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Planning Board OKs Ciminelli's Waterfront Village townhouse project

After four years of back-and-forth negotiation with neighbors and multiple revisions, Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. on Monday evening finally won city approval for its new West End townhomes at Waterfront Village.

Despite vocal and organized opposition from residents in three of the existing Waterfront Village developments, the board unanimously backed the developer's $20 million proposal to construct 20 new townhouses on an L-shaped parcel between Lakefront Boulevard and the water.

"The applicant has made an extraordinary effort to work with the residents and address virtually all of their concerns," said Planning Board member Cynthia Schwartz. "I frankly struggle, given how much has gone into modifying the plan, on asking the applicant to do any more."

That was good news for Ciminelli. "I'm very pleased that the planning board took all of our accommodations into consideration when considering our project, and very grateful that they approved our project, and excited to move it ahead," said Amber Holycross, senior development manager for Ciminelli.

But Ciminelli still needs to finalize negotiations with the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency to purchase the land, now expected to come at a discount to the original $2.2 million price. That's because the developer has argued that it was making a lot of changes to appease neighbors, but which could affect its expenses and returns. And then Ciminelli has to win Buffalo Common Council approval. Those actions are expected in September.

Meanwhile, the neighbors are unhappy, and haven't given up the fight. "I'm very disappointed in their action," said Kim Fiedler, a Marina Park resident and chair of a committee that dealt with the Ciminelli project. "We feel there's a number of issues … that we will address with the Common Council."

The Planning Board vote brings Ciminelli one step closer to completing a process that began when BURA issued a request for proposals to develop the last major parcel of Waterfront Village, which has been vacant for decades. The site was originally intended for development long ago with a series of U-shaped buildings, as part of a second phase of Portside that never happened.

Ciminelli hopes latest revision of Waterfront Village condo plan will satisfy neighbors

"I understand the concerns we are hearing," Schwartz said. "There is a struggle between what the city assumed would be happening on the site and what happened over time because the site was never developed."

Ciminelli, which had previously proposed a combination of 31 townhouses and condominiums, had gone back and forth with neighbors, who organized their opposition through the Waterfront Village Advisory Council, which represents 367 homes and 750 residents. Critics objected to the height of the buildings, insisted on fewer new units, fretted about landscaping and parking, and demanded that the buildings be set back further from existing developments, the road and especially the water.

In particular, they complained that the new buildings would obstruct their waterfront views, which they argued contributed heavily to the value of their own units. And they warned of "irreparable harm" and significant damages to existing homeowners.

"The setback from water is extremely important to the Waterfront Village, especially to the Portside and Marina Park developments on either side," said Portside resident Sherry Dellebovi. "If those units lose that significant viewshed, that will reduce their market value and ultimately reduce their tax value to the city."

Neighbors object to new waterfront condos: 'Views count a lot'

To get over the finish line, the developer revised its plans since February to address neighbors' issues, especially by removing the taller condo buildings. Ciminelli is now planning to construct four structures on the grassy land at 240-260 Lakefront, which is sandwiched between the Portside and Marina Park projects.

One building, stretching toward the water, would have eight townhouses, while the other three would have three units each. Each townhouse would be three stories or 38-feet-six-inches in height, with an integrated two-car garage, as well as balconies and patios. Nineteen of them would be 3,300 square feet in size, while a single unit on the end of one of the buildings, closest to the water, would be larger, at 4,590 square feet.

All would be marketed for sale, with open floor plans and views of both the water and the city skyline, according to documents submitted to the Planning Board. The units are widely expected to run about $1 million in price.

The changes completely met nine of 10 specific concerns raised by the residents, including the height of the new buildings, the density of the project, the landscaping, and the setback from the buildings and the street. The remaining hurdle was the setback from the water. Ciminelli had previously proposed 100 feet – more than required by the Green Code – but the neighbors wanted 130 feet, so the buildings wouldn't block any views. The developer came back with 115 feet.

"We spent a lot of time, almost four years, back and forth on this plan, and we've been very sensitive to the community's requests," Holycross said.

Waterfront condo opponents square off against Ciminelli

But that still wasn't enough. "There's about 15 feet or about the length of this table that we're concerned about," said Frank Lysiak, the volunteer executive director of the Council. "We are so close to final approval that we're just looking for some minor adjustments."

In the end, it came down to that one extra-large townhouse on the end, closest to the water, which neighbors said was outsized and unnecessary, with a ground footprint of 1,700 square feet. If that were scaled back to the same size as the others – at 1,100 square feet  – it would add another 11 feet from the water and increase the current proposed viewshed by 30 percent, largely addressing their issues, they said.

"This whole plan, what it's trying to do is accomplish one potential buyer for a very large end unit," Lysiak said. "The proposed water setback of 115 feet will impact the viewshed of 18 existing homeowners within the Marina Park and Portside associations, as well as potential buyers of their homes."

"We feel that this end unit, being so much larger than the rest of the units, is inconsistent and out of scale with the rest of the development and has a dramatic negative effect on the end units at Portside and Marina Park," Fiedler said. "We would like to request that this building be downsized to the same footprint as the others."

But Ciminelli officials said that wasn't going to happen, noting that they need all of the units they currently have to justify the project financially, and they already had a specific, unidentified buyer for that end unit.

"The last unit is specifically designed for someone, but we can't change that," said architect Steven Carmina, of Carmina Wood Morris PC. "This is our final offer, which is 115 feet. We've exceeded all of their other requirements. The rest of the negotiation is over."

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