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Ciminelli applies for permit to demolish Elmwood Avenue buildings

The Buffalo Preservation Board on Thursday will consider a developer's request to tear down eight structures on or near Elmwood Avenue, on the two blocks north of Bidwell Parkway, to make way for new apartments and storefronts called Arbor + Reverie.

But the advisory body may have its hands tied, said Paul McDonnell, the board's chairman. While that section of Elmwood is on the National Register of Historic Places, it is not landmarked by the city, and that could limit the board's influence.

"Basically, we don't have a lot of jurisdiction over this because it's a national district, not a local district," McDonnell said. "It hasn't been locally landmarked."

Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. applied for a city permit last week to demolish the eight properties – five on Elmwood, two on Ashland Avenue and one on Potomac Avenue – plus the rear of two buildings on the northwest corner of Bidwell, where the facades would be retained along Elmwood.

The developer said the mixed-use development, designed by HHL Architects, which specializes in historic preservation, is true to the character of Elmwood and would add vitality to the commercial street.

The Elmwood properties that would be demolished extend from just past Ashker's on Elmwood coffee shop to the first three houses after the former J.P. Bullfeathers, with the last one fronted by the Gutter Pop comics shop. They would be replaced by a four-story building, although its design would make it look like two buildings.

The project has sparked controversy in part because the developer plans to replace 2 1/2- and three-story buildings with taller structures. That would exceed the Green Code's three-story height limit, with some fearing it would threaten the Elmwood strip's charm and sense of scale.

Artistic rendering shows a new, four-story building on Elmwood Avenue that's connected in the middle, and would replace the building next to Ashker's on Elmwood coffee shop, J.P. Bullfeathers and three houses.

The push for demolition comes as the Green Code, the city's first overhaul of the city code since 1953, becomes law on Feb. 17 – 45 days after Mayor Byron W. Brown signed the legislation. Under the new code, a project has to be approved by the zoning and planning boards first before demolition can be approved.

"The input I have received in the past 48 hours from people has been frustration," said Delaware District Council Member Joel Feroleto. "They want to see this project move forward under the Green Code. People were thrilled with the city passing the Green Code, and then one week after the signing came the application to demolish."

The Elmwood Village Association also wants to see the demolitions considered only if the developer has received approvals with the variances needed for its project.

Dennis Penman, a Ciminelli vice president, said the company has proceeded with the expectation the Green Code would pass.

"This is not an end around the Green Code," Penman said. "We are following city and state processes for project redevelopment, and everything is being done as consistent with the Green Code as possible."

Penman said he thought the project was "more than 90 percent compliant" with the new zoning code. Remedies in the code, such as variances for height, are there purposely to address a project's needs, he said.

Although the Green Code requires municipal approvals before properties can be demolished, Penman could not say if Ciminelli would hold off on demolitions during the days until the new code becomes law -- "the gray space between the two codes," as Penman put it.

Because properties on Elmwood are involved, a provision in the existing code requires a public hearing and a decision by the Common Council to issue a special use permit allowing demotions to proceed. That doesn't apply to the adjacent buildings on adjoining streets.

Feroleto said he is reserving judgment on the project until a public hearing and if the matter comes to the council.

"In the event the project is fast-tracked, and the council has to vote on a special use permit before the Green Code is implemented, I do not anticipate the developer would be allowed to demolish the properties," Feroleto said.

The Buffalo Preservation Board may consider landmarking the Elmwood stretch.

"I anticipate that the board will pursue local landmarking," McDonnell said. "That would give the board decision-making with regards to the demolition."

[Related: Ciminelli announces $40 million Elmwood-Bidwell project plans]

For a property to be locally landmarked, there has to be an application, a public hearing and a decision by the Preservation Board that would have to be approved by the Common Council. That process is underway, McDonnell said.

"We have talked to residents, and a local landmark application is being pursued," he said.

If that area is designated a local landmark, then the Preservation Board's decision on the property would be binding.

Assemblyman Sean Ryan, who participated in a rally against the project that drew about 75 people to Elmwood and Bidwell Wednesday morning, said Ciminelli's action to pursue a demolition permit betrayed its commitment to the community.

"In the middle of a conversation with the public, they have quietly filed for a demolition permit," Ryan said. "We're not going to allow Ciminelli to bring out the wrecking ball, put big holes in our commercial and residential areas and then essentially hold the community hostage."

"It's the historic fabric of all of Elmwood Avenue that makes the district a success," Ryan added.

Penman said changes to the plan reflect feedback received at numerous public meetings.

"What people are familiar with and embrace is the architecture on Elmwood, and that is going to stay intact," Penman said. "It's been our intention all along to preserve those facades, and also the facade on the building on Potomac that was the Sunday Skate Shop."

The height of the corner building would be 18 feet higher than what the Green Code would allow, requiring a variance.

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