To say that developer Douglas Jemal has been an asset to Buffalo is to understate the obvious. His presence, passion and wealth have played a key role in helping the city and its suburbs capitalize on their latent strengths.
But, as any accountant could attest, a balance sheet comprises liabilities as well as assets and over the past several months, enough of those have cropped to worry about a trend. Three problems have occurred: at the Richardson complex; on Elmwood Avenue; and, most recently, on High Street.
It’s possible, of course, that these are anomalies – lapses that reflect nothing more than an occasional, unfortunate oversight. But two of them suggest a willingness to take shortcuts and, in a city that boasts of its historic architecture, that’s worth a yellow flag.
Those two incidents occurred at historic properties where Jemal’s company, Douglas Development, altered properties without all the permissions it needed. At the Richardson complex, where Jemal plans to reopen the former Hotel Henry, the company prematurely began installing a porte cochère – a covered entrance – to the building.
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It was at least partly the city’s fault. In a communications foul-up, municipal officials authorized construction, but the Buffalo Preservation Board disapproved of the scale, size and design of the proposed addition. Work on it has been halted since April.
More recently, at the 150-year-old Meidenbauer House at 204 High St., the company went beyond the approved work of stabilizing the historic structure and putting on a new roof. It also changed the height and widened the angle of the roofline by adding new layers of brick. Coincidentally or not, that work provided more space for third-floor loft apartments. The developer also put new vinyl windows in the building, a lesser concern since it said the windows were temporary and helped protect the building until more appropriate ones could be installed.
But it was all too much for the Preservation Board, which scolded both the company and its architect for making significant alterations without approvals. At least some of that work will have to be torn out, the board says. What is allowed to remain, a skeptic might conclude, is the company’s net gain for seeking forgiveness rather than asking permission.
Lastly, the developer has sought – and received – permission to increase the scale of a controversial mixed-use project on Elmwood Avenue. What began as a four-story building 976 Elmwood Ave. is now a five-story project, based on the Zoning Board of Appeals approving five variances from the Green Code.
It’s all aboveboard, with Douglas Development having secured the permission it needs. Even so, the same skeptic could see the goal posts being moved after the previously approved work had already begun.
Any one of these incidents might be written off as not overly concerning. Together, they suggest either inattention to critical detail or, more troublingly, a willingness to push the limits in ways that could hurt both Jemal and the city.
Jemal is without doubt a boon to Erie County. Many other of his projects are moving forward without this kind of controversy. What is more, he has shown himself to be a friend to historic preservation. For those reasons – and for now – that earns him the benefit of the doubt. But fewer such surprises in the future would be helpful.
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