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Design change could end dispute over senior facility at Gates Circle

The bitter struggle over a proposed Canterbury Woods senior living facility at Gates Circle took a dramatic turn toward resolution over the weekend, after the nonprofit developer yielded to community pressure over the building’s design. Attention now shifts to the larger battle over the rest of the former hospital site.

After several weeks of arguing with neighbors over the type of materials to be used in the building’s facade, Episcopal Church Home & Affiliates reversed course late Friday and agreed to swap out metal panels in favor of terra cotta tiles for the upper three floors of the six-story building. That’s expected to pave the way for the project to proceed.

The metal panels had been a major sore point for nearby residents, who said they looked “cheap,” institutional and not in keeping with the historic upscale look of the tony Delaware Avenue neighborhood.

The fight had threatened to derail the entire project, or at least drive up the costs substantially for Episcopal Church Home, which warned that such demands could make the project cost prohibitive, forcing it to back out.

“Canterbury Woods was very concerned about their ability to move the project forward,” said attorney Marc Romanowski. “It’s really about the degree and cost of the changes that have been demanded by the neighbors. We weren’t seeing an effort to compromise on their part.”

Representatives of the developer submitted the proposed change to neighborhood groups and the two Common Council members whose districts include the Gates Circle area. The change didn’t satisfy everyone, but it was enough for the Lancaster Avenue Block Club to declare victory after earlier spearheading opposition to the design.

“We’re willing to take the terra cotta as a victory for the community and move forward to whatever lies ahead on the site,” said Gretchen Cercone, the block club’s president. “We don’t love the design, but we need to move forward and focus on other things.”

She said her group wanted to refocus its attention on what will happen on the rest of the 6.7-acre site of the former Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital, and to ensure that the community retains a voice in future development. In particular, local residents want to prevent a “blanket rezoning” of the entire site to allow for large-scale commercial or retail development that they say would damage their community.

TM Montante Development, which acquired the entire site from Kaleida Health, plans a $150 million redevelopment with more than 500 residential units – including apartments, townhomes and condominiums – plus a fitness facility, an urban grocery store, and street-level retail space scattered among multiple low-rise buildings. Neighbors, however, are deeply worried that a potential request to rezone the entire property for commercial use could lead to big-box retailers that they don’t want.

The 58-unit Canterbury Woods, which will anchor the site on Gates Circle itself, where the former hospital tower stood, is part of the overall concept, although it will be separately owned, financed and built. But it was the first part of the redevelopment to come up for review, making it a lightning rod.

“It’s the big picture and the small picture,” she said. “People still have concerns about the design as a whole, but we got involved because of the larger issue of the zoning on the site, and we’re just not interested in holding things up as we debate architectural features. We’re ready to let this one go and let them start building and let the process move forward.”

That, in turn, was reassuring to Common Council President Darius Pridgen, whose district includes the Gates Circle property itself. “As long as the public supports it that lives around it, I absolutely support it,” Pridgen said Sunday.

As a result, observers expect the project will have a better shot at winning approval from the Buffalo Planning Board, which meets Monday at 4 p.m. Some zoning variances are still needed, but those are not expected to pose a challenge.

Once all approvals are in hand, construction is expected to begin in February, and last about 20 months, said Canterbury Woods spokesman Phil Pantano.

“In light of that change and some of the conversations that have been taking place over the last few days, our hope is that the Planning Board will vote on the project tomorrow,” Pantano said Sunday.

In the end, the project’s cost increased by $1 million, or 2.5 percent, to $41 million.

Meanwhile, Pridgen and Delaware Council Member Joel Feroleto – whose constituents abut the site – have been trying to broker a possible solution to the rezoning issue by creating a special zoning district just for the Gates Circle site. Such a concept could protect the neighborhood by preventing the entire site from being rezoned in one shot, while also mandating more input from the community and the Common Council on every step of redevelopment. Those conditions would remain regardless of who owns or develops the property.

The concept has support from the community and also from Montante, according to Feroleto’s office. “That is a huge win,” Cercone said. “It’s a real protection for the neighborhood that we were fighting for from Day One. We just want to make sure we’re preserving the integrity of that site.”

But Pridgen, who was on vacation for several days, said he still needs to consult with the city’s legal counsel, the Brown administration and active community leaders before signing off.

“I do appreciate those who are working toward a zoning deal or zoning ordinance for that area,” he said. “What I’m afraid of doing is overnight making a change that is this huge without the input of stakeholders.”