Developer after developer tried to solve the puzzle that for six decades stymied Lancaster village officials and a community development corporation formed in 1996 for the sole purpose of transforming the outdated strip plaza on West Main Street.
But Buffalo Billion II changed all of that in one $2.5 million swoop that will fund a road on which the village can build a future.
“Three years ago, you could roll a bowling ball down there and not hit anything. Some of the businesses have been waiting 60 years for that road,” said James Allein, chairman of the Lancaster Village Planning Commission.
It didn't hurt that developer Tommy Sweeney was waiting in the wings ready to invest $8 million to complete what he had already begun with the 2014 purchase and rehab of the first two historic buildings on West Main. Now he plans to add 48 upscale apartments and up to 20 retail spaces.
“It’s an extreme step, and it’s a risk because I haven’t done anything like this before; but at the same point, there is so much support,” said Sweeney, 50. “Every so often I wake up and wonder if I’m crazy. What am I trying to do?”
Sweeney did his homework, evaluating prior plans to find deficiencies, "whether it was not enough parking, too much growth, building over Plum Bottom Creek or in the floodplain. A lot of plans had different strategies, but the No. 1 hurdle that really drove everyone off is there was no road to build off," Sweeney said.
The 450-foot road that will connect Central Avenue and Aurora Street also will bring a 15-foot drop-off up to grade with 6,000 cubic yards of granular fill.
Village officials will bring the project to the public at 7 p.m. Wednesday during an informational session at Performance Advantage Co., 10 W. Main, said Councilwoman Lynne Ruda, director of the Economic Development Committee.
"It’s a huge change for the village, so we expect residents to have concerns," said Ruda, citing the annual parade as one. "Where’s the Fourth of July going to go? Where will parking be located? We issued a public survey. We received 3,000 responses."
Lancaster, a compact village of 2.7 square miles, was incorporated in 1849. Bisected by Cayuga Creek and multiple rail lines, it is one of about 30 communities in the state with historic districts. Downtown Lancaster – from Central Avenue to Aurora Street, and from Broadway to St. Joseph Street – is listed as a national historic district. It includes West Main and the 4.4-acre parcel with Save-A-Lot, the former BOCES building and a giant parking lot.
To complete the rebirth of downtown, the village also will construct a public park along the banks of Cayuga Creek funded by a $500,000 grant from the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York and facilitated by State Sen. Patrick M. Gallivan.
In addition, roundabouts constructed at Pleasant Avenue and North Aurora, and Pleasant and Central, will be funded by a $3.1 million grant from the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement program of the Federal Highway Administration. Community Development Block Grants will fund $200,000 to finish bike lanes on Central.
Sweeney was born in Saddlebrook, N.J., and attended Denver Automotive and Diesel College in Denver. He is a mechanic by trade who started working with Avis Car Rental after graduation.
He started in real estate here in 1998, after he moved to Western New York from Hartford, Conn., to develop an airport location for Avis. Sweeney found development success in the purchase and renovation of 140 apartments in Depew, Cheektowaga, Lancaster and West Seneca.
Sweeney started in village real estate in 2014 when he purchased 5 W. Main after spotting a “For Sale” sign in the window. “I wanted to buy it, rent it out, and upon retirement I would run a soda shop,” he said. "My mom and dad lived in Bardstown, Kentucky, an historic town that has a soda fountain in its general store. In Lancaster, we don’t have a soda fountain shop."
His building, constructed in 1873, now holds “Purely Pets.”
The Gilded Maple home boutique at 4 W. Main, located in the former site of Carson’s Jewelers, occupies an 1895 building renovated by Sweeney. The business, owned by Heather Mikoley and her business partner Dana Cipolla, opened in June 2018 after Sweeney bought the site earlier that year.
“This was a dream of mine," said Mikoley. "[Dana] and I went to Ellicottville for a long weekend and saw the shops there. We said. ‘Let’s do it,’ and we did with a $60,000 investment. We’re both very risk-tolerant people.”
The historical significance of the buildings is not lost on residents who recall walking in the midcentury village to shop, said Sweeney.
“Everyone understood that, historically, people who grew up here loved to walk West Main Street,” said Sweeney. “So by me being in the village with 4 and 5 West Main, and redeveloping Carson’s, it’s understanding what the community wanted.”
Sheila Ransbottom, senior transportation engineer at Wendell Design, will oversee the design and construction of the road. Ransbottom also led the $20 million upgrade of East Aurora’s Main Street, completed in 2008.
“We put in a lot of brick pavement in East Aurora, added bike lanes. There was a different feel, more friendly, for pedestrians, bicyclists and vehicles. That same sort of thing will happen in Lancaster when it’s done. The new Main Street reinvigorated business in East Aurora,” said Ransbottom.
In Lancaster, West Main will be converted to a two-lane street and carry traffic in both directions. It currently is a one-way street from Central to Broadway with angled parking on either side. Sidewalks will extend 14 feet from curb to building to allow room for trees, mast-arm light poles, benches, bike racks and trash receptacles that must be approved by the village’s seven-member Historic Preservation Commission. Parallel parking lanes will line both sides of the new road and allow for 39 spaces. Diagonal parking would allow more than 15 additional spaces.
Parking has become a concern among some merchants, as it was during East Aurora’s roadwork, said Ransbottom. Merchants worry about not enough parking spaces for shoppers. A little more than a mile of Main Street was reconstructed in East Aurora, where parking today is a mix of diagonal and parallel spaces.
The current angled parking on both sides of West Main in Lancaster does not conform to Empire State Development standards because the spaces are too short and too narrow, Ransbottom said.
“You definitely could not fit angled parking on both sides of that two-way street,” said Ransbottom. “If we did it on one side, there will be maybe 5 feet of sidewalk, leaving no space for streetlights, trees or sidewalk cafes. That is not recommended.”
The West Main extension project is being fast-tracked by the state, which requires that the roadwork is complete and inspected by December 2021, said Ruda.
The $3.2 million road project will be paid for by a combination of $700,000 in village funds and $2.5 million from the Buffalo Billion II’s Smart Growth Community Initiative. The bidding process is expected to start later this year with construction likely to begin in early spring, said Ruda. She understands that residents will have concerns about the change in their community, and she expects the parking issue will be aired at Wednesday’s session.
“We want to balance walkability with reality and not be congested with cars,” said Ruda. “We’re looking at a time limit on parking on West Main. We are creating a different culture in the village.”