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Douglas Jemal's Elmwood-Bidwell project faces little resistance at Planning Board

Douglas Jemal's Elmwood-Bidwell project faces little resistance at Planning Board

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The Elmwood Village has long been like a third rail for real estate developers: Touch any of its buildings – let alone demolish anything or build too high – and you'll risk the shock of your life.

Then there's Douglas Jemal.

The Washington developer's proposal to redevelop a multi-building complex at the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Bidwell Parkway met with hardly a peep of opposition from anyone in the community when it came before the city Planning Board on Monday. That's despite his intention to demolish a small structure in back, and then nearly double the size of the entire project.

Jemal plans to renovate the two-story structures in front, and then construct a four-story addition in the rear to create 33 apartments and six storefronts – up from perhaps 19 apartments that most recently existed in the dilapidated buildings. The construction would be set back far from the street facade, but it's higher than allowed by code, so he needs variances from the Zoning Board of Appeals, which meets on Thursday.

Yet only two people spoke out with any criticism, and neither was strenuously opposed, especially after Jemal's deputy pre-empted one of them by announcing a change in the design that effectively dulled the thrust of her comments.

An earlier iteration of the plan had windows from the rear carriage houses that might look into the adjacent neighbors' yards. But Paul Millstein, executive vice president of Douglas Development Corp., said Jemal and his team heard those concerns and redesigned the plan, so the carriage house windows will only look out toward the internal yard, while using skylights for natural light.

"That was going to be the bulk of my comments," said Bridget Williams of Bidwell Parkway, who said she had not heard from the developer until last week, when she had a conversation with Millstein about her concerns. "I respect their willingness to work with us, and they were very responsive to us. They understood the concerns of myself and my husband about our privacy."

Nevertheless, she also voiced concerns about the structural stability of the carriage-house-turned-garage adjacent to her house – which Jemal plans to restore while adding another floor for residential units. And she expressed worry about the future of a giant weeping willow tree whose branches extend across four properties. "I've lived directly next to that garage for the last eight years, and know that there's been zero preventive maintenance on it," she said.

Jemal's $15 million project at 976 Elmwood – which also involves 982 Elmwood and 583 Potomac Ave. – would create a 38,852-square-foot building after 12 months of construction. The rear portion would unify the various buildings in front, while the commercial storefronts along the streets would be restored to the historic appearance that officials hope will emerge after selective interior demolition, Millstein said.

"It’s a historic restoration. It’s what we love to do," Millstein said.

In all, he said, 80% of the original fabric of the complex will be retained.

Planning Board members, echoing criticism by Elmwood Village resident Daniel Sack, also suggested that the large glass windows for the third and fourth floors of the rear section are too big and industrial-looking. Millstein said those were chosen in consultation with the State Historic Preservation Office and Preservation Buffalo Niagara, to be distinctive from the original historic windows below.

"We’ll study the windows again," Millstein said.

"Everybody’s got a preference and a taste," he said. "It’s hard to make everybody happy."

"This is one of those what’s-not-to-like projects, after all this time," said Planning Board Vice Chair Cynthia Schwartz.

Also on Monday, the Planning Board tabled Great Point Media's plan to expand its proposed 57,700-square-foot Niagara Studio on Niagara Street sooner than expected – but with less than previously envisioned.

The British production company plans to add two 5,000-square-foot sound stages to the 20,000-square-foot stage and support space that was already approved.

The original plan called for another 20,000 square feet, but technology has changed, film studios need more space now, and they want smaller spaces to give them more options for film, television and streaming production, said Kevin D. Murrett of Architectural Resources, the project architect.

However, the surface parking lot to the south of the building, where vehicles will deliver materials to the site, will now wrap around to the east side, as an extension of the studio for outdoor film shooting, as well as staging the actor dressing and makeup trailers. That and changes to the ground-floor transparency require modifications to the zoning variances, so the Planning Board has to wait until September before ruling on the site plan.

The board also:

  • Approved a subdivision request by Ellicott Development Co. and Sinatra & Co. Real Estate, to break up the former Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo main hospital complex at 219 Bryant St. into four tax parcels, in preparation for redevelopment into Elmwood Crossing.
  • Approved a 5,150-square-foot rigidized steel addition to Oehler Welding and Fabrication's facility at 242 Elk St., to provide indoor storage and weather protection for steel sheeting before it is fabricated or shipped. The $110,000 expansion, using an empty lot on the back side of the property, would take two months to erect on the half-acre site.

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