Expert Insights: The 201 Ellicott Project

On this episode of Ciminelli Chats, I had the opportunity to sit down with Denise Juron-Borgese, Vice President of Development and Planning at Ciminelli Real Estate Corporation, and Stuart Green, Owner of Braymiller Market, to discuss their joint experiences while developing the 201 Ellicott Project in downtown Buffalo.

Grace: Welcome, Denise and Stuart. Thanks for joining us today on Ciminelli Chats. Denise, you are the VP of Development and Planning here at Ciminelli Real Estate Corporation. Give us a quick rundown of the 201 Ellicott Project, just in case our listeners aren’t familiar?

Denise: Thank you, Grace. Sure. 201 Ellicott is a brand-new, mixed-use development, right in the heart of downtown Buffalo. It includes 201 affordable apartments, Braymiller Market, and a mobility hub. The site, which is the size of a city block, was a surface parking lot before this project came online. So, you can kind of look at it like a hole in the urban fabric. 201 Ellicott really strengthened that. You know, now we’re an integral part of the urban core, and part of what we do in real estate development is focusing on the big picture and the tiniest details all the time, constantly. We really paid attention, close attention, to both of those things on this project – those special details that make it feel very welcoming.

Grace: Stuart, you’re the brains behind Braymiller Market. Can you give us a quick rundown?

Stuart: So our mission there is, while we’re not a – I think as it’s been called lately – a full service grocery store, everything we sell is grocery. And we do our best to sell as many local products as we possibly can, throughout the various seasons of grown products or just locally produced products.

Grace: You refer to Braymiller as a fresh food market and not a grocery store or supermarket. What is the difference between the two?

Stuart: Well, because again, I think grocery stores have turned into supermarkets, and that’s what people expect. Supermarkets mean a lot more than food, and that is different and again, we are sticking to that philosophy because the distribution of the future of non-perishables that can be delivered by Amazon or however else, that’s what’s going to drive the market, there’s no doubt about it. To try to compete locally with companies like that, to be efficient and done well, with things that are not perishable – that can travel for days and days to get to you and nothing happens to all – that’s where the future of that product delivery goes. Our product delivery, again, not only to that wholesale customer, but to the retail customer, has to be very efficient and very quick. That’s why I don’t like being classified as a grocery store some days. As well as grocery stores and the way that they operate with fake sales and shoppers club cards, and we don’t do that, and that’s what I find offensive, personally, in the grocery space that we’re not.

Grace: What makes the 201 Ellicott Project special for the downtown Buffalo community?

Denise: 201 Ellicott, I hope it’s special for the community in a variety of ways. Our intent with the project was to respond to community needs that were significant for affordable housing and for food security. Prior to Braymiller Market opening that store, six of the seven census tracts surrounding the site qualified as food deserts. In addition to that, community engagement is part of every development project that we do, but it was very robust for 201 Ellicott. We had a variety of workshops with representatives from over 35 stakeholder groups. For this project, we had discussions, hands on activities, and from that we developed four guiding principles for the project: affordability, vibrancy, mobility, and health and wellness. We really took that into consideration from design through construction and the operations of the project, so I hope that’s something that resonates with the community.

Grace: What was it about the downtown community that made you decide it was the right fit for Braymiller’s, Stuart?

Stuart: Well, we have another store in the south towns, in Hamburg, that’s been there for a mere 81 years, and we saw an opportunity in the city and quite frankly, we were looking at another location when we were approached by my friend Denise here to consider that location at the corner of Clinton and Elliott. The closer we looked at it, the more it made sense for us to abandon our prior thoughts and focus on this location, for a lot of the reasons that Denise just mentioned. It’s worked out fairly well for us that we have a very diverse customer base and employee base, and as I said, in other situations, it’s probably the thing that I’m most proud of the whole project is the diversity that we have within our customer and employee base in that store. It’s really quite a mixed bag of everything that goes on there every day, which makes it fun. I was aware of the property and everything else. But again, as a surface parking lot, who pays any attention to it? Somewhat of an eyesore as well in the way that it was prior to that. It was an interesting walk over there and the subsequent walks around there before I committed to the project. I would go down there in the evening as well and walk around at night and look up in the buildings to find out how many lights were still on. There’s quite a bit of residential living that’s going on in that area, prior to. Now, what continues to happen down there, it’s just pretty wild. And those are our customers, as well as all the commuters that are there throughout the day. Like I said as well, the people in from out of town that are staying close to our property or just people visiting the library system, which is right next door, people that have come to Niagara Falls that wanted to see the city of Buffalo, that part of it has been really amazing. Being down there prior to, you know, you saw some of that activity that I guess I didn’t really realize was there every day.

