After more than three hours of testimony, Chason Affinity Co.'s request for six zoning variances for an Elmwood Avenue condominium project was tabled by the Zoning Board of Appeals Wednesday, further holding up the $30 million project that has already lingered in uncertainty for months.
The panel had started discussion on the matter in order to make a ruling, when members decided they needed more time to review written and oral statements, as well as the environmental impact findings.
The board's action – at the end of a five-hour meeting – followed a noisy and spirited public hearing in Common Council Chambers at City Hall, interrupted by frequent applause from one side of the room or the other.
Supporters backed a project they believe will bring more vibrancy to the neighborhood. Opponents sought to beat back what they view as a precedent-setting effort to get around the new Green Code.
Chason has been working to alleviate concerns and opposition to the development, meeting with neighbors and community leaders over the past year, while scaling back its plan and making other design changes to make it more aesthetically appealing.
The company has held more than 30 meetings with neighbors, focusing particularly on residents of Penhurst Park and Granger Place behind the project site.
"It's been extremely positive, especially in that neighborhood," said developer Mark Chason, president and owner of the company. "People are pretty excited about seeing this hopefully go forward."
Under its most current iteration that was unveiled a few weeks ago, the developer is now proposing to construct a four-story condominium project at Elmwood and Forest avenues, with 40 one-, two- and three-bedroom residential units for sale, plus three ground-floor retail spaces and a single level of 97 underground parking spaces. That's enough for each resident to have two spaces, with 17 extras for retailers or other needs.
Critics objected strenuously Wednesday to the height and length of the proposed development along Elmwood, which they say is far too big, inappropriate and out-of-scale for the neighborhood.
In particular, they argued the project would violate the city's newly enacted zoning and land-use regulation that many said they spent hours working to develop.
The Green Code limits the height of buildings in the Elmwood Village to three stories and 44 feet, and restricts how long new construction projects can stretch along the street to 120 feet.
Chason's project is four stories and 315 feet long. Two of the six variance requests dealt with those issues – while the others involved minor subjects, such as the height of windowsills.
Critics asserted that the developer should be forced to comply without granting any variances, lest developers of other projects try the same thing. Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. has another pending proposal down the street that has also evoked controversy.
"It is incumbent on this board to tell developers that it is no longer the Wild Wild West," said Jessie Fisher, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara. "Stand up for the Green Code. We developed this together. Tell the developers to come back to us when you have a code-compliant building."
On the other side, many neighbors and other residents touted the benefits of the project in bringing more resident-owners to the area, who would care about the community and spend needed money in nearby shops.
"An urban area needs to grow and evolve. If we become static, we die," said Catherine Gillespie, of Bryant Street. "It is important for retailers on Elmwood to have foot traffic and people who live in the area coming and shopping. If we don't have people who live there, that's not going to happen."
They argued that what was termed a gateway to the Elmwood Village is currently more of an eyesore that needs an upgrade.
"This is a game-changer," said Scott Sandell, of Ashland Avenue. "This project is just common sense to be able to improve a corner that is quite frankly ugly."
Common Councilmember Joel Feroleto – who until now had declined to publicly express a viewpoint – gave his backing to the project and its variances, after asking for and receiving an opinion from the city's deputy corporation counsel that an approval would not set a precedent.
He and Chason representatives noted that every project must be considered independently on its own merits.
Feroleto noted that "there is significant support" in the "immediate neighborhood" around the project, citing letters and petitions to the ZBA from 80 percent of homeowners on Penhurst Place and from every building owner on the block of Elmwood who owns a business. By contrast, he said, he has not received one letter of opposition from any business owner on Elmwood.
He rejected contention that the Green Code is inflexible.
"There's a notion that any project that applies for a variance is bad. That is simply not true," Feroleto said. "New York State law allows for any property owner to apply for a variance, which is what is happening here."
Feroleto and Chason representatives noted that the Green Code as written would actually allow Chason to build a three-story building that is 27,000 square feet larger than what was presented, with firewalls every 120 feet to break it up in three pieces. It could also extend to just 15 feet from the property line on Granger Place, instead of the 52 feet distance that is proposed.
No zoning variance would be needed for it, and such a project could include more than 130 units, or twice as many student-housing beds.
"So when you think about the alternatives that could go on the site, what could be built there is pretty nasty," said architect Steven Carmina.
Steve Ricca of Bond Schoeneck & King, the attorney for Chason, also said that the variances being requested were necessary only because of last-minute changes to the Green Code that were highly restrictive for the Elmwood Village and that removed a "grandfather clause" that would have applied.
"There are times when variances are a good thing," Chason said. "Sometimes a variance will make it a better project."
The Chason plan was already reduced from a prior plan several months ago that called for a five-story building with 57 units and two levels of parking – one above ground – with 140 spaces. And it's a far cry from the original project eight years ago that called for a taller hotel on the site.
It's also five feet shorter, at 315 feet in length. The top floor is set back from the facade by another eight feet "so it's barely visible from the street," Chason said. And one of two driveways has been eliminated along with the ground level of parking.
The fourth floor now has a mansard roof, instead of a vertical wall. All units have patios, but front balconies have been replaced with "Juliet" railings and doors, so that residents have more space inside the condos.
The company has introduced different colors of brick and other materials, as well as setbacks, to redesign the front facade so it looks like nine different buildings – seven walk-up townhomes at one end, a glass-enclosed courtyard and pocket park in the middle, and a main building at the far end – rather than a single monolithic structure.
"We really went through great lengths to make this work," said Chason Affinity CEO Jeffrey Birtch.