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Rethinking Women’s and Children’s Hospital: Re-Urbanizing Elmwood and Bryant

I hope you’re not reading this while eating, because I can’t start a piece about Elmwood and Bryant without a reminder of how far we’ve come since the days of the mysterious brown fluid. Spotted leaking from the vacant KFC at the northwest corner of that intersection, for a time, in the spring of 2008, it turned Elmwood’s “Yellow District” into the Brown District.

Now, the offending KFC has been replaced with Karl Frizlen’s building that, with its mix of uses and three-story height, maximizes the economic contribution of that parcel of land while also getting generally high marks for urbanism. (Steel’s 2012 post on the economics of multi-story buildings is still a good read on this.)

Thanks to Frizlen’s building, and the delightful architecture of the building housing Epic, the Elmwood-Bryant intersection gets high marks for urbanism on the northwest & southeast corners, kitty-corner from each other, mutually pointing to each other like the two halves of a bow tie. (So far, thankfully, the rumors Steel wrote about last year that the cluster of buildings around Epic are in the crosshairs of a “corner project” seem not to have panned out.)

Yet at the same time, like its evil twin, a bow tie of anti-urbanism is the form of the southwest & northeast corners.

Why are those corners examples of anti-urbanism? Consider this: the northeast corner is a surface parking lot, right next to a slightly higher surface parking lot. Because after all, who doesn’t want to be able to park right next door to their parking lot, right? Is that urban? No.

As for the southwest corner, and its present occupant, Rite Aid, let’s do the urbanism math (see photo gallery below for related images):

  • Built to the curb? No.
  • Parking lot fronting the street? Yes.
  • Entrance at the sidewalk? No.
  • Multi-story? No.
  • Mixed-use? No.
  • Dry-Vit? Yes.
  • Blank walls? Yes. Three of them, actually.
  • Windows on the street? Kinda sorta. Only in the upper half of the front wall, but even those are covered by advertisements on the outside and shelving on the inside.
  • Eyes on the street? No. Store employees work with their backs to the street.
  • Architectural charm? LOL.

Punching that into the urbanism calculator results in a score about as high as a February wind chill.

The question is, can this be fixed? Often urbanization can be accomplished by building infill on a vacant lot or surface parking lot, or replacing a less-urban use with a more urban use. Two recent examples of this on Elmwood, aside from the Frizlen building at Bryant are 905 Elmwood, which replaced a gas station, and the Benchmark project that infilled the parking lot next to the Globe Market.

But what about situations where replacement of an existing building and use is difficult or impossible? For example, how would you urbanize the 7-Eleven stores on Elmwood, when they are too economically valuable to the owner to close long enough to demolish what’s there and build new? And when they see parking as so crucial to their business model that building new on their parking lot before demolishing their existing building might be a deal-breaker? Anyone wanting to urbanize Stuyvesant Plaza would face a similar dilemma.

At Elmwood and Bryant, the Rite Aid (424 Elmwood) presents just this kind of urbanization challenge.

But last week’s news (here and here about the change in direction for reuse of Women’s and Children’s Hospital completely changes the game for re-urbanizing Elmwood and Bryant intersection. With Ciminelli out, and a Sinatra/Ellicott team in, both sides of the bow tie of bad urbanism will be under control of the same development team. That opens some exciting possibilities for making Elmwood and Bryant an unfortunately rare thing in Buffalo: a completely urbanized intersection. No surface parking lots fronting the street, no single-story, single-use cinder-block buildings, no blank walls, no dead spaces. And even further, it could become one of the most transit-friendly and transit-integrated places on Elmwood.

How could this work?

First, the Ciminelli plan had an interesting proposal to wrap the northeast corner with a multi-story, mixed-use building. While the placeholder design in the proposal had too many stories, and was architecturally unfriendly, it had approximately 15,000 square-foot floor plates, which is the target size for a modern drugstore. Rite Aid’s average is 12,600, vs. Walgreens average of 14,500. So a mixed-use building could be built on the northeast corner that could house a Rite Aid as an anchor tenant, while the existing Rite Aid remains in operation.

(Yes, 15,000 square feet is significantly larger than what is allowed under green code. But the opportunity to re-urbanize an entire intersection, plus other potential benefits mentioned below, could merit a variance. At the very least, it merits discussion.)

Last year’s Ellicott Development proposal also included a building for that corner with large floor plates, although it didn’t wrap the corner. A most elegant design, at five stories it was too tall for Elmwood, but would make a fine addition to the “south of North” section of Delaware Avenue. Uniland also proposed a corner building there.

But hands-down the best of the four proposed corner buildings in last year’s competition was Sinatra’s, perhaps boosting the very favorable reception his submission received – at least among our readers. The design is very elegant, with  the strong corner presence the intersection warrants. Even at four stories, it doesn’t seem out of scale, because most of the building gets out of the way and lets the corner do the talking. Also, the first floor is designed to capture and hold the eye at street level, and the fourth floor is, in effect if not purely in design, an attic story.

Sinatra’s architects may have pulled out all the stops on this design because it was intended for the restaurant expansion that Sinatra told Buffalo Rising his family had long dreamed of. Presumably due to not being selected last year, Sinatra and his family returned to their original plans to expand on Kenmore Avenue – currently under construction.

Even absent Sinatra’s as an anchor tenant, strictly in terms of design the return of this building, or a version of it, might be welcomed in the new project plan.

