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Sean Ryan Presents New Vision for the Elmwood Village

In an attempt to break an impasse over one of Buffalo’s oldest and most contentious development issues, yesterday Assemblyman Sean Ryan unveiled a new vision for the corner of Elmwood and Forest, at the northern gateway to the Elmwood Village. The current proposal by developer Chason Affinity Companies would build, as Ryan said, “a five-story megastructure that does not fit the unique character of the Elmwood Village,” and that “violates the Green Code and includes demolition of twelve structures.”

Instead, Ryan, working with design firm Realtus Creative, developed a Green Code compliant concept focused on adaptive reuse. The resulting proposal would include a mix of residential and storefront commercial, as well as space for a gallery and a bed and breakfast.

“This should be the way we do development in the Elmwood Village,” Ryan said at a press conference at his Buffalo office this afternoon, much of which is available on video.

This concept is now the fifth proposal for redevelopment of the northeast corner of Elmwood and Forest, currently a row of large Victorian houses with twenty-four apartments and an eclectic mix of commercial uses, lending the strip a collegetown vibe. In fact, the northernmost block or so of the Elmwood Village is as close to a collegetown as Buffalo State has.

All of the previous proposals would involve removing that eclectic vibe entirely, and drastically altering the character of the northern Elmwood Village. A look at the previous proposals can be found here.

The current Chason Affinity proposal is currently under environmental review by the City of Buffalo.

In presenting his concept, Ryan also delivered something of a lecture in urban planning and economics.

To start, he mentioned working with the Elmwood Village Green Code Working Group and other community members, “to chart a new course for development in the Elmwood Village.”

“It’s clear that we all love density, we all love walkability. We love our small and eclectic storefronts. That’s why we live here, shop here, and attracted to this community,” Ryan said. But, “unfortunately, over the last year there has been some development that has strayed for the fabric and walkability of Elmwood Avenue.” He went on to criticize Chason Affinity and other developers with proposed projects that “would rip apart the fabric of the Elmwood Village” by replacing existing, smaller buildings with megastructures with large commercial spaces.

“We need to move away from this concept that to have development we have to have demolitions. There is no reason why the buildings at Elwood and Forest cannot be adaptively reused for new purposes. The current Chason plan, and other recent proposals, have no place in the Elmwood Village,” Ryan said.

As for what kind of development does belong in the Elmwood Village, Ryan said that the whole point of his press conference was to show “you don’t need to do demolitions” to create development. “Today I’m putting forth an alternative, hoping to show visually that you don’t have to do demolitions to put vibrancy back into our community. This vision focuses on adaptive reuse and not demolition.”

Benjamin Spittler of Realtus helped develop the new concept, which Ryan said “includes design elements that are already prevalent in the Elmwood Village. These designs are an updated fresh take on what the current buildings could look like if developers would simply focus on adaptive reuse and not demolitions.” The proposal would take the twelve existing buildings and combine them to create six buildings. This would create eleven additional apartments, on top of the twenty-four which already exist, and five or six commercial storefronts.

The first building at Elmwood and Forest would be mixed use, with commercial space, apartments, and perhaps an art gallery.

The second building would include storefronts & apartments. Ryan said it would have look of retail already seen around the Elmwood Village, and would fit so well with the neighborhood it would be hard to tell from older spaces.

The third and fourth buildings would be ideal for uses like a bakery or cafe.

The concept for the fifth building is a bed & breakfast, taking inspiration from the Inn at Buffalo on Lafayette.

This concept would fit the existing character of the Elmwood Village, Ryan said, because they are stylistically similar to what’s already on Elmwood. “This shows how much economic development you can do within these structures, without demolishing them,” he said.

Shifting into economics, Ryan talked about recently meeting with Preservation Green Lab, which came to Buffalo in January to issue a report showing that neighborhoods containing older, smaller buildings of different ages have greater economic and social activity than do those with primarily new builds. “Neighborhoods that contain older housing stock and older commercial storefronts are more vibrant and economically vital than parts of cities that were knocked down and rebuilt,” Ryan said he heard from Green Labs, adding.

Ryan said that the Preservation Green Lab study also found that the older business districts with smaller spaces provided more flexibility for entrepreneurs. “When there is a vacancy in older, smaller buildings, it’s a quicker turnover. Newer buildings with larger commercial space tend to have spaces vacant much longer. This is not good for a local economy to have spaces vacant,” Ryan said.

Ryan quoted Jane Jacobs, from Death and Life of Great American Cities, “Cities need old buildings so badly it’s probably impossible to have vigorous streets and districts without them.” This economic study by Preservation Green Lab backs that up, Ryan said. “Everything they have found tells us that neighborhoods like the Elmwood Village work better. Smaller buildings help create the conditions to help that economy.”

“So we need these types of buildings on Elmwood Avenue not because they’re quaint, not because they’re pretty, but because they help us reach our goal of a vibrant neighborhood with a strong economy. We should not demolish what works to make way for megastructures. The new buildings may be good for the individual developers, but it’s clear that’s not what works best for the community, Ryan said.