Grace: What was your biggest challenge you faced in completing the project and what was your greatest accomplishment in completing the project?

Denise: So, 201, in that respect, isn’t really different from all of the development projects that I’ve been a part of. Which is, your greatest challenges are often linked very directly to your most significant opportunities. If you can kind of work through those challenges with the project team and problem solve to an optimal solution, that really is the greatest accomplishment. We’ve talked about 201 being a surface parking lot; it had a little over 300 spaces. The city wanted to issue an RFQ for the site to have a developer bring it to a highest and best use. As we were going through the planning process, we were following the city’s green code and performed transportation demand management studies for the site. We came to the conclusion that with hundreds of spaces within a five-to-ten-minute walk to the site, we didn’t need to do one for one replacement parking. As a matter of fact, we weren’t going to do parking at all for the residents and only a limited number of spaces, about 22, for the market. That was very controversial, and we faced controversy at our entitlements meetings with the Planning Board, zoning board, and town council. But ultimately, we prevailed. We were really fortunate to have a lot of community members that were willing, not only to write letters, but take their time to show up time and time again to all of those meetings and lend their voice to support the project. It was just great to know that they believed in 201 Ellicott as much as we did.

Grace: The mobility hub is definitely a significant community addition. What was it like navigating those intricacies throughout a global pandemic?

Denise: One challenge we didn’t talk about yet is constructing this project through the COVID pandemic. We expect some community pushback sometimes on our projects and little hidden discoveries that we make when we’re working with an urban site, but nothing really prepared us for the types of delays we would face with supply of materials and equipment, the challenges of sequencing different subcontractors through the small spaces of an apartment, and breakouts of the COVID illness among the laborers. All in all, at the end of the day, and it’s really a testament to Arc, the schedule only slipped a few months. We never had to stop construction because affordable housing is considered essential, but I think the ability of the team to really pull together and persevere is notable.

Grace: Looking at the market side of the project, building a strong community is just as important. How do you juggle the various needs of the surrounding Greater Buffalo community?

Stuart: Well, it’s a moving target because nobody’s done it before. There wasn’t a model, there wasn’t, “Well, we can just do this, and we’re going to be fine.” As residents move in next door and those new shoppers come in, we have to meet their needs as well. So, we started off knowing that we needed to figure it out. But starting someplace, we started with a lot of the similar products that we have in the Hamburg store. I think that’s one thing that we’re particularly good at, that we listen to our customers and are able to change and meet their needs relatively quickly. It doesn’t take much to get new products in there because pretty much everything we sell is perishable, so it’s constantly moving. For us to change and bring in new products to meet the needs of the neighborhood, it’s been fairly easy and it’s fun figuring out what they want and meeting those needs, and I think we’re doing a pretty decent job of it. The retail space is only 6,000 square feet, so we don’t have a lot of room for what I would classify as non-perishables. But if it’s food and people are putting meals together, we do have some of the freshest, nicest things that you need to put a meal together in that store. Again, we’re trying to meet as many people’s needs as we possibly can.

Grace: Stuart, you mentioned one of your greatest accomplishments has been cultivating a diverse and inclusive community experience within your store. Are you able to share a little bit about your employee recruitment process and the creation of your existing team?

Stuart: Well, that’s an interesting story as well because the mayor had approached me early on asking me to give preference to hiring city residents. I certainly heard that loud and clear, and when it came time to hire employees, I wanted to hire the best people we could, and that’s exactly what we did. 86% of the employees that we hired and currently have on staff are city residents. Some of them take the busses to get into the store. Some of them carpool together, some of them ride their bicycles, some of them now live next door, so all of those things were exactly what was set out to accomplish.

