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Planning Board OKs West Utica townhomes; neighbors fight to save historic home

The Buffalo Planning Board on Monday gave the green light to the Elmwood Crossing proposal to put up 20 for-sale townhomes on West Utica Street – despite vociferous last-ditch appeals by neighbors and preservationists to delay action because they say a house on the property merits historic protection.

But while Sinatra & Company Real Estate and Ellicott Development Co. could claim victory in the short term, their project is still in limbo for at least a few weeks, and the house may be safe from the wrecking ball for now – contrary to dire warnings after the vote by Tim Tielman, executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture.

That's because Tielman's group already applied to the Common Council and Preservation Board to have the house at 184 West Utica designated as a local landmark, which would prevent demolition or any other exterior changes without Preservation Board approval.

That panel recommended against demolition of the house following a Jan. 23 public hearing on the project, but the vote was advisory only.

By contrast, if the Council approves a landmark designation, the Preservation Board would hold veto power over demolition.

The Preservation Board set a special public hearing on the request for Feb. 25, after which it would make a recommendation to the Council. The Council would schedule its own public hearing at least 15 days later, before it could come to a vote – if it doesn't get sent to a committee or tabled.

So as long as that application is pending, the developers can't obtain a permit to take down the house, said Tom Fox, director of development for Ellicott. That could take 30 to 60 days, he estimated.

"We cannot pull a demolition permit because a landmark application has been filed," he said. "We wouldn't be able to move our plans any further until that process is concluded."

If the landmark status is granted, he added, it would likely force the developers to redesign the entire project – possibly with multiple stories and units.

Sinatra and Ellicott want to tear down the house as part of their redevelopment of the former Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo campus into the new Elmwood Crossing community. The house, along with another home and a vacant parking lot, is on a site destined to become a set of 20 townhouses, dubbed Parkhurst Square and built in conjunction with Essex Homes of WNY.

The developers say the house has deteriorated significantly, has been vacant for more than a dozen years, and has lost most or all of the characteristics that might have distinguished it – particularly on the inside.

Neighbors argue it's part of the Elmwood East National Historic District, and Tielman in particular urged Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown and other city officials to stave off the wrecking ball.

Tielman says the house is "very rare example" of the Flemish Revival style that is significant in the state as a onetime Dutch colony, and "exhibits a high level of craftsmanship." Known as the Ernest Franks House, it was designed by architect Albert Schallmo and most recently owned by artist Rodney Taylor.

Tielman complained that the "first public notice" of the demolition came Jan. 17, prompting his group to scramble into action – even though the demolition of the two houses was widely reported as part of the public plan for Elmwood Crossing for two years.

"I’m here simply to urge you to wait until the Preservation Board process now underway comes to some kind of conclusion, because it's obviously going to affect this plan," Tielman said Monday.

Planning Board members had asked the developer to come back with a revamped site plan to see what it would look like if they retained the two houses. Fox presented drawings showing that the $11 million project would lose five townhomes – 25% of the development.

That would eliminate the margin of profitability and render the project unfeasible financially, he said. Even if only one of the houses was retained – at 184 – the project still loses three townhouses.

The developers revised the designs to make the three clusters look less like large buildings, by introducing a mixture of brick and clapboard siding, different colors, different rooflines and different layouts for each of the individual residences.

"This is far better than what we saw," said Vice Chair Cynthia Schwartz. "This is exactly what we were all talking about."

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