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What's next for the former Children's Hospital site?

Doctors, nurses and patients have moved. The closed sign is up. After a whirlwind, 12-hour move on Friday, it's down to the last pieces of equipment.

The keys to the old Women & Children’s Hospital were handed over to a development team led by Nick Sinatra and William Paladino on Monday, according to Paladino on Monday evening.

So what happens now?

For starters, officials on all sides say they are determined not to let the former hospital gather dust before reuse begins.

"I think it's important the community sees action there and a good pace with the redevelopment," said Jody L. Lomeo, president and CEO of Kaleida Health, which operates Children's Hospital. "That neighborhood deserves that."

The developers closed Monday on the $1 million purchase of the eight-acre site, according to Kaleida spokesman Michael P. Hughes and Paladino. That included seven buildings, parking lots and other facilities stretching over three city blocks.

Then, work to finalize their plans is expected to pick up quickly, as the redevelopment team prepares to submit plans to the city to transform the vacant hospital campus.

But what is built – and how long it takes – will have a significant affect on a neighborhood that already has apartments, mansions, restaurants and offices. And there are lots of hopes, desires, fears and opinions being expressed.

"I hope we survive the redevelopment stage," said Dale Ali, who operates Epic Restaurant & Lounge, at the corner of Elmwood and Bryant across from the hospital. He anticipates the redevelopment work could take as long as five years. "You're taking away something for five years, and five years is a long time to survive."

Community fixture

Children's Hospital has been a fixture in the Bryant Street neighborhood for 125 years, so the future of the sprawling site has garnered significant interest from not only the surrounding neighbors but also from throughout the city.

It's also being closely watched because of the sheer size of the property. There are more than 600,000 square feet on the sprawling former hospital campus between Elmwood and Delaware avenues.

"It's personally significant for many of us on the team, myself included, because we live in this neighborhood," said Sinatra, owner of Sinatra & Co. Real Estate, which teamed up with Paladino's Ellicott Development Co. to lead the project.

Ambulances on Friday transported the last of the patients from Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo on Bryant Street to the new Oishei Children's Hospital on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Specific details of the plans are still in flux, but Sinatra said the largely residential project will include condominiums and townhouses, plus rental apartments. There are also plans for a hotel, an urban grocery store, commercial or office space, storefronts and restaurants and even a daycare.

"We designed our plan to be efficient, less disruptive to our surrounding environment, and to work with the timing at hand," Sinatra said.

Perhaps most significantly, most of the existing buildings will be retained, not demolished, while new construction will be focused on parking lots on West Utica Street and at the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Bryant Street. The site also will include "a lot of green space," with the potential for pocket parks and public art displays, Sinatra said.

The developers expect the project to cost between $75 million and $100 million – consistent with what they said in July. And since the plan calls for "very minimal demolition" in favor of "keeping most of the buildings intact," Sinatra said, "we'll be able to accomplish this in a quick fashion."

That means three to four years, instead of the longer time frame and disruption that would have been required with Sinatra's original proposal to demolish the hospital towers.

"This is a better plan," he said.

A long process

Kaleida Health, which moved its pediatric hospital to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus last week, is aware of its role in helping the site find a reuse.

Lomeo noted that the neighborhood has long been a backbone for the old hospital.

"For us, it's our obligation to that community," Lomeo said. "We're not going to walk away, never to be seen again."

Kaleida began initial discussions with the community about the hospital's future back in fall 2012, inviting community leaders to talk about their visions for reuse and how the public should be included. A project advisory committee of neighbors, business owners, professionals and community representatives developed a values statement and helped Kaleida craft a request for proposals that was issued in September 2015.

Kaleida initially selected Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. as the designated developer in June 2016, but the parties failed to come to an agreement after a year of talks. The hospital system pulled the plug last July, turning instead to Sinatra and Ellicott, and asking them to work together.