Grace: I’ve even spotted students doing homework up in the mezzanine. Have you hired any of them?

Stuart: Yes. Cheyenne is my latest high school student that works for me, that came in with her friends from some of the city schools. A lot of them come in after school and would grab a can of soda and a bag of chips or something or some cookies and go upstairs and work on their homework. Cheyenne was struggling with her physics one day, and I kind of helped her with it, and I got to know her fairly well. And of course, then we hired her. She’s also been very helpful to us as my pre-screener for other high school students because she knows most of them. So, yes.

Grace: Have there been any lasting impacts on you professionally or personally after completing the 201 Ellicott Project?

Stuart: Professionally, it was nice to be able to build a project from the ground up exactly the way that I wanted it, and that is exactly what it is right now. It’s spectacular to have something that’s so nice and working with people from Ciminelli and the other people that Denise already mentioned, everybody is wonderful, and it’s amazing how well it came together and how that’s all worked. Personally, yeah, I work a lot. It was a lot before. It’s a lot now. None of it’s hard. It’s very easy work. It’s just a massive quantity of work, that’s all.

Denise: Professionally for me, every development project is an opportunity to really grow and stretch as a professional, and 201 is no different. Sometimes there were some growing pains that went along with that stretching, but I’ve been really fortunate. I’ve been with Ciminelli a little over 12 years and been able to work on a lot of transformational projects, like 201 Ellicott. As an architect, I really look at this as putting landmarks in Western New York, and that’s just a really amazing opportunity that I’m grateful for. Personally, 201 Ellicott was about a seven year journey, and along the way, getting to work closely with some really impressive people like Stuart, who first and foremost, this project would not have been possible without his vision and commitment, we had a lot of fun along the way too. It wasn’t all just challenges.

Grace: Denise, you mentioned, just in conversation before, that you brought your family to see the finished project. So, what was that like and what were the thoughts?

Denise: It was really great. Over time, in various visits, I brought my husband through, who is also an architect, my two teenage sons, who were little kids when the project started, my parents, my sisters. I mean, they were really dazzled by the mural; you see it right when you come into downtown off the 33. To have them hang out in the model unit and feel so at home and really be impressed with the quality of apartment. We would usually have lunch, you know, at the heavy timber mezzanine at Braymiller Market, and I have a favorite table made by the master Chip Spitler. It has a live wood edge with a nice resin detail. My sons, Francesco and Braun, will tell you that the breakfast sandwiches at Braymiller Market are the best they’ve had in their entire lives. It’s just been a really fulfilling experience to show off the project.

Grace: How do you think the neighborhood surrounding this project will evolve over the next 10 years?

Stuart: There was, as Denise mentioned, there was an RFP/RFQ out there looking for some other people to be involved in the food delivery of downtown, and quite frankly, everybody else walked away from that, except for me. I took a chance, and the future looks very bright for what we’re trying to accomplish downtown. But at the same time, the way that downtown is growing, residentially anyway, as well as once this COVID thing gets behind us and people get back into their offices, downtown will need a whole lot more than what Braymiller can do in the space that we have. I certainly realize that there will have to be a larger, as it’s called, full-service grocery store down there, with a pharmacy in it and selling greeting cards and all the other stuff that grocery stores, well, supermarkets sell now. I’m not afraid of that and because we’ll have an opportunity to be so established with our core customers doing what we do. But that’s OK, and I actually look forward to that because then I think we’ll be able to carve our names out a little better and not necessarily have to be as general as what we’re doing right now. With all of the development that’s going on downtown right now, and especially in the residential spaces, I think downtown will be extremely vibrant and being part of the food service aspect of that. And another part that I haven’t mentioned so far is half of my business, we deliver food and perishables to local, independent restaurants. And as those guys continue to grow, that’s another part of the magic that is the Braymiller magic that makes us as efficient as we are and delivering the products that we do. That scope of what’s happening downtown is going to grow as well. And again, it’s all good news. The future is very bright.

