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Despite parking concerns, 201 Ellicott project gains latest approval

Ciminelli Real Estate Corp.'s proposal for a new affordable housing complex and fresh foods market in downtown Buffalo took a major step forward Monday night, after the city Planning Board determined that the project would not cause any harm to the environment, the neighborhood around it or the city's land-use plan.

The board's action – over the strenuous objections of rival developer Rocco Termini – means the development project that is backed by the Brown administration can now proceed to the next stage of municipal review: the Zoning Board of Appeals. Ciminelli's plan needs 14 variances from the city's Green Code on May 15 before it can come back to the Planning Board for final review, anticipated for May 20.

"We're excited about the community impact," said project spokesman Matt Davison. "You have fresh food, you have affordable housing, and you have this transit-oriented development that really is infill. It's taking away a public parking lot and making a really dynamic project for downtown Buffalo."

But Termini – who complains that the project will eliminate hundreds of parking spaces that his Hotel @ the Lafayette and other businesses depend upon – said he isn't done with the fight, and may still pursue legal action. "We’re speaking to our attorneys," he said after the vote.

Buffalo-based Ciminelli is planning to construct a 220,000-square-foot complex of two buildings, located on a 2.5-acre city-owned parking lot at 201 Ellicott St.

Plans by CannonDesign call for 201 units of affordable housing in a residential building that will rise seven stories along Oak Street and five stories along Ellicott, plus a single-story market of about 20,000 square feet – mostly for a wholesale business. The market would be operated by Stuart Green, owner of Braymiller Market in Hamburg, but only 6,000 square feet would be for retail.

The H-shaped apartment building will include 131 one-bedroom apartments of 623 square feet each and 70 two-bedroom units of 850 square feet, plus a two-bedroom superintendent's unit. Rents would be affordable to those earning $26,000 to $42,000 a year, or between 50% to 80% of the area median income. Twenty-nine parking spaces will be used for the market, and all other parking would be off-site.

That's been the biggest source of opposition, particularly by Termini and Main Place Liberty Group, owner of the Main Place Tower and Liberty Building. The current vacant lot on Ellicott holds 375 cars. Ciminelli's original proposal had called for an 800-space parking ramp, but that was abandoned because of the significant cost.

Ciminelli representatives, as well as city officials, have noted that the new Green Code does not require any parking for projects, and city land-use plans now actively seek better uses for parking lots. The developer has also asserted that many of the tenants will likely not have cars and will use public transportation, but officials noted there's still 538 available spaces within a 10-minute walk.

"Is it inconvenient for people? Yes. Over time, they’ll find parking," said project attorney Sean Hopkins.

But Termini rejected those arguments, citing reports that millennials drive more than their counterparts 20 years ago, and that bus ridership is down both in the city and nationally. "They would want you to believe that there’s no need for parking here. There’s a tremendous need for parking here," Termini said. "Every project that has come before you in the last month has had parking."

He also questioned the design of the building in the context of the downtown Buffalo neighborhood around it. "The Lafayette Hotel is in a historic district," he said. Architect "Louise Bethune is crying in her grave right now, to think that this building is being built across from that historic district. ... It's totally out of context."

"Louise Bethune designed the Hotel Lafayette as a building of its time. The library is a building of its time. 201 Ellicott is a building of its time," said Ciminelli Vice President Denise Juron-Borgese. "It’s part of the organic growth of a city."

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