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High-rise hassles in the heart of suburbia

The two hotel projects being built on the outskirts of Williamsville are dividing the community.

Some say the projects are just what the Main Street corridor needs to continue developing into a thriving suburban center.

Others think they’re monstrosities that will destroy what makes the Williamsville area special.

“We really need to think about the future, and we need to think about opportunity,” said Janice Schlau, a Williamsville native who owns the village’s Prosit Restaurant on Main. She said she talks with customers from all over the world and revels in their willingness to stay in Amherst and pour money into the local economy.

Mary Kinder, a 30-year Amherst resident, sees it differently.

“If you take away the feel of a village and you change it, you’re looking like downtown, and that’s not why people are here,” she said. “If you start putting downtown buildings in an area that’s quaint, you don’t have that anymore. I had a good friend say to me, ‘This is progress,’ but I’m not so sure.”

The debate over the Hyatt Place project – a hotel that the town recently approved – and Carl Paladino’s hotel-and-retail project nearing completion about a half- mile away on Main has been fierce.

At the intersection of Main and South Forest Road, Paladino’s Ellicott Development is nearing completion of a $35 million, six-story building that will feature retail and restaurant space, 33 luxury apartments, interior parking and a 120-room Wyndham Garden Hotel and Suites.

About a half-mile west on Main is where the Town of Amherst has given approval for Iskalo’s six-story, 137-room Hyatt Place to go up behind the Lord Amherst Hotel, just west of the Youngmann Highway interchange.

For Kinder and many other residents, opposition to towering buildings near the village was born after they watched cranes raise the steel frame of Paladino’s project that is being built right up to the sidewalk’s edge. It looks like it will dwarf every building around it.

“Everybody, I talked to – everybody – said, ‘My God, look what’s going up. How did that get passed?’ ” she said.

But Williamsville Mayor Brian Kulpa, a licensed architect with training in urban design, lauded Paladino’s project, saying its combination of hotel, apartments and retail marks the first mixed-use project of its kind around the village and an important key to Williamsville’s future.

Local patronage of Main Street businesses is not enough to keep the commercial corridor strong, he said.

He also pointed out that he lives half a block behind the village’s four-story Hampton Inn on Main (also a Paladino project built in 2002). “I don’t see hotel patrons looking down into my backyard,” he said. “What I see is a ton of people leaving the Hampton Inn and going to the village taverns and shops.”

While the village may be in a suburban community, he said, it’s still an urban environment. “We’re not so different than an Elmwood. We’re not so different from a Hertel,” he said, referring to thriving city commercial districts that are both surrounded by residential neighborhoods. “[The village is] growing from the outside in, and it’s growing from the inside out.”

But he also said projects like Paladino’s and Iskalo’s drive home the necessity of strong, enforceable design standards, which the Town of Amherst has yet to complete.

“Ultimately, do I think the Hyatt is the world’s greatest design? Maybe not,” he said. “Do I think Paladino’s project is going to win everybody over there to its side? No. However, there’s a lot of really, really good elements there.”

Paladino model praised

James Dentinger, president of McGuire Development, praised Paladino’s mixed-use model. Both he and Kulpa said the design, while imposing, will offer village residents a better walking experience with ground-floor retail and a mix of upper-floor housing.

“My sense is the Ellicott Development project will blend more once it’s complete,” he said.

It’s still too big, responded Michael Joseph, owner of Amherst-based Clover Management, which built and renovated a variety of projects all over the region before focusing on senior housing projects during the last 12 years.

“Listen, [Paladino’s] building will be beautiful. No one doubts that,” he said. “The problem most people have is the sheer size of the project relative to everything around it.”

That’s not the fault of the developer, he said. That’s the fault of the town for not doing a better job of creating a comprehensive plan with zoning classifications that articulate, in much greater detail, how it wants its community to grow.

“You don’t want to leave it to developers to decide what the world is going to look like,” he cautioned.

In the case of the new Iskalo and Paladino buildings, the question is not a matter of land use, said Robert Shibley, founder of the Urban Design Project and dean of the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning. In both cases, these buildings were slated for construction on property already designated for general business use. “The issue is not ‘whether or not’ but how?” he said.

Hyatt heights vary

On the Hyatt Place project, Shibley said he disagreed with the idea of justifying a cookie-cutter, six-story hotel design overlooking the backyards of a residential neighborhood with half-a-million-dollar homes just because that happens to be the Hyatt Place prototype.

“The issue they’re concerned about is: What’s their relationship to this development?” Shibley said of the neighbors, “and if it’s not designed well, they’ve got a complaint.”

In regard to the Hyatt Place prototype, most hotels operating under this flag are six stories tall. But that’s not an inflexible model.

Hyatt Place hotels near Albany and on Long Island are five stories tall, with 120 and 100 rooms, respectively. One near South Bend, Ind., is only four stories and holds 121 rooms.

David Hart, head of Hart Hotels, one of the largest hotel operators in the region, is also no fan of the new competition on Main.

People don’t come to a region because of a hotel, and giving tax breaks to new hotels is “crazy,” he said.

But he also acknowledged the economic risks and realities that developers face when it comes to the design of major projects like these. While it’s possible to lop off an entire hotel floor from a design standpoint, he said, it may be impossible to justify financially.

“The fight is not about whether it’s the right thing to do ... but is this the only thing that makes economic sense for the developer?” he said.

If the town provided developers with better direction, design guidance and restrictions from the start, developers are less likely to put forth projects that offend so many, Joseph said.

The town has created a new committee to do just that. Their recommendations are expected before the end of the year.

“I think the town is probably right at looking at the process and some of the codes in terms of these kinds of projects,” Dentinger said, “but they need to bring the developers to the table and make sure everybody’s on the same page about what the town wants to see going forward.”