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Elmwood grapples with growth, but there's harmony on Hertel

It's been a tumultuous couple of years for the Elmwood Village Association.

Some merchants complain the Buffalo neighborhood improvement group hasn't done more to address Elmwood Avenue's empty storefronts or beautification efforts.

"Sidewalk repairs, lighting, hanging plants on poles, Christmas wreaths – I used to joke that's all they did," said Michael Bowen, owner of Pasteurized Tees. "But they aren't even doing that anymore."

And then there are the residents who believe the association has been too accommodating to developers seeking to build large projects.

The association sent a letter supporting a draft version of the Green Code that allowed for five-story developments, which critics felt was out of scale. The height of buildings is a big issue on Elmwood, where many residents want to keep the mix of mostly two- and three-story retail stores, cafes and residences along the roughly 2.5 miles between Forest Avenue and Allen Street.

"I think EVA has been perceived as not representing anybody's interests," said Martin Littlefield, who was on the Elmwood Village Green Code Working Group. "I think they haven't defined their mission clearly enough, and because of it they have been caught between a rock and a hard place."

First Elmwood Crossing project faces criticism on multiple fronts

Meanwhile, on the north side of the city, the Hertel Business Association rolls along – without a complicated agenda or members with competing interests.

Residents around Hertel have seen the Lexington Co-op and Deep South Taco open. The former St. Margaret's School has been converted into The Cornelius, a mix of upscale apartments and retail space. And plans for a five-story apartment building to be constructed at a former gas station on the corner of Parkside and Hertel avenues gained Zoning Board approval.

There are few empty storefronts along the nearly two-mile stretch of Hertel between Main Street and Delaware Avenue.

Residents have also been less vocal about design standards over scale and height than those on Elmwood.

The Hertel organization took a hands-off approach on the Green Code, and instead focuses on constituent needs and promoting special events in a commercial district that has thrived.

"We don't have jurisdiction to say anything," said Judy Porto, the organization's president. "If residents call us, we'll give an opinion."

The two groups representing two of Buffalo's most important commercial districts take very different approaches.

The Hertel group isn't looking to change how it goes about its business. But there has been a lot of soul searching among those in the Elmwood Village Association about how to move forward.

Walking a fine line

The Elmwood Village Association is in many ways going through its most trying period since the organization was incorporated in 1991 and hired its first paid staff member in 2001.

It has had three executive directors in two years.

"The EVA has always tried to walk that line representing both merchants and the residents, and it's sometimes a bumpy road," said John Kolaga, former board president.

Delaware Council Member Joel Feroleto said a fair amount of disapproval exists over the association's role in the community.

"A lot of residents feel the Elmwood Village Association is pro-development and pro-business, and a lot of business owners are concerned its board of directors doesn't have a single business owner on the board," Feroleto said.

A fenced off area on Elmwood Avenue at Forest where lots have been cleared for the new Chason Affinity project, pictured on Monday, April 9, 2018. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The association's concern for design standards grew out of community opposition in the 1990s to a planned expansion of Rite Aid, which would have led to homes being demolished.

An association committee created design standards for Elmwood Village that were incorporated into the city code in 2009. Because the city was slow to enforce the new requirements, the committee adopted an informal role in interpreting them for anything from new signage to new development.

That also contributed to tension between those concerned about new urbanism design and the association's traditional role as a facilitator.

Now, the organization is embarking on a new plan to clarify its role and how it should function, said Ashley Smith, the association's executive director for the last 11 months.

"Since I've been back I have requested and the board has agreed that we won't take a position on design issues," Smith said. "There are a lot of things we are doing very differently than we have in the past.

"We can't change where we've been. But we have a lot of opportunities to move forward in a way that can benefit the district and stakeholders. I want people to see the opportunities that are there."

A survey will go out this week for residents, business owners and visitors to give feedback on the Elmwood Village Association's "mission, vision and values," Smith said.

"This has been in the works since last December," she said. "This demonstrates the current board's determination to evaluate our priorities and to be strategic about the future of the Elmwood Village Association."

Business concerns

Two meetings of merchants two weeks ago brought up the need for more community policing, better parking, facade improvements and trash removal. But the lack of business representation on the association's board – no business owners are among the 13 board members – is also an issue.

Some recommended a change to the bylaws, and some even suggested starting a separate merchant's association. Smith, who attended both meetings, expressed the association's willingness to boost merchant participation.

It's clear there are some fences to mend.

"I don't think there is any accountability," said Cameron Rector, owner of Vera, which offers craft cocktails and pizza at 220 Lexington, just off Elmwood. "If you don't have any business owners sitting on the board, there is no vested interest there. They are not listening to what the businesses want."

Rector said the association does not do enough to make the commercial strip inviting.

"I have been in the neighborhood for 15 years and there is no consistency," he said. "Some years the plants in the summertime and the overall beauty of the street is taken care of, and the next year that's out the window. Christmas lights are some years phenomenal, and other years absent."

"I think all of us at the meeting I was at weren't happy with what EVA was doing, that they weren't representing the businesses the way they should," said Bowen of Pasteurized Tees.

Elmwood Avenue looking south from Bidwell on Monday, April 9, 2018. The mixed-use building built on Elmwood at West Delavan is a relatively new addition to the skyline. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Joyce and Joan Zoerb, owners of Neo Gift Studio, said business owners need to communicate better with one another. Both suggested a merchants association makes sense.

