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Buffalo River apartment project wins approval in Old First Ward

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Joseph Carubba and his out-of-town partner came out mostly unscathed from their latest collision with the Old First Ward community, after the duo won city approval for their proposal to construct four new apartment buildings in the historic neighborhood next to the Buffalo River.

Carubba – former owner of Carubba Collision – is teaming up with J.B. Earl Co. of Utah to bring 85 new residential apartments to South, Vandalia and Hamburg streets, next to the new Mutual Riverfront Park. Dubbed The Riv, the market-rate project would feature a mix of both one-bedroom loft and two-bedroom units of 1,050 and 1,400 square feet, respectively, with high-grade finishes.

That will add significant new density to the neighborhood along the river, which is currently pockmarked with greenspace and vacant land in what used to be a tightly-packed area more than a century ago. And it will take advantage of the growing interest in the city's waterfront, and the desire for more access to the river for activities.

"We do see this site as embracing the water and embracing the style of outdoor living," Earl Co. CEO Justin B. Earl said Monday during the city Planning Board meeting. "Our vision is to bring back some of the vibrancy that this neighborhood had."

Plans by architect Michael Conroe of Elev8 Architecture and Andrew Marino of Tredo Engineers call for three-story buildings on separate sites at 12 and 31 Vandalia, 32 Hamburg and 148 South. Two of the properties are vacant, while the other two have single-family homes that will be demolished. All are owned by Carubba's JC Properties.

The developers also control a fifth site at 14 Hamburg, but instead of proposing new construction on it, they plan to offer the site as an amenity to the neighborhood. An active CSX Corp. rail line runs through the middle of the two-acre site, but the infrequent trains run at low speed. 

All four buildings will front onto the street with their main entrances, while the vestibules extend through the width of the buildings to the parking lots in the rear. The project incorporates enough parking for one space for every apartment, including some spaces tucked underneath parts of the buildings.

The $25 million to $30 million project already received variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals for side setback, parking lot greenspace and density, but did not need additional variances for height. That's because the developers had already significantly scaled back their original plan – which started with 138 units and five-story buildings – in the face of community opposition and criticism.

The apartment tally had already dropped to 95 and more recently to 85, which was approved Monday. And the developers agreed to introduce the buildings in phases over five years instead of all at once, to lessen the impact on the community.

Also, in response to concerns about flooding, especially given recent seiches on Lake Erie, the developers plan to raise the ground by at least three feet to keep the structures above the floodplain and protect the ground-floor apartments.

Conroe said the developers "worked pretty extensively with the community and community leaders," including Valley Community Association Executive Director Peg Overdorf, Old First Ward Community Center Executive Director Patrick Gormley and Common Council Member Mitch Nowakowski, who held community meetings.

Even so, Overdorf expressed concern about parking, particularly during the more congested spring and summer months, when kayaking is in full swing. And she criticized the look of the primary building at the rounded corner of Hamburg and South streets, which she said does not reflect the community. "You’re sticking this in the middle of a residential area, and you’ve got to be considerate of the residents," she said.

That building – which Conroe said was designed to reflect the nearby industrial landscape and the history of the area – features a mostly flat roof, with a mix of white and rustic-colored cementitious fiber panels for the façade, and recessed concave balconies that tie into the shape of nearby grain elevators.

"It just doesn’t have the warmth and sense of neighborhood that the other buildings do," Planning Board Vice Chair Cynthia Schwartz agreed. "It needs color or a different façade treatment."

By contrast, the other three will have pitched roofs and wood clapboard siding "that was respectful of the neighborhood," while the ground floors will be dominated by brick. But Overdorf said the cement panels don't last, and urged much more brick in all the buildings.

"The little bit of brick you threw on the other building really does not suffice," she said. "We've done a lot to move the renaissance of the community forward, and I don't think this is a great representation."

Ultimately, the developers agreed to incorporate more wood framing around the balconies to soften the façade.

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A group of 19 residents and businesses in the Old First Ward and Valley neighborhoods are suing the City of Buffalo and the developer behind a proposed residential project at South and Hamburg streets, arguing that the city Planning Board failed to follow its own procedures in approving the proposal.

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