at UB Law School in historic preservation," he later added.
After the meeting, Schmidt's comment served to galvanize an increasingly mobilized opposition.
Catherine Faust, an Elmwood Village resident, said Schmidt's comments would only serve to inflame residents.
That view was shared by another resident, Audrey Ross Sanders. "That was like throwing a flame into an already tension-filled room of passionate residents," Sanders said. "That was not necessary."
Jessie Fisher, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara, urged the developer to put off the demolition request until it first received approval for its project from the planning and zoning boards, required by the Green Code, which takes effect Feb. 17.
But, attorney Adam Walters, also representing Ciminelli, said the company would not commit to doing that, noting the Green Code did not prevent an application for demolition.
Walters said the company was committed to following the Green Code in its pursuit of acceptance for its proposed Arbor + Reverie, designed by HHL Architects, which specializes in historic preservation.
The Green Code, which revamps the city's zoning code, limits buildings to three stories.
The Ciminelli project calls for a five-story building at the corner of Elmwood and Bidwell Parkway, while preserving existing facades.
It also calls for a four-story building on Elmwood, north of Potomac Avenue, which would require several buildings, including the former J.P. Bullfeathers restaurant and three houses, to be torn down. The buildings would have apartments on the upper floors, and storefronts on ground level.
The public hearing will take place on Jan. 26 in Common Council chambers.