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First Elmwood Crossing project faces criticism on multiple fronts

A proposed six-story apartment building at the northeast corner of Elmwood Avenue and Bryant Street brought out a host of objections from some critics Monday, as the Buffalo Planning Board reviewed the first project in the planned redevelopment of the former Women & Children's Hospital site.

Sinatra & Company Real Estate and Ellicott Development Co. – designated developers for the eight-acre former hospital property – want to erect a mixed-use building on a 0.42-acre site at 451 Elmwood and 219 Bryant that is currently a private parking lot. It's right next to MTK, which would eventually become part of the project.

The new 80,500-square-foot building would include retail storefronts in 14,000 square feet on the first floor, 13,500 square feet of commercial office space on the second, and up to 36 luxury rental apartments on four upper levels, with eight per floor. About two-thirds would be two-bedroom units, while the rest are split between one- and three-bedroom apartments.

The $16 million project requires at least three variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals – for twice as many floors as allowed under the Green Code, for the width of the lot and for the size of the building on the lot.

So the Planning Board could not act on the site plan until the ZBA rules at its meeting next week.

Buffalo Planning Board starts review of Elmwood Crossing

But, the Planning Board did agree at its last meeting to take up consideration of this first building separately from the rest of the overall $100 million hospital project, so work could at least begin on some phase of the redevelopment now that the hospital complex is vacant.

That was something that developers said was desired by neighbors – two of whom spoke Monday.

"We don't want to wait two years for the whole process. It's going to be a gradual process anyway. Let's get it started," said Catherine Gillespie of Bryant Street. "I think the building on the corner is attractive and will add to the community."

The Bryant-Oakland-Summer Street Association Board even voted unanimously two weeks ago to back the first building, said its president, Peggy Moriarty.

"We like the idea. We have no problem with it," she said. "We are the immediate neighbors, and we say let's get going now."

Developers prepare to unveil Children's Hospital reuse plans

Project attorney Sean Hopkins, of Hopkins Sorgi & Romanowski, acknowledged the developers' responsibility to conduct a full environmental review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, and stressed that they have already committed in public to doing so.

Officials have already identified and "thoroughly analyzed" the potential impacts, Hopkins said, and the final report will include the six-story building along with the rest of the project site.

Given that, Hopkins previously argued, the Planning Board could allow this first stage to proceed without detracting from the overall legal requirements.

"We heard the message loud and clear, that everyone wants work to begin on the site, and that's what we're trying to do," Hopkins said.

Critics objected to that segmentation – saying the entire plan needed to be considered as one, especially for purposes of evaluating the environmental impact on the neighborhood.

"This project should be viewed as the whole from Day One," said Martha Yagle of Ashland Avenue, a third-generation Elmwood Village resident who has lived there 41 years. "What's the rush? Let's have a good, inclusive plan."

In seeking to block any action by the board, opponents of the first Elmwood Crossing building focused their attention on the height of the building and other factors that they say threaten the neighborhood's character and violate the Green Code. The developers argue that their project fits within the "context" of the neighborhood, citing taller buildings in all directions around them, but the opponents weren't buying it.

"They knew long ago that the Green Code was going to be a problem, and that's why they're trying to rush this," said Madalyn Fliesler, of Ashland Avenue, who moved from St. Louis and said she specifically chose Elmwood Village. "I moved to Elmwood Village for a reason, and I really, really like it, but it's all of a sudden under development. I don't want to have to move to Allentown."

"I hope that out of respect for the Green Code, you indicate disapproval for the plans," said activist Daniel Sack. "We have a new code because we needed a new code. I hope you take that into consideration."

They cited inadequate parking, traffic and even a concern about an anticipated strain on the sewer system.

The developers own a parking lot with 40 to 45 spaces east of the proposed building, and they also are in the process of buying the four-floor Gallagher Ramp – north of the project between Hodge and Utica streets – from the city.

With 600 spaces, that will handle most of the parking needs for the entire redevelopment, with at least one floor available for public use, said Ellicott Director of Development Tom Fox.

First Elmwood Crossing at Bryant building submitted for city review

Other activists pointed to the increasing risk of gentrification in the city from all the new market-rate apartments and the need for more affordable housing, including as part of this project.

But the activists are demanding a written commitment for 30 percent of units. "This project should not move forward unless there is a written commitment to affordable housing," said John Washington of PUSH Buffalo. "What we don’t want to do is replicate a gentrification cycle."

"There's a lot of projects all over Buffalo where affordable housing has been taken away," said activist Christian Parra. "All the subsidies going into this project can be going into the Fruit Belt and other projects all over the city."

Some even sought to paint Sinatra negatively by citing alleged delinquent tax payments on some of his other properties – causing a negative reaction from Board Chairman James Morrell.

"How is this development going to happen knowing that he owes all these taxes?" Parra asked. "Sinatra can be put on a pedestal, but he's not."

"That was not nice. We're here for site plan review," Morrell said. "You can have those discussions in another area of city government."

Ultimately, the board voted to approve a negative declaration of the building's environmental impact, allowing the developers to go to the ZBA for the variances.

"We're obviously pleased," said Sinatra Director of Development Amy Nagy. "This is what we're shooting for. We're looking to have this process advance."

If the ZBA grants the variances, the developers will come back to the Planning Board in two weeks for site plan approval, followed by building permits within two weeks. There's still some brownfield cleanup work to do on the site, which formerly housed gas stations, but Fox said officials hope to start construction by late spring or early summer.

Meanwhile, the developers plan to start the larger environmental review this spring, but Fox noted it's expected to last about eight months before they can even start the approval process. That means the earliest that construction work could begin is likely a year from now.

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