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First step taken toward construction of hotel at Amherst's Northtown Center

A proposal to construct a new hotel at Amherst's Northtown Center took the first step forward Monday night, when the Town Board agreed to begin the process of removing the parkland designation from 3 acres at the ice rink facility.

The Town Board authorized the town attorney to initiate the process of "alienation," which would require the town to transfer the parkland designation to a similar parcel elsewhere in the town.

"This is the beginning of a very long process," said Town Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein.

The hotel would be built on 3 acres next to the town-owned Northtown Center, along Amherst Manor Road and near the University at Buffalo North Campus, land that is now part of the Audubon Recreation Complex. The site is currently filled by a retention pond.

"The space at issue is not presently utilized for any recreational activity whatsoever," Town Attorney Stanley Sliwa told the board during a public hearing. "It's undeveloped."

The town received one response from potential developers for the hotel, but has not publicly identified the company that submitted the proposal. Town officials envision a four-story hotel of 104 rooms and 115 parking spots on the 3 acres west of the center, Sliwa said. The developer would make annual lease payments to the town, revenue that would defray the costs of running the center, he said.

Several residents said during the hearing they were opposed to the loss of any green space and questioned the need for another hotel in the area.

Alissa Shields, an environmental conservationist and town resident, said the town was guilty of "wholesale liquidation of our green space."

"Once it's gone, it's gone," she said.

Eric Guzdek, Northtown Center's general manager, was asked to respond to questions about the need for another hotel in that area. He noted that the center just finished hosting three weekends of the state amateur hockey association tournament, which included 167 teams.

"They more than filled the hotels in Amherst and then went outside the Town of Amherst," he said.

Weinstein said he proposed the town look at building a hotel at the site five years ago, but the idea went nowhere.

"Since then there's been a lot of hotels built in the area," he said. "I can understand why people are questioning the need for a hotel."

Some residents had asked if the market would support a new hotel at the center.

"A market study is not for the town to do," Weinstein said. "The market study is for the private sector."

Ultimately, the town will have to get the approval of the State Legislature and the governor to shift the park designation from one property to another, which has not yet been identified.

The alienation process could be further complicated by a federal law known as conversion, because federal funds were used in 1962 to acquire the land from the University at Buffalo, Sliwa said.

Any proposed hotel would also require a rezoning of the parcel to accommodate the new land use. But the alienation does not mean it will definitely be developed into a hotel, or developed at all, said Deputy Supervisor Steven D. Sanders.

"At this point all we're doing is saying we want to continue the process," he said. "We'll have plenty of opportunities later on to kill the project if it doesn't make any sense."

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