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Elmwood Crossing project wins key zoning approvals

Developers Nick Sinatra and William Paladino won approval Wednesday for three zoning variances needed for their first Elmwood Crossing building – a day after the proposed complex at the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Bryant Street got shorter.

Sinatra and Paladino revised their planned new mixed-use project, cutting one floor off the building's height to reduce it to five stories.

The proposal now calls for construction of a new 65,000-square-foot complex at 451 Elmwood Ave. that would be 66 feet, 8 inches in height – down seven feet from the original proposal.

It would still contain ground-floor retail, one floor of office space and apartments, but it will now have 23 units on three upper floors, rather than a maximum of 36, said Ellicott Director of Development Tom Fox.

That could still change slightly, as developers and architects finalize the interior design for the building, the first stage in the larger $100 million reuse of the former Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo campus.

"We're still working through plans to see what actually works the best on that floor to get a mix of one, two and three-bedroom apartments," said Paladino, CEO of Ellicott Development Co.

The design change comes in response to feedback the developers received from the community at the April 9 Planning Board meeting, as well as from conversations with the neighborhood's Project Advisory Committee that has been working with Sinatra and Ellicott since they were chosen as designated developers last summer by Kaleida Health.

First Elmwood Crossing project faces criticism on multiple fronts

"It's not what we necessarily wanted to do. It's something that does have a financial impact on us," Paladino said. "But after talking to the PAC Committee and the neighborhood, they want to see a smaller structure."

The new proposed Elmwood Crossing building will still be two floors higher than allowed for Elmwood Avenue under the city's Green Code. That's likely to be a source of continued resistance for some opponents, who insist the developers must be required to comply with the land-use code.

"I am pro-Green Code, and I would like you not to give these variances," said Madalyn Fliesler, of Ashland Avenue. "We like two to three-story buildings for a reason. It was the motivation for the Green Code."

Paladino maintained the developers' argument that the surrounding area as far north as Elmwood and West Utica Street, as well as the rest of the hospital campus, already has other buildings that are taller than what is proposed.

But "we were willing to go to the five stories to give back to make people feel more comfortable with the project," he explained.

"It does affect our return, but we think the project is still viable," he said. "It will still fit in the neighborhood very well, and it will be a nice attribute and hopefully aesthetically pleasing and a nice amenity to the neighborhood long into the future."

The changes will reduce the $16 million cost of the project, but not by much, since the building footprint, foundations and infrastructure are still basically the same, Paladino said.

But it was enough to satisfy the Zoning Board of Appeals, which approved variances from the Green Code for the building height, for a wider lot than permitted in the code and for the building to occupy more of the site than otherwise allowed.

The series of 3-1 votes positions the project to return to the Planning Board next week, for what officials hope will be final approval.

"This is the outcome we were hoping for, to achieve these variances," said Sinatra Director of Development Amy Nagy. "We strongly believe this is ultimately going to deliver a better product, and we hope that everyone can see we tried to achieve community compromise."

Board members even cited the reduction in height as a factor in their decision, demonstrating a concession by the developers. Only Thomas Dearing voted against the variances, while Bernice Radle abstained because of a potential conflict of interest.

"To me, that code defines the community character for the Elmwood strip, and a five-story building is inconsistent with that community character," Dearing said, although he said he would have accepted a four-story building similar to the Chason Affinity project the ZBA approved.

More than three dozen people showed up for the ZBA meeting, with 22 testifying during a 90-minute public hearing.

Supporters - including two immediate neighbors on Hodge and Bryant streets, as well as Peggy Moriarty, the president of the Bryant-Oakland-Summer Street Association – praised the developers for working cooperatively with them to address concerns, and said they're pleased with the plan.

"I am in favor of this project, especially since they reduced the building down one story, though I was not opposed to the six," said Catherine Gillespie, of Bryant Street. "I think the building is in character with the neighborhood, and… I really feel that they have been listening to us as a neighborhood."

Opponents argued the developers should be required to comply with the Green Code that was adopted a year ago.

"What was the purpose of the Green Code when it's not even followed?" asked James Runfola, of Forest Avenue. "What did we go through all these meetings to put height on a building and width on a building when it's not even followed?"

Several people, including representatives of PUSH-Buffalo, criticized the project and developers for ignoring the plight of low-income, minority and immigrant communities and failing to incorporate enough affordable housing.

"This building may look lovely on the outside, but how many of us will be included?" said Luz Velez of Hoyt Street. "We would not qualify for those types of buildings."

The developers already agreed to make 20 percent of all rental units throughout the entire campus affordable to tenants earning 80 percent of the area median income.

But PUSH and other activists want 30 percent of the apartments to be affordable, at 60 percent of median income.

They denounced the ZBA for failing to do its job.

"The job of a Zoning Board of Appeals is to balance benefit to the applicant against the detriment to health, safety and welfare," said PUSH activist John Washington. "It's obvious you don't really do that."

It may have been the backing of Common Councilmember David Rivera that played a significant role in the board's decision. Rivera praised Sinatra and Paladino for being cooperative in not only working with neighbors to move the project forward, but in agreeing to benefits laid out in a memorandum of understanding signed by the city and developers Tuesday.

"I support moving forward today based on the collective benefits this will provide," Rivera said. "The city is allowing this project to move forward with the understanding that there are still details to be negotiated. We will hold the developers accountable. We want them to live up the memorandum they signed."

Those terms, including the affordable housing commitment, will be further codified by the Common Council when it eventually votes on a "planned unit development" for the entire project, Rivera said. And those benefits, he said, outweigh any negative impact on the neighborhood's character.

"We have no developers right now that voluntarily say we're going to do affordable housing," Rivera said.

First Elmwood Crossing at Bryant building submitted for city review

The proposed new building represents the first step in creating a new mixed-use community on the eight-acre site of the former hospital, which moved in November to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus after nearly a century in the Elmwood Village. Sinatra & Co. Real Estate and Ellicott bought the property right after the move, and officials have been working on their plans ever since.

Overall, developers have proposed about 200 apartments, 40 to 50 for-sale condominiums, 40-45 town houses, an urban grocery, boutique shops, office space and an EduKids daycare center.

Most of the existing hospital buildings, including the Variety and Tanner towers, would be retained and reused, while two buildings would be expanded. A 15,000-square-foot former pharmacy on West Utica Street would be expanded into a four-story building with an urban grocery, boutique shops and apartments. The 4,000-square-foot former Hodge Pediatrics would more than double in size to house the daycare, with a playground.

Sinatra, Paladino unveil $100 million-plus plan for ex-Children's Hospital site

But most of the work won't begin for at least a year, as the developers still have to go through a full municipal and environmental review process that is expected to take months. So officials hoped to at least get started on the first building quickly in order to demonstrate progress for the neighborhood and Kaleida.

Located on a 0.42-acre site that is currently a parking lot, with restaurant MTK next door, the proposed building was originally 80,500 square feet in size, with four floors of apartments on top of the office floor and retail space. Those lower levels will not change with the new plan.

"We feel it fits in with the context of the campus itself, with the taller buildings behind it," Paladino said.

Paladino said the developers are planning four to six storefronts of 500 square feet to 1,500 square feet in size, to host "boutique tenancies."

Nothing is finalized, however.

Besides Planning Board approval, the project will also be reviewed by the Buffalo Water Authority and Buffalo Sewer Authority, as well as the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The developers plan to seek brownfield tax credits, as well as tax breaks from the Erie County Industrial Development Agency, according to their application to the city.

If approved, construction on the project – designed by Wendel Companies and Carmina Wood Morris PC – would last about 14 months, according to the developers' application to the city.

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

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