Denise: What I’d like to see in ten years is that the energy from 201 Ellicott migrates across Oak Street to the East Side neighborhood, and we start to see some higher and better uses to the properties that our neighbors to the east to kind of continue that momentum that I think 201 Ellicott has started. I’d like to see the apartment building being full and something people are waiting to get into because it’s such a wonderful place to call home. As Stuart says, even though other types of fresh food providers may come online, that Braymiller is really this beloved institution that we always planned it to be. For our development projects, we really collaborate with every department here at Ciminelli, from planning through design through construction with property management, because at the end of the day, they’re going to be the ones operating the building and getting the benefit of all of their expertise from the full portfolio of properties that they manage. We work, of course, closely with asset management throughout the whole funding process. Leasing is frequently involved and our projects and plays a key role. Marketing, of course, especially when we’re navigating controversy and when we’re celebrating the good times on the project as well. There isn’t one department here that doesn’t touch a successful development project. When people talk about this project, what I would like to hear is that the kind of innovative thinking that we were putting forward, that they’ve embraced that. That a mobility hub isn’t just this one-time effort. This is the first mobility hub in a private development in Buffalo, and I hope there’s more of them. I hope people really embrace these alternative methods of transportation like they have in other large cities across the country. I hope they look at the quality and care that we put into affordable housing. It has all of the detailing and special touches and nice materials that we would put in a market rate product. That it’s iconic – we took the care to put in this amazing mural and art on the inside, and the market as well. There’s just a lot of care; this is a top-quality project that can hold its own with anything like it in the country.

Stuart: For us, I think once people get in and see what we do and see how we do it, that’s what really turns them around and that’s why our business is growing like it is and has to the point where it is a different concept. And again, a lot of people don’t understand how we operate compared to the guys that compete on volume. So, we compete on efficiency. That efficiency is taking basically the three businesses that we have within one, which is the wholesale component, the retail component, and the kitchen component, and make them work together as one company and move product from space to space to space and have it be efficient with very little waste. There’s an environmental piece to our business as well. We’re Zero Landfill and have been since day one. The building was constructed very efficiently, probably meets some other qualifications but isn’t stamped that way. I know for a fact that the store is three times the size of the Hamburg store, and we use about a third more power than the Hamburg store does. So there’s a lot of things that go on behind the background that a lot of people don’t see. We don’t over promote because it was the right thing to do. The key with us is getting people inside to see what we do when it comes to meals, and I think they’re pleasantly surprised.

Grace: And Stuart, out of sheer curiosity, what does an average day look like for you?

Stuart: Average, that’s funny. But what happens is my phone starts blowing up anywhere from 8:15 p.m. the day before through the evening and the wee hours of the morning with wholesale orders coming in that are from restaurant guys that don’t like using our normal system. Then I have to collect those orders and get those into our system and figure out who’s going where and what products we may need to fill those orders and get those things ordered and get them delivered promptly. Then I usually hit the Hamburg store first thing, which can happen anywhere from 5:15 in the morning till maybe 7:30 or so, depending on what’s going on. And then we get wholesale squared away from what we’re handling out of the Hamburg store versus what we’re handling out of the city store. Then mid-morning, I’m usually heading to the city store to check in with those folks, make sure that everything’s going well, and that everything that was supposed to happen is happening. Then lunchtime in the city is a little nuts, almost every day now during the week, which I like to be there for that, if I can, to just identify some spots that need some help and get the help where it needs to go. And then I’m usually out shortly after that, doing some deliveries myself to some of my wholesale customers in the city. And then back in the store late afternoon through early evening doing whatevers and then back out to Hamburg to make sure everything’s going well there and making sure that we’re teed up for the next day. And I’m usually there for close and out of there at about 8:30 or so, picking out what I’m going to make for dinner based on what we have that looks good or maybe hit the floor, and then going home for some dinner and going to bed. Seven days a week. 363 days a year. But today it was kind of fun because I broke that. This is my first podcast ever, so we broke all the rules.

Grace: Well, I appreciate you guys taking the time to be with us today. How was it? Not too bad, your first podcast?

Denise: It was great! Thank you.

Grace: Thank you for listening to today’s episode; I hope you enjoyed. If you haven’t had the chance to get one of those breakfast sandwiches from Braymiller Market, I highly encourage you to stop in on a Saturday or Sunday morning to start your day right. Until next time.

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