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This time, residents will have say in future of Children’s Hospital

It was encouraging, gratifying and even a bit amusing.

Four big-time developers came to the community Thursday night not looking for handouts, but with hats in hand.

Four big-time developers came to a public forum not with chests out, but with egos in check.

Each bent so far backwards to assure an SRO crowd at Kleinhans that their reuse plan for the soon-vacant Women & Children’s Hospital site would fit the neighborhood, enhance everyone’s quality of life, add greenspace and subtract blight that the presentations resembled a limbo competition.

Principals from Ciminelli Development, Ellicott Development (Paladino), Sinatra Real Estate and Uniland Development (Montante) played buzzword hopscotch. Each vowed to outdo each other in “community involvement” – “up until the last brick is laid,” trumped Nick Sinatra. They promised flexibility, transparency, sensitivity, connectivity and every other “ity” in the urban planner handbook.

Creative project add-ons ranged from a supermarket to a soccer field to public art space to a park. Developers said they’d reshape proposals to the public’s liking, with Kaleida officials picking a winner by midyear.

If the developers were any more deferential to the concerns of some 400 attendees, they would’ve handed out gift bags.

What happened here can and should be a model for every big, neighborhood-impacting project to come – city or suburbs.

This is how it can be, when informed residents step up, when the seller – Kaleida Health, in this case – creates a bid process that ups the odds of a happy ending.

This is what you get, when you know how to ask for it.

It’s no accident that developers developed an aim-to-please attitude. The bid process – crafted by a Kaleida-formed band of activists, urban planners, academics and public officials – prompted developers to bring their community-sensitive “A” games. The rules: Do something that fits the neighborhood. Reuse good buildings. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Justify any public subsidy. Lay out a timetable. Show us the money.

The clarity works not just for residents, but developers.

“Developers sometimes have a hard enough time following the rules, and if the rules are unclear, then you’re all over the map,” said Paul Ciminelli, CEO of the namesake company. “With this, we know what they’re looking for – and we can take the community’s temperature before we present a final project.”

Granted, it’s easier to dictate terms with a high-value site in upscale Elmwood Village. The city’s ongoing revival ensures demand for on-site apartments and condos. And Kaleida didn’t want to repeat its muck-up of the 2012 Fillmore/Gates Circle reuse bid. It first favored a veterinary school that, on closer look, was more smokescreen than substance. The current stop-and-start plan, anchored by a senior-housing development, has run into design and zoning blowback from neighbors.

“We learned our lesson from Fillmore-Gates,” Kaleida Health’s Mike Hughes told me. “We started this way earlier, and understood that people wanted to be part of the process.”

It should. Developers need to please educated residents with a deep community stake – and an admirable eagerness to vet a massive development that will impact their lives for a lifetime. Nobody wants a pulsating eyesore in the heart of the Elmwood Village.

The mantra: Shape it now, or regret it later.

It’s a sign of changing times. For years, we were so used to no development that we’d settle for anything. From city to suburbs, we are consequently awash in blank-facade hotels, Lego-like buildings and parking-first projects.

What’s coming to the Children’s site should be a reversal from half-baked, cookie-cutter, build-first/ask-later development that devalues neighborhoods and dismisses residents.

“Kaleida worked with us on a good bidding process,” said Sean Ryan, the state assemblyman who was on the activist-driven project advisory committee. “When you set the development rules ahead of time, you get quality responses.”

That’s what we got last week – deferential developers, with open ears and open-to-suggestion proposals. A good process leads to a good result.

It should happen at Children’s. It can happen everywhere.

email: desmonde@buffnews.com