Now, those developers are finalizing their own plans, in conjunction with Kaleida and the community. The team plans to submit its proposal to the city for site plan review and any other municipal approvals in December, Sinatra said. The team already engaged Wendel for site layouts, but will bid out the architectural work shortly.

"The plan itself has changed quite a bit based on community feedback, and we think that we're going to be in a position in the next month or so to present it more publicly," Sinatra said.

Sinatra said the apartments would represent "a broad spectrum of rental rates at all price points," ranging from less than $1,000 to well above. Retail space will be set up along Elmwood and West Utica, aimed both at new residents that will move into the development and at the existing neighborhoods around it.

The development team is also talking to "multiple different potential grocers right now," but Sinatra wouldn't elaborate about who might take that space or how big it might be. They also have not yet identified what uses or tenants might occupy any of the limited commercial space being planned, he added.

Lots of opinions

Within the neighborhoods of homes that surround the old Children's Hospital site, there are plenty of opinions and trepidation. Many people favor more residential development, along with more green space.

"That's a huge, empty space," said Jim Pepe, owner of Hodge Liquor, a neighborhood fixture in front of the hospital since 1933. "To have a mix of residential and retail fits perfectly for this neighborhood."

But he's also worried about parking. "It's crowded down here now," Pepe said.

Some would prefer to see the old hospital buildings taken down. "A lot of them don't connect architecturally and are old," said Madeline Lillie, who has lived with her family for 35 years on tree-lined Oakland Place. "We have a neighborhood, but I think if we had some green space and squares, it would be good for this area."

Others expressed worry about the age and condition of the buildings "crunched" into the middle of a neighborhood. Jim Healy, whose Hodge Avenue home is close enough that he can see the hospital's now-dormant helipad from his backyard, is among the residents who want to make sure any asbestos or chemicals in the old buildings are addressed properly.

"It will get disrupted," Healy said. "The question is how much of that comes into the neighborhood."

Meanwhile, many retailers say they are just hoping to survive the transformation – sad to lose regular customers from the hospital but eager for new opportunities.

Yasuko Fukuchi waits on a customer at Perks Cafe on Elmwood and Bryant. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Employees at Perks Cafe hope to benefit either way. The coffee shop opened at Elmwood Avenue and Bryant Street in February 2016 when it was already clear the hospital would be moving. But it also is opening a second location in December at 777 Main St., at the far end of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Hospital business accounted for about 10 percent of the cafe's sales, said Julie Leone, director of operations and marketing for both Perks Café locations. But the café also draws heavily from the neighborhood and now stands to benefit from construction workers assigned to redevelopment work at the old hospital, Leone added.

"We'll definitely miss some of their business," Leone said of the Children's Hospital spinoff, "but to be honest, construction workers are big on coffee."

Serious consideration

Meanwhile, community leaders advise Sinatra and Paladino to take the neighborhood input seriously, and not just view public meetings as a way "simply to check that box off for the Planning Board," said Gretchen Cercone, a community advocate and president of the Lancaster Avenue Block Club.

"Expectations are high for the reuse of the Children's Hospital site, and community members are invested in seeing a project that will complement and energize this historic part of the city," Cercone said.

Jessie Fisher, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara, noted that the project is located within the largest National Register Historic District in the state, so "we would hope that all proposals seek to respect and add to the unique and vibrant character of this community."

Members of the project's advisory committee, meanwhile, were reluctant to discuss details of the proposed redevelopment, saying they're still exploring various scenarios. The 24-member group represents about 20 clubs and organizations.

"The community advisory committee at this stage of the game is overall pretty pleased with what we've seen from Sinatra and Ellicott Development," said Cynthia Schwartz, who is participating at the committee's request as an observer in her role as vice chair of the Buffalo Planning Board. "Obviously there will be specific areas of concern that people want to see modified or even potentially eliminated. But where they are in the conceptual planning now, they're 75 percent to 80 percent of the way to a community consensus. That doesn't mean everyone is wildly supportive of every component, but overall they like the direction that has been proposed."

A 1.2-mile journey from Children's past to its future

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