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Elmwood Crossing day care approved after redesign, but townhomes are tabled

Back to the drawing board – again – for Sinatra & Company Real Estate and Ellicott Development Co.

For the second straight month, the duo behind the Elmwood Crossing redevelopment in Buffalo brought one of the smaller components of the overall project to the city Planning Board, only to run headlong into neighborhood opposition over a design that critics labeled as boring and too suburban.

Last month, it was the proposed EduKids day care at 125 Hodge St., which was tabled by the board amid an outcry of derision from neighbors.

That was approved Monday - much to the relief of both the developers and EduKids - after significant redesign of both the facade and the site plan in response to feedback from residents and the Planning Board. The new daycare will serve about 110 children from six months to five years, plus older students in before- and after-school programs.

“We’re very excited,” said EduKids founder Nancy Ware, who added that they need to get a “shovel in the ground ASAP” so they can open by mid-August “so people can sign up and get started.”

This time, the delay concerned the planned Parkhurst Townhome project, a group of 20 proposed for-sale attached townhouses in three clusters at 188 West Utica St., mostly on a current parking lot that surrounds two vacant houses.

Area residents said they generally supported the idea of townhouses to bring more homeowners to the neighborhood and create more density. But they panned the look as inconsistent with Elmwood Village, calling it mediocre, dull and uninteresting.

"The new design is like student housing at UB North Campus," said Mike Dawidowicz of West Utica.

But as much as the appearance of the new buildings seemed to offend neighbors, it was the planned demolition of the two houses as part of the project that really unified the opposition, as demonstrated by a parade of a dozen speakers who urged, or even demanded, that the homes be saved.

"Buffalo has incredible architecture," said Anne Murphy, who lives on West Utica. "It would be such a shame to tear down those two buildings and then to replace it with a suburban design."

The homes at 180 and 184 West Utica – owned by Sinatra and Essex – are not listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but are considered contributing structures to the Elmwood Historic District East.

One in particular – a brick house at 184 – is "iconic" and "charming," said Robert Pedersen, president of the Atlantic-West Utica Block Club.

"You cannot replicate these designs without spending a fortune," said Courtney Bajdas of Anderson Place.

Neighbors urged the Planning Board to either reject the plan or at least require that the developers redo their project to retain and renovate the two homes – even if it meant giving up two or three townhouses and one of the driveways.

Even the state Historic Preservation Office recommended preserving the structures – even if that requires moving them – or at least incorporating historic features into the new build.

"We don’t want to see it demolished," said Lorna Peterson of Delaware Avenue. "We would like to work collaboratively with our developers. I am not here to be an enemy. I am not here to be combative."

Amy Nagy, director of development for Sinatra, said the team "doesn't take any demolition lightly," noting that the overall plan for Elmwood Crossing preserves 93% of the former hospital buildings. She said the team had sought to incorporate feedback from the community and explored a "variety of treatments" to the design, with different colors, architectural features and finishes, before presenting the current plan.

"We’ve been at this for quite some time, just like everything with Elmwood Crossing," said Tom Fox, director of development for Ellicott. "There’s been many many more site plans and elevations that we didn’t present... We’ll go back, we’ll go meet with our teams, we’ll discuss what changes we can consider, what would make sense to create a project that we can build."

The struggles faced by the developers demonstrate the challenge that they confront as they embark on their $100 million transformation of the former Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo campus into Elmwood Crossing, a new mixed-use neighborhood in the Elmwood Village. Besides the townhouses and day care, overall plans for the eight-acre site include 220 apartments, 27 condominiums, a 75-room boutique hotel, an urban grocery, boutique shops and offices – all spread over locations on three streets.

In the case of the three-story townhouses, the developers – in partnership with Essex Homes of Western New York as the general contractor – are proposing a block of eight units to be located along the south side of West Utica, between Elmwood and Delaware avenues. Two additional groups of six would be situated perpendicular to the street, in the rear of the 1.29-acre site, to create a horseshoe shape around a central community green.

The 2,500-square-foot townhouses would all have either two or three bedrooms and 2.5 bathrooms – depending on buyer preference – and would each have its own pedestrian walk-up front entrance, in a traditional row house style.

Designed by CJS Architects, the gray-and-black facade features a mixture of decorative architectural stone and clapboard siding, with each unit having bay windows and Juliet balconies with black metal railings.

But they all looked identical – which was a core part of the criticism.

"This is grindingly monotonous," said Martha Yagle of Ashland Avenue. "It just doesn't fit into the character of that street and overall of this national historic district."

The board agreed, suggesting that the developers come back with changes.

"All efforts should be made to save the buildings," board member Andrew Malcolm said.

But that could prove challenging, Fox said. "We always have to balance our costs against the sales," he said. "We have to take all that into account."

The EduKids project won approval after Sinatra and Ellicott added brick to the facade, changed the window and roof style, and swapped out colors in a bid to make it look less suburban. They also eliminated a drive-up and drop-off area with a second driveway, added more green space and increased the size of the playground from 2,200 square feet to 2,800 square feet.

"You’ve made significant changes and responded to 95% of the commentary that you’ve heard," said Board Vice Chair Cynthia Schwartz. "It may not be earthshaking architecture, but I propose that we move this forward and approve it."

That was encouraging for the developers. "People wanted to see activity on the site. They wanted to see progress. That’s what we’re giving them," Nagy said. "We’ve always known this was going to be a long-term project, but seeing this activity is the direction we want to go."

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