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Ciminelli unveils plan for 600 apartments at Central Park Plaza site

A $70 million housing development – the largest of its kind on the East Side in decades – is coming to the struggling Fillmore-Leroy neighborhood.

Some 600 rental units – a combination of four-story apartments, three-story walk-up flats and two-story townhouses supporting a mixture of incomes – will be built on 27 acres on the site of the former Central Park Plaza, developer LP Ciminelli announced Monday.

Environmental remediation of the brownfield area is expected to begin in one to two months, with the first shovel in the ground next year and completion in 2016.

“It’s one of the largest private housing developments to be done in this city in decades,” said John Ciminelli, senior vice president. It’s also one of the largest projects the prominent developer has attempted.

“We’re looking to the suburban market and people relocating to the area to capitalize on the thousands of jobs being created up and down the Main Street corridor,” Ciminelli said. “There will be 10,000 jobs created over the next several years from UB South out to the Medical Campus, and this will be an ideal place for them to live.”

Ciminelli said the plan for the Fillmore-Leroy neighborhood, which is 86 percent African-American, was adopted after community meetings, a market analysis and completion of a neighborhood action plan started by the City of Buffalo and completed by Goody, Clancy, a Boston consultant that has consulted on the Richardson Olmsted Complex.

The new development will reconnect three main streets – Hill Street, and Wade and Chalmers avenues – long interrupted by the plaza. The project doesn’t call for retail but is expected to attract new businesses to Fillmore Avenue and possibly Amherst Street and Main Street.

The project is transit-friendly, with the presence of the Amherst Metro Station. Discussions are underway with the NFTA to run additional bus routes through the development, especially with the re-established street grid, Ciminelli said.

“What we are doing is not necessarily creating a neighborhood, but this property for over 100 years was a quarry and then a shopping plaza. Throughout its life it has separated this neighborhood. What we are doing is re-establishng the street grid and knitting that neighborhood back together,” Ciminelli said.

Mayor Byron W. Brown expressed his pleasure over “another major project” in the city.

“The exciting thing about this is it will be a mixed-income housing development that will attract people of different income levels into workforce housing,” Brown said.

He expects workers at Erie County Medical Center, the announced RiverBend project, Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and others working along Main Street to be prime candidates.

“The other thing I’m very pleased about with this project is it is focused on transit-oriented development,” the mayor said, noting the administration’s and the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council’s emphasis on public transit and its potential for job creation.

The project includes tax credits for brownfield cleanup, but Ciminelli said the developer would not be asking for any other government assistance.

He expects the city to provide improvements to infrastructure, such as new roads and street lights.

The green aspects of the plan include a few small “passive parks” and conversion of Chalmers Avenue into a parkway.

Building materials have not been decided on, although Ciminelli said it is committed to an urban design.

The emptied Central Park Plaza was demolished in 2012 and 2013.

“It got very bad there,” recalled Daria Pratcher, director of housing for Fillmore Leroy Area Residents Inc. “The Central Park Plaza was a haven for feral cats and all kinds of pests and dumping activities. There were people living in the buildings. It had become a very, very, nasty situation.”

Pratcher said she was excited about renewing the residential area and the potential it had for igniting retail on Fillmore Avenue.

“We see the Central Park redevelopment by Ciminelli as being a catalyst. It’s a very positive development,” she said.

Masten Council Member Demone Smith also said the project had great potential for the community.

“It’ll attract more working families. They don’t want to do the regular poverty-type of project, they want to transform that whole area. That’s what’s going on in communities in Buffalo, and that’s what should happen in the Masten District as well.”

The plans were warmly received by about 150 neighborhood residents at a meeting Monday night in Buffalo School 61.

“I think it keeps our area in line with all the exciting things that’s going on in the rest of the city and makes us part of the ‘new Buffalo,’  ” Sandee Scruggs, president of Bennett Village Terrace Block Club, said after the meeting.

Residents said they were pleased to see signs of progress at the site after years of neglect by a previous owner.

“I like the fact that it’s being put to use, all that acreage,” said Beverly Davis, a 30-year resident of East Morris Avenue, who helped lead efforts in Housing Court to wrest ownership of the Central Park Plaza from its former out-of-town owner.

“It was a blight,” she said. “Everything on earth that you could think of that was wrong was in Central Park Plaza.”

Ciminelli announced Monday night that, with community approval, the new development would be named Highland Park, a return to the area’s original name, according to maps dating from the early 20th century.

Ciminelli emphasized that all community stakeholders would have a role in revitalizing the neighborhood through a public-private partnership and that the developer could not do it alone.

“We want to create opportunities for you guys to participate in the success of this neighborhood,” Ciminelli told the audience. “We’ve got enough to do with over 27 acres.”

The company was praised for its outreach efforts, including Monday’s meeting.

“They were attentive to listening to the concerns of the people,” said Renee Keith, executive director of Elim Christian Fellowship, which is adjacent to the former plaza.

“Quite naturally, the concerns are diverse.”

Several residents during a question-and-answer session called on Ciminelli to ensure that minority-owned contractors and minority laborers in the skilled trades will be hired to work on the new development.

Ciminelli said that was a priority at the company and that it has programs in place to funnel training and jobs to minorities.

Others expressed concern that plans for a grocery store were not included. But Ciminelli replied that food retail would likely soon follow the expected influx of thousands of new residents.

The area not owned by Ciminelli immediately northwest of the former plaza would be ripe for development of a grocery store, he added.

“We do need a supermarket, but I think that will be the result of the plan they’ve got,” Scruggs said. “When they bring people in, put roofs in, put families in, it’s going to be a viable neighborhood.”