New houses, roads, traffic circle mark advancement of Muir Woods projects in Amherst

Mon, Dec 11th 2023 05:38pm

Jonathan Epstein
Buffalo News

More than 20 years ago, developer Paul Ciminelli had grand plans for a sprawling office and research complex just off the I-990 in north-central Amherst. But it never happened, as demand for suburban office space cooled, leaving the swath of prime wooded property sitting idle for years.

New Development

The Aspen Heights student housing development on the Muir Woods site in north-central Amherst. Already, a new neighborhood with 148 single-family homes has been built on the prime parcel of land that languished for decades.  By

Now, the site – known as Muir Woods – is bustling with activity, with new developers and a new plan that focuses on low-rise housing, rather than big office buildings.

“I have mixed emotions,” said Ciminelli, CEO of Ciminelli Real Estate Corp.

“I thought we had a great plan 20 years ago, to do a real regionally significant mixed-use development, but for a lot of reasons, that didn’t happen,” he said. “We always have to adjust to market conditions, and when the market pivoted to a strong demand for residential development, and we were unable to do the mixed-use development, we had to adjust.”

The biggest change was the local housing market heating up over the past decade, driving up prices and wiping out the glut of existing homes for sale that now gives sellers the upper hand over buyers.

Already, a new neighborhood with 148 single-family homes has been built. Another 220 apartments with nearly 900 beds, aimed at students attending the nearby University at Buffalo, have been mostly completed and another 295 are planned in a second phase.

Two other projects – with 180 apartments and duplex units and 63 town houses – also are planned as part of a four-pronged development involving three different developers.

“When I came into office, there were a lot of open-ended questions,” said Amherst Town Supervisor Brian Kulpa, citing the future of the former Westwood Country Club, the Boulevard Mall, the former University at Buffalo Annex property on Ridge Lea Road, and proposed additions to the Audubon Library and Northwest Community Center.

“We’ve closed the doors on things that have plagued this community for one to two decades,” he added. “That’s where Muir Woods slots in.”

Muir Woods is just north of the Lockport Expressway, or 990, where Audubon Parkway used to dead-end just beyond the intersection with Dodge Road and the highway.

Bordered by Sweet Home Road, North French Road, Campbell Boulevard and the I-990, the 326-acre property has long been both a vast natural territory dominated by 215 acres of wetlands, as well as an enormous development opportunity.

It was acquired by Ciminelli 23 years ago from a state corporation. The developer proposed various development ideas over the years – such as a 1.8 million-square-foot office and research park and later hundreds of apartments, patio homes and student housing – but always met opposition from the community over traffic, loss of greenspace and other issues.

The resistance was centered around environmental concerns related to the wetlands, which comprise more than two-thirds of the site.

But after many fits and starts, the logjam finally broke nearly seven years ago. Ciminelli abandoned plans for office and commercial space amid a glut of existing but vacant or underused space. Instead, Ciminelli divided the property into four pieces, focused almost entirely on residential use.

The first major component – a single-family housing development by national homebuilder Ryan Homes – is already complete, dubbed The Preserve at Muir Woods. Accessible from both Campbell and North French roads, it features 148 mostly colonial- and a few ranch-style homes of three to five bedrooms and 2,000 to 4,000 square feet.

First introduced by Ciminelli in 2017 with 133 homes, the $50 million project occupies 46 acres on the eastern end of the overall site, off Lynette Lane. Ciminelli, which was handling site development, even bought another 15 acres from the Williamsville Central School District to build a second access road, called Sierra Drive, from Campbell Boulevard.

Sales of the new homes at prices ranging from $400,000 to $700,000 continued through early 2022, with the last home completed by the end of last year. The houses are now occupied.

Ciminelli initially said it had no intention to build student housing at Muir Woods. But that changed by April 2019, when Austin-based Aspen Heights Partners proposed construction of 515 units of student apartments, with beds for 1,800 people.

Located on 42 acres north of the highway exit to Audubon Parkway, plans called for the two-stage project to include dozens of town house and cottage-style residences, along with two clubhouses, recreational activities and other amenities.

The first phase consists of 220 units and 866 beds on the west side of the property, with the remaining 295 units and 925 beds in the second phase.

Despite winning approval, that project was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, and Aspen Heights didn’t acquire the property until February 2022. To finance that $83.3 million project, Aspen Heights won a package of $9.2 million in tax breaks in 2021, including a special property tax arrangement with nearly $5 million in infrastructure improvements for roads and utilities. Work finally began about a year ago.

Now partially complete but still under construction, the two-story buildings with their three-tone façades are arrayed around a giant square, with two roads cutting through the middle and extending off the north end. Most buildings have four units, with multiple beds per apartment, plus a clubhouse building and an outdoor pool in back.

“Aspen’s built pretty quickly,” Kulpa said. “I didn’t think it took them that long. It sure beat more office product, and there’s a definitive need for it.”

Instead of an abrupt dead-end, Audubon Parkway was extended into the development, with a roundabout at the highway ramp. And the town was able to negotiate a deal to take over all of the northern wooded portion of the Muir Woods site from the Aspen project to North French Road, permanently preserving the wetlands and greenspace with a buffer to the adjacent Bucyrus Heights and Franklin Heights neighborhoods. Ciminelli donated the 134 acres.

“The student housing situation with Aspen really created an opportunity for us,” Kulpa said. “Nothing will be built north of the student housing. That solved a lot of dilemmas.”

Finally, Ciminelli agreed to sell the remaining property at Dodge and Sweet Home roads to Severyn Development, a family-owned custom home builder that is embarking on its largest development project and its first to include retail or commercial space.

Severyn completed its $2.25 million purchase of 17.4 acres on Oct. 16, and is poised next spring to begin its two-part venture, expected to take at least two years to complete, if not longer.

“I was excited to close on that property. That was a long process,” said William Severyn, CEO of the firm that also includes his brother, Alex.

Dubbed Sawyer’s Landing, the project initially called for 219 units and then was expanded by another 27 units, including some patio and detached homes.

But after the firm completed its land purchase, Ryan reached out with a proposal to take on part of the property and project: 63 town houses for sale, at $350,000 each.

That will leave Severyn with 180 units in two four-story apartment buildings with 50 units in each, another 36-unit building, and 44 duplex townhomes in two rows of 22 buildings. It will also have 27,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space in the two four-story buildings.

Even so, the project cost – which was announced at $48 million – is now estimated at $72 million, which is “why we’re interested in partnering with Ryan Homes,” Severyn said.

“We can’t hold onto the whole site,” he added. “With current rates and costs, it doesn’t work.”

Severyn and Ryan now have to obtain town approval for the change in plans. He hopes to have his firm’s project open for leasing by July or August of 2025.

Kulpa said he was satisfied with the results. “From my perspective, it worked out well,” he said. “I think that the overall project looks good. It solved a 20-year-old conundrum for the town. And the property’s actually producing taxable valuation.”