However, just like M*A*S*H took place in the Korean War, but was really about Vietnam, Ryan’s press conference and vision dealt with the Chason Affinity project, but were clearly also aimed at other development issues. He said, “while the design was created for the corner of Elmwood and Forest, it could easily be adapted to fit the corner of Elmwood and Bidwell, where Ciminelli Real Estate Corp. is planning a similar out-of-scale development, which would involve demolitions and does not comply with the requirements of the Green Code.”

Clearly, Ryan’s vision is an attempt to find a settlement to the development war that has been waged in the Elmwood Village for a year or more — a war that many see as over nothing less than the heart and soul of the Elmwood Village. Mark Sommer wrote an incisive piece on this for the Buffalo News last year.

But at the same time, Ryan has made it clear that he will also give no quarter over proposals like Elmwood/Forest and Elmwood/Bidwell. And in that regard he would seem to be marching with the community. Last month, he and the community held a protest of the Ciminelli project. While he recently hailed the decision by Ciminelli to hold off on pursuing demolition permits for Arbor + Reverie, no one is seeing that as anything other than a temporary victory.

Architect Catherine Faust, one of the organizers of the Elmwood Village Working Group on Green Code, recently posted online, “They have just put the Bidwell-Elmwood portion on the back burner but they had always planned to build the northernmost portion first anyway, according to their website. We will be back fighting their bid to demolish the buildings between Bidwell and Potomac in a few months, if not sooner.”

Martin Littlefield, another organizer of the Working Group, gave me the following statement yesterday:

Preserving the very core and substance of the Elmwood Village should always be the first option. The limits placed by the Green Code on a proposed development should be the bedrock of any analysis. However, the Green Code does not speak to the aesthetics of a building only its size and scale. Under the Green Code, the so-called Frizlen building (between Auburn and Breckenridge) could be replicated with no need for any substantial variances. Ultimately, the size and scale of any project should be the first point of analysis; however, all of us should consider each proposal so as to ensure that we do not look back 10 or 20 years from now and regret that we had not taken a wider, long range, more holistic view.

Ultimately, all parties to the discussion must use judgment, and thus, because judgment is a personal determination based on one’s own perception, we should listen to each other and try to peer into the future to ensure that the character, style and grace of the Elmwood Village is carried forward. It is not the richest nor loudest voices that should control, but rather the consensus of voices after civil discourse has taken place.

Councilman Feroleto is putting together two public forums which will provide the opportunity for our community to listen to, and consider, all facets of the Ciminelli project; a process that presumably will be followed for the Chason Project. We should listen carefully to the proposal being put together by Preservation Buffalo-Niagara and Assemblyman Ryan, but also we should listen carefully to (hopefully) any scaled-down versions of the projects that Chason and/or Ciminelli will be presenting at those meetings. Then, when we raise our collective voices, it will be based on what we’ve learned, not some hyperbole like that which was displayed at the recent Preservation Board meeting.

And just this week, lawn signs protesting the Elmwood/Bidwell project became available. They are free while supplies last, and you can get one from Gretchen Cercone of the Lancaster Block Club by emailing her at lancasteraveblockclub@gmail.com

It remains to be seen what impact the vision unveiled yesterday by Assemblyman Ryan will have, or whether such efforts to find reasonable solutions will ultimately prevail. Presumably many, like Littlefield, will be looking for good solutions. But will that happen without a fight?

Stay tuned.

Note: per WGRZ, Assemblyman Ryan said yesterday that his office spent $2,000 of its own money — not state or taxpayer funds — to commission the Elmwood Village renderings.

Written by RaChaCha

RaChaCha

RaChaCha is a Garbage Plate™ kid making his way in a Chicken Wing world. Since 2008, he's put over a hundred articles on here, and he asked us to be sure to thank you for reading. So, thank you for reading. You may also have seen his freelance byline in Artvoice, where he writes under the name his daddy gave him [Ed: Send me a check, and I might reveal what that is]. When he's not writing, RaChaCha is an urban planner, a rehabber of houses, and a community builder. He co-founded the Buffalo Mass Mob, and would love to see you at the next one. He represents Buffalo Young Preservationists on the Trico roundtable. If you try to demolish a historic building, he might have something to say about that. He is a proud AmeriCorps alum.

Things you may not know about RaChaCha (unless you read this before): "Ra Cha Cha" is a nickname of his hometown. (Didn't you know that? Do you live under a rock?) He's a political junkie (he once worked for the president of the Monroe County Legislature), but we don't really let him write about politics on here. He helped create a major greenway in the Genesee Valley, and worked on early planning for the Canalway Trail. He hopes you enjoy biking and hiking on those because that's what he put in all that work for. He was a ringleader of the legendary "Chill the Fill" campaign to save Rochester's old downtown subway tunnel. In fact, he comes from a long line of troublemakers. An ancestor fought at Bunker Hill, and a relative led the Bear Flag Revolt in California. We advise you to remember this before messing with him in the comments. He worked on planning the Rochester ARTWalk, and thinks Buffalo should have one of those, too (write your congressman).

You can also find RaChaCha (all too often, we frequently nag him) on the Twitters at @HeyRaChaCha. Which is what some people here yell when they see him on the street. You know who you are.

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