Movement is this fall’s watchword at Women’s and Children’s Hospital – both old and new. Recently, as neighbors of the “old” complex gathered for a “what’s next” update from the designated development team, there were signs of change everywhere – literally. It was moving week for the hospital – the final Wednesday evening of the hospital’s operation – and temporary signs were posted all around with information and directions for moving day on Friday.
The development team started the discussion this way, telling the overflow crowd in the “old” hospital’s auditorium:
In a week there’s going to be a vacant hospital in your neighborhood, and we wanted to talk to you about what that’s going to look like.
As it happens, what that’s going to look like is a lot like how it looks now, because the new plan is an adaptive-reuse plan.
Since taking over as designated developers, the new development team largely went back to the drawing board, as they indicated they might. Gone are demolition-heavy proposals such as taking down the tower and building something new in its place, that were among features of the original RFP responses. (See Sinatra’s here and Ellicott’s here.) Those options would have been extraordinarily disruptive to the neighborhood during construction, and would have taken a long time to obtain approvals.
Instead, under the new plan almost everything will be retained and reused – even the houses on Hodge near Elmwood. The exception will be a “small” demolition on Hodge. The team didn’t specify what, but I would guess the structure near the entrance drive that appears to be part of the heating and cooling plant. That would be welcome, as it juts out into the green strip that otherwise consistently – and nicely – borders the complex on Hodge.
Adaptive reuse will help the team fast-track the project as much as possible, in the hopes of having work underway in some areas next year, showing progress to the neighborhood.
While the neighbors seemed receptive to what they heard, there remain bones of contention – the principal one being the inclusion of a charter school. A source told me the concern comes from the neighborhood’s experience with auto traffic and school buses associated with Oracle Charter just around the corner.
Another concern is the height of the building proposed for Elmwood and Bryant: sources told me the development team wants a building six stories tall, which many neighbors see as out of scale given that buildings at and near the intersection are of two and three stories. A source who has been observing the development scene on Elmwood for years told me that the developers, in the end, may use both of these issues as bargaining chips – acceding to certain demands to get the kind of community buy-in on the rest of the project that will ease the process of getting all the necessary approvals.
At least one neighbor also expressed disappointment with the amount of planned green space. Green space was a major component in the original RFP, with some neighbors hoping for something like a small park as part of the project. In the new proposal, most of the green space would be around the borders of the complex – where it is now – plus atop a small reclaimed surface parking lot on Hodge near Elmwood. The proposal also shows several locations where public art could be installed, and the team said it has been in contact with the Albright-Knox public art initiative about curating or commissioning art for those spaces.
Personally, I believe it’s probably not necessary for the complex to include much formal park space, because the surrounding neighborhood already has many of the qualities of a park. Think about it: around the hospital are some of the most walkable, beautifully landscaped streets in the city: Byrant, Oakland Place, Hodge, Summer, the mansion district of Delaware, and the mansion block of Elmwood between Byrant and Summer. They are already beautiful places to walk and unwind. And the borders of the hospital, too, already offer substantial green space that could be substantially enhanced.
That said, a crucial omission from the current site plan is pedestrian access between Hodge and Utica. Having that mid-block connectivity is crucial for walkability in the neighborhood. The team needs to address that.
Overall, of the neighbors present – an overflow crowd – I observed only one overtly negative reaction: one neighbor walked out of the presentation saying, “I’m selling my house.” As for neighbors in the business community, the team said that forty of them turned out for a meeting recently despite a pouring rain.
As for what’s next, things are moving along swiftly. After patients moved to the new hospital on Friday, November 10, the development team took title to the property from Kaleida Health the following Monday. Signs are being removed, and entrances will be barricaded. An ambulance will remain on premises for a while in case anyone shows up with a medical emergency. Hodge Pediatrics will be remaining until February or March.
In addition to transferring title to the complex, Kaleida will also transfer their current long-term lease on Utica to the team. That property had been seen as a possible sticking point in the development, being owned by an out-of-town company. But according to the team, the lease includes development rights to that property, which they intend to exercise.
To transform the complex, the team has a number of RFPs out for design services. They expect to have seven or eight architects looking at the many facets of the complex, they said. They are researching historic and other tax credits for the project. In the original competition, Sinatra proposed demolishing the tower and building replacement space because the tower would be inefficient to reuse. Now, however, given that the project is already set back nearly a year due to the developer change, the team feels it’s more important to speed things along in terms of construction and approvals, so they’ll live with any inefficiencies. As it is, they expect the EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) process to take eight to ten months.
The team intends to purchase the parking garage from the city – until recently, used 89% for the hospital, the team said – and make it an integral part of their plans. They even plan to expand the garage, as they described at the meeting. The City hasn’t been able to afford to upgrade or expand it, they said. Still, the City will have to go through a kind of de-accessioning process to sell off such a valuable public asset. Look for that process to get underway in the months ahead.
Also in the months ahead, neighbors will see project team members, their contractors, and consultants going in and out of the buildings. Right off the bat, they need to get a closer look at the condition of the buildings, something they couldn’t do while the hospital was operating. Fun fact: the hospital offered to leave the team whatever furniture they wanted; the team, having seen mostly stodgy, institutional furniture, took a pass.
Among the project details shared at the neighborhood meeting:
- The major component will be residential. The team plans 80 townhomes or condos, and 300 apartment units.
- The team wants to include as many amenities as possible in and around the complex, including a dry cleaner.
- The Utica property will become a grocery (30K – 35K square feet is the number I heard), with housing built in front and above. They plan access to the grocery from the parking garage, which they plan to expand from its current 600 spaces. They are currently in discussions with a grocer. Having the grocery on Utica is good news, in my view, because while a grocery is a popular amenity with the neighborhood, the original proposal by one team member showing a new-build grocery at Elmwood and Hodge was out of scale.
- The houses the team owns on Hodge will be rehabbed. They can get that work started while the plans and EIS for hospital complex are in the works.
- The team plans some hotel space in the complex, as well as some office space in the tower and in the new build at Elmwood and Bryant.
- Nearby properties they own will be included in the development plans, the team said, calling it a “holistic” plan. That includes the MTK property, and Cadet Storage property on Utica, which is slated for townhomes with the aid of brownfield tax credits.
- The development team did not continue a contract with the UB Regional Institute, which had been working with Kaleida on community engagement and the RFP process.
- The project will be known as “Elmwood Crossing.”
The team is planning a public meeting in two months, in early 2018. By then they expect to have a more detailed proposal, with renderings and the names of prospective tenants. However, they may begin site plan review, which doesn’t require those details, with the City as early as next month, the team told the Buffalo News. Nick Sinatra of Sinatra Real Estate told Buffalo Rising that the community can expect an engagement process right after the 1st of the month.