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Initial review of Elmwood condo project: Positive, with a caveat

When developers proposed a seven-story, 120-room hotel on Elmwood Avenue, residents on nearby Granger Place were so upset they filed a lawsuit to try to stop the project.

The project was too big, too massive, they said.

This past week, a new plan was presented for the same footprint that extends down Elmwood from Pano’s restaurant to Forest Avenue. This proposal is also big – five stories, 57 condominum units along with a few storefronts.

But this new project is drawing high marks from Granger Place neighors, after learning details for the first time from Mark Chason, the developer, and Steve Carmina, the architect.

The mood among Granger Place residents was “quite positive,” resident Daniel Hess said, noting that wasn’t the case when the previous project was discussed.

“I think the project brings some needed density, and that density is then going to create demand for more and better shops and services on Elmwood,” Hess said.

“It seemed to me that they addressed a lot of the issues that people had with the previous design,” resident Tom Palamuso said. “I was very, very pleased. There is a real feeling of authenticity to the building without being a copycat of a previous era, while showing respect for previous types of architecture.”

Some – including former plaintiffs and their attorney – still felt the scale was disproportionately large for Elmwood Village.

“It’s a big improvement from what they had proposed several years ago. The setbacks are nice for sure, it’s a nice building and it’s condos and not a hotel,” said Susan Davis, who was part of an unsuccessful lawsuit that went to court to prevent Chason Affinity’s earlier proposal.

“But it’s still just massive, and it doesn’t fit with the neighborhood at all. There are parts of Delaware Avenue where it would fit nicely.”

Art Giacalone, the attorney in the lawsuit, also said it was still too big.

“Obviously, it is a more aestheically pleasing building than the prior proposal,” Giacalone said. “However, it does not in any way comply with the fabric of the Elmwood Village. It’s too large and it’s too dense.”

The project still needs city approval, and if approved, construction could start in the spring of 2017 with completion 14 to 16 months later.

Building the brick and brownstone building – most of the residences are on the south end of the project, with the storefronts to the north – would require the demolition of nine houses on Elmwood, including some with stores, one house behind and two more on Forest Avenue.

Residents were shown artistic renderings suggesting that design elements and the use of setbacks would make the building appear as if it were two, three-story structures from ground level.

Still, the sheer size was a sticking point for Evelyn Bencinich, as it’s likely to be for many other Granger Place residents in a district characterized by two- to three-story houses with storefronts.

“I’m not crazy about the massiveness of it. It just doesn’t fit to me, but we already lost in court,” said Bencinich, who was one of the plaintiffs.

Bencinich said she preferred condos to a hotel. She was also concerned about the disruption the new project would cause.

“I’m certainly not looking forward to a year of construction and the demolition of these houses,” Bencinich said.

Karen Okoniewski, also of Granger Place, said there was much to like about the project.

“It is so much better than the previous designs,” she said, mentioning the mansard roof and materials that include brick.

“I feel they very much listened to the community,” Okoniewski said. “They scaled it down and they stepped the building back. They even showed shadowing studies in the spring, winter and summer.”

Another thing Okoniewski and neighbor Luli Smith liked was a trash compactor system that eliminates the need for dumpsters.

“I get woken up in the morning by Pano’s at 7 in the morning.” Okoniewski said.

Smith said many of the features appealed to her, including stormwater retention and the green spaces amd staircases along Elmwood “like they have in Brooklyn.”

Smith also said getting rid of the nine houses on Elmwood was addition by subtraction.

“Those buildings are junky,” Smith said. “I think they’ve looked like hell as long as I’ve lived here, and I’ve lived here 30 years.”

She didn’t like the corner of the building at Forest. “It looked like a medical facility,” she said.

Jeff Birtch, a principal with Chason Affinity, said the comments received about the corner confirmed their own concerns. He said changes would be made before a planned July 11 public meeting at Buffalo Seminary.

Birtch said the company was encouraged by the Granger Place residents’ response to the project.

Alex Bitterman praised the work of the architecture firm Carmina Wood Morris. He said that development and others in Elmwood Village in various stages of planning would bring “significant investment, vitality and density” to the area.

“The fact that the proposed development needs only a small number of insignificant variances is testiment to its smart, responsible and solid design,” Bitterman said.

Birtch has said the developer would seek three variances from the city’s zoning board for the project.

But Giacalone said the project’s size and scale is bigger than what the successor to the city’s zoning code, now in draft form, currently allows.

“This project doesn’t comply with the draft Green Code,” Giacalone said. “It says the frontage of a building should not exceed 125 feet. That is important in keeping down the scale of buildings and discourages doing what Chason Affinity did, which is to buy up and then demolish a dozen buildings.”