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A better way is developing in Buffalo

Believe it. It is no fever dream nor fantasy. In Buffalo -- the land of lawsuits, the harbor of hard feelings -- there was a meeting of opposite minds, a merging of often-enemies, consensus instead of conflict.

It was not once upon a time, it is here and now. It is not just agreement about a single building, but a model for how things can be done in every city, village and town.

Stereotypes were smashed. Folks found out that community groups and preservationists are not anti-development jerks. Others learned that not all developers are greed-driven bullies who force-feed projects down community throats. Seeming opposites can attract -- for the good of everybody.

A developer named Sam Savarino wants to build a five-story hotel on the corner of Elmwood and Forest, near Buffalo State College. The owner of five houses on the land, each with a storefront business, wanted to sell. Folks living along the city's best commercial strip, wary of mega-projects, hoped for the best and braced for the worst.

What happened next is what ought to happen all the time. If it did, we'd have more lovefests and fewer lawsuits.

Savarino acted like a neighbor instead of an intruder. He ran his hotel idea past community groups and block clubs. There was a public hearing. More than talk, he listened -- even though it meant taking hits.

There is a science to building in a city, as exact as any chemical formula or algebraic equation. Ignore the rules, you get a Lego-like eyesore of stucco and cinder block with tiny windows and a parking lot in front -- a monstrosity that mugs good sense and hurts the neighborhood.

Follow the urban rules, you get something that fits. Savarino did: Build to the sidewalk, with brick and stone; put parking behind -- or, better, beneath -- the building; use big windows to connect life inside and outside the walls; make storefronts narrow so passers-by don't get bored.

For all the money developers sink into projects, they ought to at least read the urban guidebook. Amazingly, some don't. Savarino did.

"We're looking to invest close to $10 million," said Savarino. "If we don't do it well, if we don't follow [urban] design principles, it won't work."

Folks said a five-story hotel was too big for the neighborhood's britches. Savarino went back to the drawing board, shrunk it to four stories and broke up the facade to make it less massive.

"The feedback made [the project] better," Savarino said. "We're prouder of what we're doing now, [because] we have something that most people accept and like, which makes it more satisfying."

He took some hits, and not everybody is happy. But now community groups stand with him and the Common Council blesses it. The hotel likely to be built is better than the one Savarino started with.

It is not just the end of one story. It should be the start of a new way of doing things.

If it is, we will get better buildings, better neighborhoods. We will get buildings that businesses want to be in. We will have neighborhoods that people want to live in. We will get icons instead of eyesores.

"[Savarino's] willingness to work with the community was major," said Justin Azzarella of Forever Elmwood. "This raises the bar for projects throughout the city. This sort of process leads to better results."

It's good for us. It's good for the developer.

"If you go into the meetings and look at the process as a nuisance or a burden, you're going to get what you deserve," said Savarino. "But if you follow the process, even if it means taking some arrows, it's worth the effort."

Let that be a lesson to every developer who wants to build. Let it be a model for every community that cares.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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