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Revised plan for 201 Ellicott scraps higher-end apartments for affordable housing

Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. has modified its proposal for redeveloping a downtown parking lot on Ellicott Street, shifting its concept from a higher-end retail and residential complex with underground parking to affordable housing with a less formal fresh food market.

That marks a major shift in the style of the multi-story project, although it still includes apartments and a grocer.

The new plan for the 2.5-acre property at 201 Ellicott now calls for:

  • 201 affordable one- and two-bedroom units of about 600 and 890 square feet, with rates starting at $660 and $790 per month, respectively;
  • An unspecified fresh-food market or grocery, rather than the Orchard Fresh originally planned;
  • "Adjacent flexible hardscape" to accommodate a farmers market, food trucks, events, deliveries and "appropriate parking" for the store;
  • Outdoor seating;
  • Greenspace and "various outdoor gathering points" for tenants, with "native plantings" and other landscape.

The project plan still includes improvements to Ellicott, Clinton and Oak streets to make the area more walkable and friendly to both pedestrians and bicycles. The new plan was presented to community groups and area residents during information sessions on Thursday.

"Over the last 18 months, the project team here has been working pretty diligently to look at this opportunity, to do some additional market research, do more analysis, and look at the needs for downtown Buffalo," said project spokesman Matt Davison.

In the process, "this opportunity unveiled itself – a huge hole for affordable housing in downtown Buffalo, and creating all these units that can bring people of a mixed-background and socio-economic standing. That was attractive to the project team," Davison said.

The price tag for the revised project has not been determined, as it could change depending on the public input. Because of the new mixed-income component, though, the cost may be largely financed with a state Housing Finance Agency bond, officials said.

The next step involves finalizing a land-purchase agreement with the city by year-end for the appraised value of about $2.4 million. That is subject to Common Council approval. Site cleanup would begin in the spring, with construction tentatively slated to start in fall 2019.

"We’re excited to see the project moving forward to the next step, and look forward to seeing what the outcomes are in terms of the meetings with community stakeholders," said Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of the city's Office of Strategic Planning.

Ciminelli was named designated developer for the site in February 2016, a year after Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown announced that the city would seek to redevelop the property, specifically to include an urban grocery, structured parking and residential space.

Less than a year later, in December 2016, the developer unveiled its plans for an 18-story high-rise apartment, office and retail project, including a two-story Orchard Fresh grocery store operated by Tops Markets. The overall complex would have included 200 apartments and condominiums on 12 floors, plus three floors of office space, as well as other shops or restaurants, a public plaza and 800 covered parking spaces.

But there's been no public progress on the project since then, as the developer and city officials have spent the past 18 months altering and renegotiating various aspects of the plan.

Tops' financial woes, especially its bankruptcy filing, threw another wrench into the plan.

The new plan is "more refined," Ciminelli said. Gone are the office space and the parking ramp, as well as a large public gathering space.

Instead, the plan now features a smaller building whose dimensions and design are still subject to revision based on community feedback. It will include the fresh-food store and an unspecified mix of apartments aimed at those earning between 50 percent and 90 percent of the area median income – or $26,000 to $60,000.

That matches a goal of the Brown administration and housing advocates to boost affordable housing in the city.

As for the grocery, the developer said it "continues to actively pursue" operators for the new vision, although Tops is still a candidate. Tops spokeswoman Kathy Romanowski Sautter said officials "recently received a revised proposal from the developer which will be reviewed by our development staff as soon as possible."

Mehaffy said the city encouraged Ciminelli to "think more broadly" and look beyond Tops. So the developer talked to "several individuals and organizations" in the food industry and created a "food advisory group," which recommended that the store offer fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, prepared foods and "other naturally sourced ingredients." A decision is expected after Jan. 1.

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