Here are my initial thoughts on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement [DEIS] for the “Mixed-Use Condominium/Retail Development” proposed for the southeast corner of Elmwood and Forest avenues.
First, full disclosure: I spent seven years representing six families on Granger Place and Forest Avenue in opposition to Chason Affinity’s prior plans for what the developer calls “the Gateway to the Elmwood Village.” In 2012, I filed complaints with the City of Buffalo’s permits and inspections office concerning chronic code violations at Affinity’s Elmwood Avenue properties, and I also wrote a letter-to-the-editor questioning the wisdom of Chason Affinity’s proposal to reuse the former Millard Fillmore hospital site as a veterinarian teaching hospital. In response, the Affinity principals had their lawyers obtain an unlawful “gag order” against me from a compliant, now-disgraced State Judge. [For details, see my very first post at this blog in January 2014. Also, here’s the letter-to-the-editor that got the Affinity folks so riled up, and a few photos of the condition of Affinity’s Elmwood Ave. properties three years after they had purchased eleven parcels for nearly $2 million.]
My comments concerning the Affinity DEIS – and the developer’s proposed five-story, 166,000-square-foot project – are informed by my love for the Elmwood Village (where I lived for years as a young adult), the knowledge I obtained while representing the Granger Place and Forest Avenue families, and a quarter century representing families in zoning and environmental review matters.
Here are my initial observations (which I hope to supplement as time permits):
FIRST, the supposed “Need” for the project lacks factual support, and is overflowing with ironic assertions and mischaracterizations of the Elmwood Village and the City’s zoning laws. Here are but three examples:
*** According to the DEIS, “Like many other cities across the United States, the City of Buffalo has a relatively low supply of housing for newcomers who wish to remain in the City.” This assertion would probably surprise the head of the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning, Brendan Mehaffy. A year ago, during a panel discussion at Medaille College, Brendan gushed that, yes, indeed, Buffalo was experiencing a “housing boom” with 3,900 new units having been added since 2012.
*** In the words of the DEIS’ authors, the Elmwood Village “is increasingly desirable due to its intact urban fabric, recognizable thriving commercial district and proximity to high-quality public space.” Ironically, the proposed 166,000-square-foot project would rip apart the “intact urban fabric” by demolishing a dozen century-old buildings that are all “contributing” to the recently listed Elmwood Village Historic District (East)” on the National Register of Historic Places. And, to add insult to injury, Affinity wants to replace the “recognizable thriving business district” with an out-of-scale structure that is the antithesis of the “bohemian atmosphere” described in a 2009 study prepared by Affinity’s consultant, Pinnacle Advisory Group:
“… The existing development in the immediate and surrounding neighborhood consists primarily of single family homes and free-standing homes that have been converted into apartment rentals … [T]he bohemian atmosphere and the numerous independent boutique shops and restaurants have helped to make the area around Elmwood and Forest [avenues] one of the most desirable residential neighborhoods in Buffalo. ” [Emphasis added.]
*** The DEIS states that, “The Project aims to transform the Site into one more consistent with prevailing Elmwood Village design standards…[EVDS]” This assertion – intentionally or otherwise – inaccurately suggests that the EVDS criteria (mixed-use buildings constructed at the sidewalk, etc.) applies to every parcel within its boundaries. That claim is false. As clearly stated at Section 511-155(b)(1) of the City’s zoning ordinance: “The Elmwood Village Design Standards District shall include all commercial properties abutting Elmwood Avenue between Forest Avenue and North Street,” as well as “all commercial properties abutting” specified east-west spurs, including Forest between Richmond and Granger. In other words, the eight residential properties included within Affinity’s twelve parcels – six on Elmwood, and two around the corner on Forest – are NOT included in the EVDS, and, therefore, are not inconsistent with the expressed standards. [See EVDSD-section-511-155-amended-06-11.]