And now back to the southwest corner: it has cried out for redevelopment since the 1990s. The current building was built in 1972, an example of what passed for progress at the time. A quarter century later, facing competition from the then-new, 14,000 square-foot Walgreens at Delaware and North, Rite Aid Developer Carl Paladino fought for over a year to expand the store. Paladino and Rite Aid wanted to grow it from 8,960 to 11,300 square-feet, and also – in an era before Elmwood Village Design Standards or Green Code – double the surface parking. But to do all that would have required demolishing great adjacent buildings. That was not a formula that computed with the neighborhood, which shot down every proposed alternative. At the end, the status quo ante held, and has ever since.

Now, suddenly, with much of the property at Elmwood and Bryant in the hands of the same development team, there will be lots of wiggle room to help provide options and scenarios for redeveloping the Rite Aid site.

How could this play out on the ground? One can imagine several scenarios, such as:

  • A new Rite Aid built on the northeast corner, with a new, multi-story, mixed-use building built on the site of the existing Rite Aid. The corner-wrapping building proposed by Ciminelli had floor plates of approximately 15,000 square-feet, which is around the target size for a modern drugstore (Rite Aid’s average is 12,600, vs. Walgreens average of 14,500).
  • Perhaps the new development partnership would consider building the Dash’s Market, included in last year’s Sinatra proposal and still a possibility according to Sinatra, at Bryant instead of Hodge, as envisioned last year. Under this scenario, the new Dash’s space could temporarily house the Rite-Aid while the current Rite Aid building is demolished and its site is prepared for redevelopment. A new, larger Rite Aid could be incorporated into a new building there, or perhaps built somewhere else in the hospital redevelopment site. This scenario would also allow the existing buildings at Hodge to be reused instead of demolished for the Dash’s Market.
  • Something completely different, that perhaps doesn’t involve a Rite Aid at all. Currently, Rite Aid is in a world of hurt, with its stock tanking and merger talks with Walgreens on the rocks. Despite the development opportunity, it may be that this is a really bad time to be building a new Rite Aid.

Parking, transit, and intermodalism

Redeveloping both the southwest and northeast corners of Elmwood and Bryant in the context of a larger project would create a unique opportunity to make the intersection extraordinarily transit friendly. Both corners could include far-side bus bays or pull-outs. These would be uniquely suited for those corners, because the new buildings could be slightly set back so that the bus bays would not affect sidewalk width.

Transit-friendliness would be boosted even more by designing into the new buildings an awning or marquee extending out far enough to shelter transit users. Taking the opportunity to redevelop these corners with transit baked in would immediately make Elmwood and Bryant one of the most transit-friendly intersections in the Elmwood Village. The new construction on the northeast corner could also allow for creation of an almost coatless connection between the redeveloped hospital and transit.

Tightly integrating the hospital redevelopment with transit might have the side benefit of giving the overall project the characteristics of a Transit-Oriented Development project. It’s possible that might allow the overall project, or at least the transit-related parts, to qualify for planning assistance or even project financial assistance from federal, state, or local sources.

Going one step beyond transit-friendly, this redevelopment could also be intermodal, if the Ciminelli proposal to create underground parking is retained – as it should be. That proposal would have created underground parking adjacent to their proposed corner building. If the corner building and the underground parking were designed in such a way as to closely link a transit stop on the corner to the rest of the redeveloped hospital, the entire corner could perhaps be considered an intermodal project. Other intermodal elements could include bike parking and a pickup spot for ridesharing. GBNRTC would have more information about what, if any, intermodal incentives might be available.

At this key Elmwood Village intersection, there simply will never be another opportunity like this to incorporate significant transit and intermodal elements in a redevelopment project. It’s crucial to design with this in mind.

Thinking big to bigger

And since we’re thinking big here, an even bigger play would involve linking that underground parking under Elmwood to more underground parking at the southwest corner. Think of that for a moment: the two kitty-corners with linked underground parking. That way the new build on the southwest corner would not have to incorporate above-ground parking like Karl Frizlen’s building did. Frizlen’s building incorporated the parking nicely, in my opinion, but unfortunately it prevents that building from having even a small retail space on the Bryant side. So that building, for all its other urban attributes, sadly does not contribute to the charming, off-Elmwood retail node that exists on that block of Bryant. But that could change if structured parking was created under the southwest corner property. Imagine that a portion of that underground parking were allocated to the tenants of Frizlen’s building. That would create the opportunity to convert all or some of the building’s existing parking to a small retail space on Byrant.

And thinking even bigger, all this urbanization right at the intersection of Elmwood and Bryant could kickstart urbanization of the neighbors. Directly north of the intersection, on either side of the street, the MTK (former Nektar) and Sunoco properties fall short on the urbanism scale. They both feature single-use, single-story buildings sitting next to an expanse of asphalt at least as large as the footprint of the building. Farther to the north, at the corner of Utica is a single-story, unattractive bank building, and to the south, at the corner of Summer, are plazas with Price-Rite and Just Pizza. All those properties would be good candidates for highly urban, neighborhood-friendly, Green-Code-compliant redevelopment.

Note that none of this should be an opportunity for developers to bring out-of-scale, out-of-character, square-foot maximizing boxes to Elmwood. Since Buffalo, unlike other large cities, does not have design review or architectural review, it will be up to the community advisory committee, convened by Kaleida and advised by the UB Regional Institute, to make sure there are solid design guidelines in place for the hospital redevelopment. Before turning over the keys.

If a good wave is built at Elmwood and Bryant, the lower Elmwood Village could surf it for a decade.

So, we ranged a bit far afield here. But this gives you the idea of what kinds of opportunities may exist with the Women’s and Children’s Hospital redevelopment coming under control of a development team that has other adjacent properties. Elmwood and Bryant, already better than it was a decade ago, could soon become one of the most urbanized, transit-friendly, and beloved nodes in the Elmwood Village. If we play our cards right and fully embrace the opportunity.

Let’s be sure to do exactly that.

PHOTO GALLERY: 

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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