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Supporters of Amherst Street Family Dollar allege plan’s defeat was orchestrated

In the initial weeks leading up to a Zoning Board vote, supporters of a planned Family Dollar store were confident they had the votes to get approval for a new store at Main and East Amherst streets.

But in the final weeks, something changed. Mayor Byron W. Brown replaced two Zoning Board members, both holdovers whose terms had expired a year or so ago.

When those two members left the board, so did the majority of support for the Family Dollar store project. Rezoning was rejected for the store last week by a 3-1 vote.

Family Dollar supporters charged that Brown intentionally replaced the holdovers before the September vote because the two men supported the project, and their removal would ensure the store didn’t get its needed rezoning.

“I am accusing them of taking them off to kill the project,” said Tony Scirri, a real estate broker representing the Family Dollar store as well as the project developer, Hutchinson Commercial Real Estate Services of Pennsylvania. “It was pretty clever. It was a brilliant political move.”

“Those were the yes votes,” Jim Wojtowicz, the current owner of the property proposed for the project, said of the two former Zoning Board members.

The Brown administration denied the charge. The city has been reviewing appointments to boards throughout city government over the past year, with an eye toward appointing members reflective of the overall makeup of the city, said Brendan Mehaffy, Brown’s director of strategic planning.

Mehaffy said he recommended that the mayor replace two men – Warren Glover and Joseph Pandolfino – who both had served on the Zoning Board for the past 20 years – with two women, both professional planners. Glover and Pandolfino were not reappointed when their last three-year terms expired about a year ago. The two remained on the board as holdovers until replacements were found.

After the August recess – when city boards do not meet and planning staff has more time to work on administrative matters – the city was ready to make the new appointments to the Zoning Board, Mehaffy said. Similar changes are planned for other city boards, he added.

The timing of the Zoning Board changes had nothing to do with the Family Dollar or any other project, Mehaffy said.

“We were working on this for over a year,” Mehaffy said. “We are trying to have the boards more reflective of the community of Buffalo. There were no women on the board. We added two women with planning degrees.”

Brown confirmed to The Buffalo News at the end of August that Tuona Batchelor and Bernice Radle were replacing Glover and Pandolfino on the Zoning Board. He wrote a letter thanking Glover and Pandolfino for their years of service, and notified them they would not be needed at the September meeting.

“I was terminated,” Pandolfino told The Buffalo News last week. “I don’t know why. They sent me a letter. Says my services are no longer needed.”

Pandolfino confirmed he supported the store project and would have voted for it. Glover could not be reached to comment. But Pandolfino said Glover received a similar letter, dated a week before the Sept. 17 Zoning Board meeting. Glover had previously expressed support for the project.

Mehaffy’s explanation did not satisfy Scirri or Wojtowicz, who noted that the rezoning came up for a vote in June and July, but both times was tabled until the next meeting because the board was split 2-2 on whether to grant it. On both occasions, one of the men who supported the project – Pandolfino one month and Glover the other – was absent. If either was present on one of those dates, the project would have been approved, they said.

If Pandolfino and Glover had been at the September meeting, they would have joined Zoning Board member Anthony Diina in supporting the project, and it would have passed, Scirri and Wojtowicz predicted.

Scirri and Wojtowicz said they believe much of the opposition to the project was led by developer John Ciminelli, a senior vice president with LP Ciminelli. They believe he had a role in getting the two Zoning Board members replaced. LP Ciminelli is building a $70 million apartment complex in the former Central Park Plaza, just a few blocks east of the proposed store.

Ciminelli opposed the project before the Zoning Board, saying it wasn’t a good fit for the corner, and that a Family Dollar isn’t what people want to see when they walk out of the nearby Amherst Street Metro Rail station.

“Ciminelli doesn’t want this done,” Wojtowicz said. “Ciminelli never should have had anything to do with it.”

“He has a lot of influence,” Scirri added.

Ciminelli did not return a call seeking comment. Mehaffy said Ciminelli had nothing to do with the city’s decision to change Zoning Board members.

“He had no influence over my recommendations to the mayor to make the change,” Mehaffy said.

The Family Dollar store project, meanwhile, could move forward without the requested zoning changes, but in a different manner.

Hutchinson Commercial Real Estate Services, the developer of the project, had proposed demolishing the vacant former car-stereo building on the site and constructing a 8,320-square-foot building. The new construction required several zoning variances addressing setbacks, parking, and floor area. As an alternative, the developer could retrofit a Family Dollar Store in the current building without needing any zoning variances, Scirri said. He said his clients are still deciding if they will appeal the Zoning Board decision, or if they will rehabilitate the current vacant building for a Family Dollar store.