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Ellicott faces opposition over West Delavan project

A proposal by Ellicott Development Co. to demolish two aging duplexes in the Elmwood Village and replace them with single-family homes is meeting stiff opposition from neighborhood leaders, preservationists and a state lawmaker because the plan doesn't comply with the Green Code.

Assemblyman Sean Ryan on Tuesday denounced the plan by Ellicott as another example of a developer trying to get around the city's new zoning and land-use code.

He said such projects are damaging the character and charm of the Elmwood Village, and encroaching into the surrounding residential streets.

He also said the developer has every right to do what it wants on its property - as long as it complies with the rules, so that it doesn't require any government action. But otherwise, he said, the firm should not be given a break "just because a large influential developer is making the ask."

"We have a new set of zoning rules," Ryan said. "If you go to the code for this residential neighborhood, you're not allowed to build what the developer is proposing."

Ellicott wants to knock down a pair of century-old structures on West Delavan Avenue, adjacent to its new mixed-use project at 905 Elmwood Ave. The Buffalo-based developer says the two buildings – which date to 1920 – are in such bad shape that they can't be rehabilitated and reused without spending far more than the firm would recoup from renting them.

"The houses are in deplorable condition," said Ellicott Director of Development Tom Fox, citing a host of structural and foundation issues, sloped floors, asbestos abatement and a roof that had collapsed on one of the homes prior to the firm's purchase.

"We've considered what it would cost to rehab them," he added. "There's just so much work involved."

Instead, Ellicott plans to erect two new single-family homes on the same properties. Each would be three stories, with about 2,900 square feet in size, and each would have two-car garages in front, facing the street.

However, Ellicott is facing trouble. Last week, the Buffalo Preservation Board denied its request to demolish the two homes, which are considered "contributing structures" to the Elmwood Historic District East. The board's ruling is advisory only, so Fox said Ellicott still plans to seek a demolition permit from the city's Department of Permit and Inspection, which has the final say.

"There's no historic fabric in these houses. It's not like some mansion on Chapin Parkway," Fox said. "They're two old doubles, beaten down inside, and the condition inside in our opinion is not safe enough to take anyone to even show them."

But the developer also needs two variances each from the Zoning Board of Appeals, which meets later this week. One is for the height of the first floor. The other is for the garage at the front of the building instead of 20 feet behind the facade. And both are intended to match the character of the other houses on the street that predate the Green Code, the developer said.

"We think our requests are justified, and we are expecting an approval," Fox said.

Critics vehemently disagree. "The building condition and infeasibility has been the argument in every single building that has been torn down," said Preservation Buffalo Niagara Executive Director Jessie Fisher. "The community does not have any faith in those engineering reports anymore ... because time and time again it's been proven to be untrue."

Led by Ryan, D-Buffalo, the critics said Tuesday that Ellicott can and should try to fix the houses before considering demolition. And they say there are plenty of examples of other people doing that successfully.

"When Ellicott Development purchased these two buildings, they knew exactly what they were getting. They knew the conditions that the houses were in," Ryan said. "These houses are in the same condition as hundreds of neighboring houses all around the West Side and the city of Buffalo that are currently being rehabilitated."

Ryan even challenged Ellicott to test that out by putting the houses up for sale. "You don't have to be an engineer to look at these houses and say there's nothing structurally wrong with them. They're not tilting," he said. "If you put these houses on the market tomorrow, people will buy them and redo them for their families."

Moreover, even if Ellicott does opt to proceed with demolition and rebuilding, they added, it should at least be held to the same standards and requirements as anyone else.

"If I wanted to demolish my house and create a parking lot or put a garage in front of it, I would never be allowed to do so," said Gretchen Cercone, president of the Lancaster Avenue Block Club, and a frequent critic of new development projects. "Why are the rules different for developers? They should not be."

Fox said Ellicott had acquired the houses along with other properties on Elmwood that it needed for the larger project, which includes 21 high-end apartments, a first-floor restaurant, and a secured parking lot underneath and behind the building. It used easements to pave the back of the residential lots, so it could expand the parking for 905 Elmwood.

That means there's no room for the garages in the rear, which is what Ryan said the developer should be proposing. But the lawmaker said that was the developer's choice.

"They're looking to put a whole frontage of garages here. Why don't they go into the backyard? Because they already paved the backyard and are using that for parking for their restaurant," he said. "It's a completely self-created problem that should not be remedied by the Zoning Board."

Ellicott also has submitted a separate request to allow a surface parking lot at 880 Elmwood, to supplement its 905 building. A previous request for the same site was already denied by the Zoning Board. Surface parking lots are not allowed on Elmwood under the code because they "are not the highest and best use for the land there" and "don't increase the vitality of the neighborhoods," Ryan noted.

"We need to continue to fight to maintain the character of our residential neighborhoods, and if this means standing up to a developer who comes in with noncompliant plans, we plan to continue to stand against those developers," the lawmaker said.

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