For decades, a grassy 2.4-acre parcel of city land sat vacant on the waterfront amid the condos and townhouses that overlook Erie Basin Marina.
The plot, one of the last remaining greenspace parcels within Waterfront Village, is now at the center of friction between Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. and residents of several of the community's 11 different developments.
The dispute, in part, comes down to waterfront views.
Ciminelli, which was named designated developer of the parcel by the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency in January 2015, plans to construct 31 for-sale residences on the L-shaped plot that touches the water on one end.
Neighbors of the site are preparing for public battle with the Amherst-based real estate developer in the coming weeks. After three years of discussions, they want to force changes in the planned condominium and townhouse project that they say will harm the neighborhood and obstruct their views.
"It's like trying to put a shoehorn to try to get this project to fit. It just doesn't go with everything else down there," said Lou Fasolino, a resident of the Breakwaters development in Waterfront Village. "There's a lot of questions out there, and we're going to do all we can to do a thorough investigation on this."
They will have at least two opportunities, since the project, known as West End, requires not only site plan approval by the Buffalo Planning Board, but also the approval of a land sale agreement by the Common Council. That's because the site at 240-260 Lakefront Blvd. is owned by the city, which started the process when it issued a request for development proposals in 2014.
Ciminelli says it has already made a series of changes in response to community feedback over the course of seven community meetings as well as other conversations. In particular, it lowered the height of the buildings to three stories and reduced the overall square footage.
As a result, the developer says, the project complies with the city's new Green Code zoning ordinance.
"We have obviously made several changes to the project, based on the conversations that we had with the Waterfront Village residents," said Ciminelli spokeswoman Anne Duggan. "We were really, really striving to bring this to compliance with the Green Code."
Nevertheless, residents argue that the project is still too high, has too many units for the existing infrastructure and utilities and isn't set back far enough from the water or the street.
Specifically, critics dismiss Ciminelli's claim of a three-story height as deceptive, saying that the ceiling and total story heights are extra large at 10 to 12 feet each. The top floor is 14 feet, for penthouse-style units. "These guys are grossly misrepresenting this," said Mark A. Flint, a retired business executive who is president of the Breakwaters Townhome Association at Waterfront Village.
Additionally, they note, the building has to come out of the ground by another 6 feet before the first floor even starts, in order to accommodate one level of below-grade parking. So the buildings are much taller than they would otherwise be, the opponents conclude.
Waterfront views 'threatened'
"The views count a lot. There's a number of residents that have waterfront views that are threatened by this development," said Kim Fiedler, a resident of Marina Park and chairman of a 12-member Waterfront Village Advisory Council subcommittee formed to monitor the project.
The committee includes representatives from the Marina Park, Breakwaters, Portside and Admirals Walk developments, which border the Ciminelli site. "They paid a value for their units to have a viewshed," Fiedler said.
Residents complain that while they've stated their concerns consistently, the developer is refusing to make further compromises unless it benefits Ciminelli's profitability, as well.
They note that the Waterfront Village Advisory Council sent a letter to the developer and the city as far back as 2014, laying out residents' objections and requests. But while some things have gotten better, others are worse.
"We made our point, and we made them time and time again," said Fiedler, who is generally familiar with construction projects as director of land development for Benderson Development Co., which is not involved in this case. "Our issues were never addressed."
Ciminelli officials and architect Steven Carmina of Carmina Wood Morris PC acknowledge the uphill battle because of the opposition, but reject accusations they're not cooperating.
"Residents are doing everything they can to make it sound worse than it is," Carmina said. "Every time the residents came up with an issue, question or demand, we attempted in every crossing to meet that and to exceed what their expectations would be. We were never able to accomplish that. Every time we thought we got there, the finish line got moved."
Latest clash over development
Duggan said the developers have "tried to get as good a project and as efficient a project as we could" and are ready to move forward.
"We're hoping that as they look more closely at the project we've presented, that they ultimately will come to accept it as a positive thing for the Waterfront Village," Duggan said.
The pending fight is the latest skirmish between developers of new projects in the city and neighborhoods seeking to preserve their character and identity. The struggle has been particularly intense in the Elmwood Village, but those living in the Waterfront Village see similarities in their community.
Ciminelli's original proposal had called for a single four-story "mid-rise" building with 15-20 condos, plus 10 three-story townhouses. But officials modified and broke that up, and reduced it by 12 feet, after neighbors criticized it.
The current design by architects at Carmina Wood Morris would include seven townhouses set back from the road and four separate condo buildings along Lakefront and Ojibwa Circle, with six units in each. Each townhouse would include a garage at ground level. Six units would be 3,300 square feet, including the garage, while the seventh would be 4,900 square feet.
The condo buildings would each have one level of below-grade parking, condos of 1,800 square feet and a shared central vestibule.
The Green Code restricts new building heights to three stories, unless the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals grants an exemption. But unlike in the Elmwood Village, the code does not specify a maximum height in feet, nor does it mandate a certain setback.
The proposed townhouses would top out at 38 feet, 8 inches in height, while the condo buildings would be 49 feet tall. Those heights include the stair towers and elevator shafts, even though the city doesn't include those in its own measurements of building heights. The design of the building also means the height varies depending on where the measurement is taken.
Neighbors say the large ceiling heights are unnecessary and inconsistent with surrounding older buildings, where rooms are generally 8 feet tall.
"We wanted it to be commensurate with the other surrounding developments, not towering above them," Fiedler said.
But that doesn't consider newer building trends, Ciminelli officials argue. Newer apartments tend to be larger, especially in redeveloped older industrial warehouses. Tenants want that extra height, they say.
"These are condos. These aren't apartments," Carmina said. "We need that ceiling height to make these marketable against the other competition."
Also, they said, the total building height is not out of line with the neighborhood. A set of five nearby townhouses are 49 feet in height.
"There are certainly much taller developments, and there are those that are not as high as ours as well," Duggan said.
Vacant for 30 years
If the project is approved, currently anticipated by late March, construction would begin in July with two phases of work. Full buildout is expected by September 2020.
Neighbors also are dissatisfied with the location of the buildings, which would be set back 100 feet from the edge of the water, and 30 feet from the street. Some people feel that would obstruct the water views that they paid for years ago, so they are demanding 150 feet from the water instead.
Fiedler provided an outside appraisal conducted on his own townhouse in February 2015 – when Ciminelli was still proposing a different four-story building – that found his home value would decrease by $65,000 if that project were built. He also claims that Ciminelli reneged on an offer to angle one end of the building to provide more of a setback, but Ciminelli said it was just a discussion.
"We always dealt in good faith. We always went back and looked at everything that people said that was constructive and molded the project," Carmina said. "What we have is a situation where the people who live there now just don't want to see anything built."
Not so, neighbors say.
"We do understand that development must happen or needs to happen. It's been vacant for 30 years," Fasolino said. "It's not that we're against projects. We're just against this particular project."