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Planning Board OKs West Utica condos, tables Tim Hortons on Michigan Avenue

Ellicott Development Co. will need to brew a new pot of coffee, after the Buffalo Planning Board Monday sent its plans for a Tim Hortons and apartments on Michigan Avenue back to the drawing board – because it didn't do enough to reflect the neighborhood's rich history.

But, it's full steam ahead for Nick Sinatra's planned Atlantic Central Condominiums in the Elmwood Village, after the board directed the developer to adjust the traffic flow on the site to address nearby residents' concerns.

Those were the results after more than two hours of presentations by the developers and spirited criticism by a parade of speakers largely opposed to both projects.

Now, Sinatra and partner Phil Nanula's Essex Homes of WNY can proceed with their 54-unit, for-sale residential project at 169 West Utica St., on the site of the former Cadet Cleaners. Officials hope to start environmental cleanup work by March and then start construction later in the spring.

Plans for the $22.4 million project call for a four-story building, with two-story townhouse-style condos taking up the third and fourth floors, and street entrances with stoops on the ground level. There's also a level of 95 below-grade parking spaces, plus 13 surface spots.

The fourth floor is set back 50 feet from the facade to minimize the impact on the street and the condos all have exterior balconies. The facade consists of brick, cement-board siding and masonry.

The developer met with residents in October and November. The project, which requires demolition of the existing building, already received three zoning variances Dec. 19, and was approved by the Buffalo Preservation Board Dec. 20.

“I like the building. They’ve done a nice job,” said Planning Board member Martha Lamparelli.

Still, neighbors objected strenuously, citing a big increase in traffic on Atlantic Avenue, where the entrance would be located, as well as the impact on city sewers. They urged that the entrance be shifted to West Utica because it’s already a wider, higher-traffic street.

“We all believe that a West Utica-facing entrance makes more sense. It’s a large thoroughfare,” said Eric Brady of Anderson Place.

“Atlantic is a minute street with very little traffic. Moving the driveway to Utica makes the most sense,” said Courtney Bajdas of Anderson Place. “Let’s work together to find a win-win design.”

But Sinatra Director of Development Amy Nagy said that would pose its own risks, because of the speed at which drivers travel on West Utica and the limited visibility because of the street’s incline and a large tree.

“When we examined the project more closely, we felt the safest was to exit onto Atlantic as we proposed,” she said. “Those experienced with Utica know that it’s a thoroughfare in the city. Vehicular traffic does travel quickly, and we were concerned about accidents.”

Nagy said that would require changes to the site plan that would eliminate parking spaces and require additional variances.

“We worked very diligently to create something in alignment with the character of the neighborhood,” she said. “We tried to be thoughtful in keeping it in scale.”

So the Planning Board recommended constructing curbs that will force the traffic toward West Utica.

City Planning Board to review Sinatra's 4-story condo project for West Utica

Meanwhile, Ellicott officials will have to come back – no sooner than the next meeting in two weeks – with a revised design that incorporates elements of the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor.

"There’s a missed opportunity to take the essence of the Corridor into this project," said Planning Board Chair James Morrell. "This is a gateway. It’s an opportunity to do something that’s going to have a long-lasting impression on the community."

Ellicott wants to construct a two-story building at 474 Michigan, at the corner of William Street, on a two-thirds-acre site that has been vacant for nearly 20 years.

Plans for the $1.115 million plan call for a 9,431-square-foot building, anchored by a 2,000-square-foot Tim Hortons Cafe & Bake Shop on the first floor, plus another 2,500 square feet for another shop. The second floor would feature three apartments, with a mix of two- and three-bedroom units.

The plan was nearly derailed after the Zoning Board of Appeals rejected a variance for a drive-thru that Tim Hortons required as part of its lease. But the board reversed its decision after Ellicott took it to court and won. Both onsite parking and the drive-thru are located in back, with access from William.

Planning Board to review Ellicott's new Tim Hortons on Michigan

Tom Fox, Ellicott's director of development, said the firm has participated in "a couple of public meetings" since unveiling the project in June, and also toured the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor recently. Officials made several revisions to address traffic concerns, including shrinking the entrances on William, narrowing the drive-thru lane and restricting the turning for the parking lot.

The developer tried to mimic the appearance of nearby historic buildings, with a mix of black and red bricks, a cement clapboard siding and architectural features like decorative cornices, corbeling and brackets that are "reminiscent of late 19th-century structures," Fox said. Officials selected black gooseneck wall sconces similar to what had hung from the old Little Harlem Hotel that burned and planned a mural on the north end of the building.

"We’ve worked hard with our architect to design a building that’s one-off and makes references to the historic fabric of the neighborhood," Fox said.

At least one nearby business owner loves it. "I'm in full support of this," said attorney Loran Bommer, whose office is across the street.

That didn't satisfy critics – who lined up one after another Monday to voice their objections to the project.

"I love my neighborhood. I will not love it if this comes to my neighborhood," said Ernestine Moody of Pine Street. "This doesn’t look like anything that belongs in my neighborhood."

Comparing it to developments in the suburbs, they rejected the Tim Hortons design as inconsistent with an urban neighborhood and contrary to the walkability and pedestrian-friendly goals of the city's new Green Code.

"The area is not designed to be Transit Road or Niagara Falls Boulevard," said Wanda Peterson. "This type of development is in contrast to the values of the Green Code."

They also warned of risks to pedestrians. "What we are concerned with is the safety of the most vulnerable road users," said Rebecca Reilly, community outreach coordinator for GoBike Buffalo.

She added: "When people are leaving a food establishment, they’re not paying attention to the road. They’re fixing their food or getting ready. They’re doing all sorts of things. It terrifies me to think that someone with a child will not be seen by someone barreling out of there trying to catch the light at Michigan."

Opponents also said it's an insult to the district's history. "I see that corridor as a historic site," said Juliet Graves. "That area is sacred to me. It may not be sacred to anyone else. When people talk about houses and a coffee shop, it just breaks my heart. That’s a slap in the face."

"It looks like one of those plazas near Delaware and Hertel," said Tim Tielman, executive director of Campaign for Greater Buffalo. "This is a bad site plan and should be rejected."

Fox defended Ellicott's efforts, saying the developer bought the property five years ago, and hasn't been able to get any other tenant or project to work at the site. Without the Tim Hortons and drive-thru, he said, "we can't make the project work, and it just remains a vacant site."

He also said the firm has kept the entrances mostly off Michigan, so they don't detract from the historical corridor. And, he said, the area is already highly commercial and not walkable now.

But the board sided with the neighbors, urging one less entrance to the site and incorporation of historic elements from Little Harlem Hotel.

"The missed opportunity here is this facade could be reflective of that wonderful building that is a wonderful part of the corridor’s heritage," said Board Vice Chair Cynthia Schwartz. "I’m not saying you have to change the building’s footprint, but there are aspects of the Harlem that could be incorporated into it. This is a development that is close but hasn't gotten it quite right yet."

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