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Buffalo Zoning Board of Appeals tables request for Elmwood Village project changes

Douglas Development must host a community meeting and consult with Olmsted Parks Conservancy prior to the board granting a requested variance at Elmwood & Bidwell.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Developers behind a big project in the heart of the Elmwood village are going to have to wait a bit, before finding out if they'll be granted another variance for their plan.

Representatives of Douglas Development appeared on Wednesday before Buffalo's Zoning Board of Appeals seeking additional changes for their project at Elmwood and Bidwell.

The firm, headed by Douglas Jemal, has already begun work on the project to turn a block of eight vacant buildings into a mixed use complex of stores and apartment.

"The center buildings were in worse shape when we had anticipated," said Paul Millstein, vice president and head of development for Douglas.

The unanticipated costs to address those structural concerns, combined with rampant inflation, has caused the overall cost of the project to soar.

No place to go but up

The developer believes that with approval of an additional seven feet in height for the building, it can be more financially viable.

This step, according to Douglas, combined with reconfiguring the size of the apartments, would allow for the addition of a fifth floor to the structure and expand the number of apartments within it from from 34 to 51.

"In order to try and make everything work, we need to we need to increase our unit counts. So we tried our best to increase the unit density within the footprint we've already established," said Paul Lang AIA, managing Principal with Carmnina Wood Design, the architectural firm hired for the $15 million project.

Sixteen months ago, Douglas Dev. was granted approval for the the project to be four stories tall in variance to the city's Green Code.

The proposal to add a fifth floor was displeasing to one Elmwood Village resident who phoned into Wednesday's meeting.

Many questions

"The benefit to the applicant is clear," said Daniel Sack of Lancaster Avenue. "Economies of scale will allow them to make more money. But the detriment to the community is not so easily defined."

Another concerned raised was that by adding additional apartments to a building designed with no off street parking for its tenants, it would only exacerbate the challenge of parking in the neighborhood which is popular for its historic homes, stores and businesses, and nightlife.

As a solution, the company says it would allow tenants to park at the Richardson complex (which Doug Jemal also now owns) and even provide them 24 hour shuttle service if desired. 

"We started with 34 units and no parking, now we're asking to expand to 50 units, but with a parking plan in place," Millstein said.

Resident's group weighs in

"Would we prefer not to have five stories? yes," said Gretchen Cercone of the Residents of Elmwood Village organization, who also said the project, which involves new construction but preserves the facades of existing structures, is generally favored by members of the group.

That is a far cry from six years ago when Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. embarked on a development plan for the same property, which Cercone and others organized opposition to, which would have seen the existing structures razed.

"The evolution of this project initially involved extensive demolition of the residential neighborhood and fabric and perfectly fine houses. I think it's important to acknowledge that this project did not do any of that and was, I think, very respectful of the Elmwood Village," Cercone said. "No one is trying to block this or prevent it."

However she did raise concerns about some components of the requested changes and the suddenness of which they were proposed.

Request tabled

In the end members of the board, noting the developers only submitted their request for changes a few days ago, unanimously voted to table the request.

It also said Douglas Dev. must host a community meeting and consult with Olmsted Parks Conservancy, prior to the board voting on granting the latest requested variance.

However, due to the changes, Douglas has to re-submit its project to the city's Planning Board, which would require a public hearing anyway.

Whether the developer's latest requests are eventually granted or not, Millstein indicated the project would move forward.

"We're building this either way," Millstein said. "If you say we can't have the extra seven feet, we're still going to build a beautiful building. We're not going to cry the poor boy blues. This would make the building better, we think we've earned it, we think it will be a good addition to the community ... but to be clear, we're building it either way."


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