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Amherst maps ways to redevelop older areas <br> Two-pronged effort aims to prompt revitalization

The development of Amherst can be likened to the development of a child. The town grew out of its infancy as a farm community and bedroom neighborhood of Buffalo. It got bigger and stronger, and filled out steadily as it consumed acres of open land.

Then the town entered its rocky teenage years, and the rebellion began.

Residents protested the loss of green space. They complained about the effects of sprawl, the abandonment of older parts of town and the failure to reinvest in what was already built.

Suddenly, all the old rules for how to grow a community -- with large-scale open field projects -- seemed awkward in a mature town that left its growth spurt behind years ago.

"Our zoning code only allows for a duplication for that failed model," Council Member Mark Manna said. "That's the town's fault, that we haven't given the developer any option other than to build drive-through pharmacies and strip malls."

A decade ago, nearly 20 percent of Amherst was vacant, developable property.

Today, the town has half that amount, raising concerns about the town's ability to grow its tax base in future years.

Town planners, therefore, are focusing on a two-pronged redevelopment approach that would encourage:

*Large-scale redevelopment of languishing properties, such as old, deteriorating strip plazas along Sheridan Drive, through a new zoning classification.

*Reinvestment and architectural improvements to smaller commercial areas such as the Main Street/Eggert Road and Harlem Road/Kensington Avenue corridors by adopting a new district designation.

"The town has been talking about redevelopment for years," Supervisor Barry Weinstein said, "and quite frankly, nothing's been done."

Amherst officials say the town finally is ready to meet the challenge of improving smaller, neighborhood commercial districts. Next month, the Planning Department is expected to propose a new district classification to the Town Board called Traditional Neighborhood Business.

This designation, aimed at such areas as Eggertsville, Snyder and the Williamsville outskirts, promotes a more pedestrian-friendly, villagelike design.

Buildings would be closer to the sidewalk, have more ground-floor windows and require fewer parking spaces.

The changes are expected to deal with complaints by those who feel they can't improve their property without having to get costly and time-wasting variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

The need for updated codes is great, said John Felgemacher, an owner of a small plaza with storefronts and second-floor apartments on the southeast corner of Main and Eggert.

He said he has lost prospective tenants because of the town's stringent parking space requirements and been discouraged from turning a two-family house on the same parcel into a building with multiple uses because of all the red tape.

"I'd have to go through hoops for them to allow it," he said.

Amherst officials said they expect the new rules to remove a lot of the red tape.

Traditional Neighborhood Business districts also would appeal to outside investors, said Cathy McGovern, owner of a flower shop on Kensington Avenue near Harlem Road.

"I can see developers taking an interest in our community because they won't be restricted the way they were before," she said.

The Traditional Neighborhood Business designation doesn't change the zoning for these older neighborhood commercial districts, but it does apply new building design standards.

Another major redevelopment effort would add an entirely new zoning classification called High Density Mixed Use.

The new zoning is designed to reach two critical objectives:

*Encourage new, large-scale redevelopment projects that can revitalize tired parts of town and generate new tax revenue.

*Provide developers a profitable business model for projects that usually are far more expensive to undertake than open field development.

"You can have the most beautiful, pretty zoning ordinance in the world," said David Chiazza, executive vice president of Iskalo Development, "but if it's not grounded in an economic reality, it's not going to happen."

While still in the early stages, town officials envision the new zoning classification will allow more concentrated buildings with no single, designated use. Such a development may blend residential tenants with retail, entertainment and other commercial renters.

A high-density, mixed-use building may be a tall, multistory structure with retail and offices on the lower level, underground parking and lofts on the higher floors, said Colleen DiPirro, executive director of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce.

"Our big challenge is going to be the density issue," DiPirro said. "The higher density codes are critical to this being successful."

They're also bound to be controversial.

Higher density projects tend to spur opposition from residents averse to more traffic and greater environmental stresses that naturally follow such projects.

But given the higher expense and risk associated with redeveloping properties, higher-density projects are necessary to make a project financially viable, developers say.

"You can't put a person in a position where, to improve their property, they're going to have to lose something -- square footage or invest in things you can't get a return on," said Eric Recoon, vice president of Benderson Development Co.

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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