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Much ado about Gates Circle fate

Neighbors of the proposed redevelopment of the former Millard Fillmore Hospital complex at Gates Circle turned out in force Tuesday morning to oppose the developer’s request to rezone the entire property, only to find out that the request actually had been withdrawn months ago.

Even so, they used the opportunity of a public hearing at the Buffalo Planning Board to criticize the $150 million project for having far too much retail space that they say will generate significant traffic and parking problems in their neighborhood.

“That’s a lot of retail to drop down in what is essentially a residential neighborhood,” said neighbor Jim Smith, who led off the challenge. “I don’t think it’s fair or appropriate that the city ask a residential neighborhood to buy into that.”

But the developer said the critics misunderstand what’s being proposed. “There seems to be a perception that this is a big-box retail strip center,” said attorney Marc A. Romanowski, of Hopkins, Sorgi & Romanowski, the law firm representing TM Montante Development. “That’s completely inconsistent with what’s been proposed by the developer.”

TM Montante is seeking to convert the former hospital complex into a mixed-use community, featuring more than 500 new residential units in addition to a mixture of stores and office space. Specifically, the project as currently envisioned calls for 136,000 square feet of retail space, including a 60,000-square-foot fitness center and a planned urban grocery store of 20,000 to 25,000 square feet.

As part of the effort, the developer had applied to the Planning Board to change the zoning for the entire 6.7-acre site to a more general commercial category that would allow for a wider variety of uses than currently allowed.

But some neighbors, particularly from the Lancaster/Melbourne Avenue Block Club, had opposed what they called a “blanket rezoning,” fearing a deluge of retail development in what has long been a residential area. Instead, they preferred to require the developer to seek the change on a building-by-building basis, and mobilized in the past week to fight the application.

“I’m for the project, but not for the scope of the project,” said Dennis Dickman, a Barker Street resident and member of the Linwood Historic Preservation District. “Montante’s plans are to put twice as much as can be put on the site. This is going to be a mess, a total mess, and cars will be backed up from morning to night waiting to exit that area.”

While the current zoning code is less flexible for a mixed-use development, Buffalo’s proposed new Green Code would make it easier, if and when it is implemented.

Moreover, Romanowski said, the proposed retail is a small percentage of the entire project, estimated at more than 900,000 square feet in all. Aside from the grocery store and fitness center, the rest of the retail space is about 50,000 to 60,000 square feet.

And it would be contained in first-floor storefronts of small apartment buildings that themselves would be no more than 18,000 square feet in size, mostly along Linwood Avenue.

Still, “shopping districts can have unintended consequences,” said resident and frequent development critic Dan Sack.

“You’re about to plop over 500 people into our neighborhood. That’s a lot,” one woman said.

Not everyone was critical. Carly Battin, executive director of the Elmwood Village Association, praised Montante for being “very transparent, very responsive to the issues,” and said the concerns of critics were considered. “I think the traffic-calming designs presented very clearly address that,” she said. “Parking is going to continue to be an ongoing concern.”

And residents said they aren’t opposed to development itself, preferring that to an abandoned hospital building or vacant land, and acknowledging that reusing the old hospital isn’t feasible, either. But Smith suggested that Montante could also skip retail altogether or downsize it further.

“We’re excited about the reuse of that space. We do not want a vacant lot. We do not want an empty hospital building,” said Alan Friedman, a business owner and Lancaster Avenue resident. “But we do want some assurance that this will be thought through. I think the neighborhood and the city needs to look at this and evaluate this project and say yes to those aspects they’re happy with and no to others.”

The hearing was held as part of the review of the draft environmental-impact statement for the project, a requirement under state law. That draft statement, which had originally been filed in the spring, still included the language seeking a zoning change, creating the confusion among neighbors.

The meeting was actually the second hearing, after concerns were expressed about a lack of adequate notice for the first one. The Planning Board is taking comments through Sept. 19. A final statement will likely be approved next month.