They both expressed optimism about Elmwood's future, but would like to see more forward thinking in the neighborhood.

"I think a lot of people are thinking of today and yesterday, but not 20 years from now in terms of growth," Joyce Zoerb said. "We don't want to remain stagnant as a community."

Rocco Termini, a developer who co-owns Thin Man Brewery on Elmwood, also said the board needs more business representation.

"I think EVA realizes they don't recognize merchants, and I think now they are willing to put 50 percent of the board as merchants and 50 percent as residents," Termini said. "They realize you will not have a walkable community if you don't have a strong Elmwood."

Kolaga, who now chairs the summer concert series, said it's not a new problem – the association has struggled for years to involve more merchants.

"My impression is these merchants put in a lot of time keeping their small businesses afloat in a very competitive world," Kolaga said. "We have always welcomed their participation and input."

A new mission?

"The mission of the Elmwood Village Association is 'to improve the quality of life for everyone,' " Smith said. "That means so many different things to so many people. We need something more focused than that."

During the organization's internal turmoil, weighty issues involving proposed developments and passage of the Green Code brought different expectations on what role the association would play. Smith said the organization helped facilitate community discussion, but was uncomfortable taking divisive positions when so much of its work is about tending to noncontroversial needs.

"Ninety-nine percent of what we do is not controversial," Smith said. "If we make clear we are a conduit and not a representative of our stakeholders I think that clarifies our position."

She suggests preservation issues might be best left to groups that have more expertise, while the association focuses on streetscapes, beautification efforts, cultural happenings and grants.

"On the other hand, if through the strategic planning process it becomes clear that that is what members most want EVA to focus on, then that could become the priority, while other priorities would have to take a back seat," she said.

Smith doesn't think the residents-versus-business argument is as real as some think.

"Business owners think we spend too much time on residential issues. Residents think we spend too much time on business issues," Smith said. "I think that in many ways this is a false dichotomy. But we as an organization have not been as strong in getting the word out about what we do in the community, and that leaves a void for people to fill in themselves."

Termini said more staffing is needed. He points to a state grant for facade and other improvements that the association received three years ago and – due in part to staff turnover – is still being completed.

"I think the Elmwood Village Association is overwhelmed," he said. "They need expertise they don't have."

Besides Smith, the association is staffed by a development manager and gets help several hours a week by a couple of interns from SUNY Buffalo State.

Storefronts on Elmwood Avenue at Bidwell Parkway, where a proposed development is still in the planning stages. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Termini also called for a long-term plan for Elmwood Avenue.

"You need a plan between Forest and Allen, and there is no plan," he said. "Everything is willy-nilly."

Smith, a planner, said she also supports the idea of a comprehensive plan for Elmwood.

Development pains

Development has been another flash point.

"There is a difference of opinion among the residents about what kind of development is desirable in the neighborhood," Kolaga said. "There are some who want things to stay the same in terms of scale of the buildings, and the kind of amenities merchants offer, and others who question whether that still makes sense."

Two previous executive directors of the Elmwood Village Association wrote letters of support for the Chason Affinity project at Elmwood and Forest avenues when they led the organization.

The Green Code was also contentious, with the association in the crosshairs for writing a letter of support for a draft version of the Green Code that would have allowed five-story developments. The adopted Green Code allows three stories, although variances can be obtained for increased heights.

Some business owners resented the standards and felt the association was being heavy-handed. Others embraced them for reflecting best practices for design in revitalized urban areas.

Narrow focus for Hertel

All of this stands in contrast to the Hertel Business Association.

The association's role is to assist residents and block clubs with questions they may have, Porto said.

"We are there to help them," she said. "We will reach out and try to get answers for them, and we will help any business or new business if they're not sure what they need."

Hertel has not seen the kind of development controversies like on Elmwood.

A bigger Dash's Market to replace the current store needed several variances, but most neighbors didn't seem bothered by the project. Some nearby residents complained about a new Deep South Taco restaurant. A five-story, mixed-use apartment building on Hertel and Parkside avenues received a Green Code variance for the extra height.

Jeff Rinaldo, Porto's predecessor who held the reins for 10 years, said the organization has written letters of support for proposed projects.

"That happens once or twice a year," Rinaldo said. "I don't think we've ever had a project we were absolutely against.

"Elmwood and Hertel each have different stories to tell," Smith said.  "As a city resident, it's exciting to live in a place with multiple thriving districts. It's time to elevate the conversation to the point of what we can do as a city to support these districts."

Spring is here

Elmwood neighborhood resident Susan Faso said she sees positive changes occurring.

"The tree pits are a mess and overgrown, and Ashley has taken that and run with it," Faso said. "We are doing a cleanup on April 28."

Planting flowers, hanging baskets and addressing garbage can issues are also on tap, Faso said.

"I think the association has gotten beat up, and now it has stepped back," she said.

Feroleto said he, too, expects good things. "They do a great job with the summer concert series and the farmer's market, and I recently talked to them about beautification projects on Elmwood.

"I think there is a clear mission to look at how the organization can better serve both the businesses and residences of the Elmwood Village," the Council member said.

Kolaga hopes more people will step forward and get involved.

"I would encourage people to get involved with the organization so it can do more than it does, and do things better than it has."

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