SECOND, proponents of the existing character of the Elmwood Village will not be fooled by a five-story, 166,000-square-foot building that supposedly has the “appearance of multiple structures” and will “’read’ as a three-story building” [as a result of the 4th and 5th stories being “stepped back”]. The proposed project will be demonstrably out-of-scale and character, and have a much greater density, than the existing Elmwood Village as a whole, and, more importantly for the purposes of SEQRA, the neighborhood immediately surrounding the Chason Affinity project. More specifically, the property information available at the City of Buffalo’s website shows the following:
(a) Affinity’s project is grossly inconsistent with the scale and character of the 12 primary structures it would replace. Eleven of the twelve existing structures on the 12 parcels comprising the Chason Affinity project – that is, 1091 through 1121 Elmwood Ave., and 605 and 607 Forest Ave. – are two- and two-and-a-half story structures on single, moderate-size lots. The twelfth structure – at 1111 Elmwood Avenue – is a 1.3-story single-family residence. The twelve structures have a total gross floor area of 34,062 square feet, 20.5% of the total gross floor area of the proposed project, 166,000 square feet.
(b) Affinity’s project is grossly inconsistent with the scale and character of the ten adjacent residences on Forest Ave. and Granger Place. Nine of the ten structures on Granger Place [64 through 36 Granger Pl.] and Forest Avenue [611 Forest Ave.] abutting or immediately adjacent to the Chason Affinity property are 2-family residences, and the tenth structure is a three-family residence. The ten parcels are all developed with two- and two-and-a-half story structures on single, moderate-size lots, setback from the public right-of-way by front lawns, and have a total gross floor area of 25,105 square feet, 15.1% of the total gross floor area of the proposed project, 166,000 square feet.
(c) Affinity’s project is grossly inconsistent with the scale of the commercial buildings directly across street on the west side of Elmwood Avenue. The five buildings on the west side of Elmwood Ave. directly across Elmwood from the proposed Chason project – that is, 1122, 1116, 1108, 1104 and 1096 – are all 2-stories in height, and have a combined gross floor area of 32,060 square feet, 19.3% of the total gross floor area of the proposed project, 166,000 square feet.
(d) Affinity’s project is grossly inconsistent with the scale and character of the single-family residences on the east side of Elmwood Ave. immediately north of the corner of Elmwood & Forest. The block on the east side of Elmwood Avenue immediately north of Forest Avenue consists, first, of a one-story gas station/convenience store, and then eighteen homes, each of which is classified by the City of Buffalo as a single-family residence. Ten of the twelve residences closest to the Chason Affinity project are 2-story structures, one is a 1.5-story home, and one a 2-story home. These twelve parcels are moderate in size, and the houses are setback from the public right-of-way by front lawns. The total gross floor area of these residences is 25,167 square feet, or 15.2% of the total gross floor area of the proposed project, 166,000 square feet.
THIRD, in an attempt to minimize the historic significance of the dozen primary structures proposed for demolition by Affinity – despite their contributions to the newly recognized Elmwood Village Historic District (East) – the DEIS has the nerve to make the following assertions: “some have been affected by the removal of porches and other building alterations,” and “the Project is expected to enhance the appearance of the existing deteriorating buildings at the corner of Elmwood and Forest Avenues.” What makes these statements so brazen are the following facts: Affinity has owned all but one of these properties (1091 Elmwood) since 2009, and has continued collecting rents from retail and residential tenants throughout much of this timeframe. It is Affinity that is responsible for the current condition of the buildings they want to demolish. As mentioned above, three- years into its tenure as owners of these structures, Affinity faced a battery of code violation complaints. [See the City’s official notices-of-code-violations-in-2012-at-affinitys-elmwood-ave-properties.] Also, as these before-and-after photos reflect, it was Affinity that decided to remove – rather than repair – the porches at 1113 Elmwood Avenue:
I hope to add to these comments in the near future.
With All Due Respect,