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Disputed waterfront hotel plan redesigned again Architects call sketches preliminary

Developers have redesigned a controversial waterfront hotel plan, adding space to accommodate a new retail promenade, and an "urban streetscape" that would better link downtown with its shoreline.

Aiming to quell criticism that the first prototype of a Wingate Inn looked like a suburban expressway interchange hotel, developers have two concepts for an improved facade. One design would use a mix of bricks, while the other would make extensive use of glass. Architects stressed that the renderings are still "preliminary sketches" and must be refined.

One major focus would incorporate features that aim to make the area adjacent to Shanghai Red's restaurant a people magnet, developers said.

"We need to create that sense of neighborhood like you see on Elmwood -- people walking around, involved in activities," said architect Bernard Zyscovich.

Project developers Specialty Restaurants Corp. and James W. Pitts have drafted four alternative designs, all having retail and urban streetscape components. One design would have added a fifth floor to the hotel, a plan that would have violated city height restrictions.

Following discussions Wednesday, developers said the preferred design will remain four stories but will have an L-shaped wing in the back. The additional space will allow for retail on the hotel's first floor, along with an attached retail promenade that would have a garden deck on its roof.

"We're looking at putting in an art gallery or museum, maybe a coffee shop," said Pitts, referring to the commercial space.

In the longer term, developers said there are nearby parcels that could be used for additional retail.

"We're setting this up to be the first step in a long-term plan to create a neighborhood," said Pitts.

All four redesign options would preserve the original plan of linking the hotel to Shanghai Red's. The revisions would likely add about $2 million to the project's price tag, making it a $12 million venture, said Pitts.

"I think the redesign is a dramatic improvement," said Mayor Byron W. Brown after meeting with developers. "It's very attractive, provides waterfront access and complies with height and density [requirements]."

Pitts and Specialty Restaurants Chief Executive Officer Howard Bell said they were encouraged by feedback they received from city officials during a series of briefings.

"It's definitely better looking than the first design, but there are still the other issues that haven't been addressed," said Council Member Michael J. LoCurto, a member of the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency.

LoCurto said one key question is whether a hotel of any kind should be built on the site, given the fact that Canal Side also has hotel plans. Some have questioned whether downtown needs more hotel rooms.

LoCurto and several other lawmakers want the city to start the development process from scratch only after a master plan for the waterfront is crafted and zoning codes are updated.

"We're planning around a specific project instead of master-planning an entire area," said South Council Member Michael P. Kearns.

North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. disagreed, suggesting that the revised plan goes far beyond proposing the construction of a hotel. For example, one design calls for reconfiguring Erie Street so that it provides a better linkage between the outskirts of downtown and the water's edge.

"What I like is that they're looking at the whole area instead of just one parcel," said Golombek.

Last week, Brown rebuffed a request by a majority of Council members to rescind a December vote by the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency that designated Specialty Restaurants and Pitts the developers of the city-owned site.

Council President David A. Franczyk credited the New York City-based Zyscovich Architects with making some tangible improvements to the design. But Franczyk said he remains skeptical that there will be enough Council support to advance the project. He said developers need to take their proposal into the neighborhoods and sell it to residents.

"Let's see what the community has to say," said Franczyk.

The original design was criticized by some for looking like a suburban hotel. Critics claimed the project was inferior to a competing plan for a $37 million complex consisting of a 10-story hotel with office and retail space.

City officials concluded that plan, proposed by Ciminelli Development Co. and businessman Mark E. Hamister, failed to meet height and density requirements.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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