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Ciminelli unveils 18-story apartment tower with urban grocery

by Jonathan D. Epstein
Fri, Dec 2nd 2016 08:10 am
The Buffalo News  [ View Original Article ]

The two-story store, while long anticipated, would be part of a much grander mixed-use project than originally expected for the parking lot at 201 Ellicott St., in an area of downtown that is generally much lower in scale.

The Orchard Fresh store, run by Williamsville-based Tops Markets, would offer an array of fresh and frozen foods, grocery products, "grab-and-go" meals, and meat, bakery and dairy items that are typically popular among an urban clientele. But the overall complex would also include 200 apartments and condominiums and three floors of office space, as well as other shops or restaurants, a public plaza and 800 covered parking spaces.

Plans also include a community garden for residents and a seasonal farmer's market, as well as public art and an enormous display screen on the wall of the nearby bus terminal to show movies or sporting events to a large crowd.

"I loved it. It's a great addition," said Gail Wells, 67, president of the nearby Coppertown Block Club, who works for the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor and has a degree in urban planning from the University at Buffalo.

"It makes the city feel really young and vibrant," she said, after hearing the presentation.

The public forum, held at the Central Library's auditorium, drew more than 100 people, many of whom seemed to be reacting favorably to the project. A Ciminelli executive told the gathering that the evening was meant to be a "visioning experience."

"We have to have a stick, a starting point, and tonight we're going to present to you the starting point," added Dennis Penman, Ciminelli's executive vice president.

In advance of the meeting with the public, company officials said they had high hopes for what they expected to hear.

"This represents our intent for the site, our vision for the site, and we're very much looking forward to the public comment as another way to shape the design," said Denise Juron-Borgese, vice president of development and planning for Ciminelli. "This is a very transformative project of a surface lot."

The new grocery was particularly exciting for many.

"I think it's going to be great," said Stacey Beasley, a 42-year-old project manager for a bank, who lives in one of the Warehouse Lofts condos, after moving here from San Diego in April. "We've been needing a grocery store downtown, because we have to drive everywhere to get groceries. I want the urban experience of walking across the street to get groceries."

Ciminelli officials, along with representatives from Tops and architectural firm Cannon Design, presented the plans and preliminary renderings during the 35-minute public session on Thursday evening, followed by breakout groups in the lobby. The goal was to get community feedback that will be used to adjust or enhance the design before finalizing plans and bringing them to the city for formal approval.

By floors, the new building would rank among the 12 tallest buildings in Buffalo, just behind the 19-story Statler City.

But it would be one of several large-scale buildings announced or constructed in the city in the last three years. The 20-story HarborCenter and the 12-story Delaware North are already complete. Other high-rise projects in the planning stages include Ellicott Development Co.'s 500 Pearl, Craig Willoughby's Willoughby Exchange and Gerald Buchheit's Queen City Landing.

The building's tower will feature 12 stories of residential space above the corner of Oak and Clinton, on top of the three floors of Class A office space and the Orchard Fresh. A smaller four-story residential section would go up at Ellicott and Eagle, atop a ground floor of retail that could include smaller-scale cafes. Units will include a mixture of apartments and condos of various sizes, but the specifics have not yet been determined.

"We feel strongly about maximizing the views and opportunities for balconies and green spaces," Juron-Borgese said, noting Ciminelli will seek LEED environmental status.

Ciminelli was named designated developer for the site in February, a year after Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown announced that the city would seek to redevelop the property to include an urban grocery, parking and residential space. The 2.5-acre lot, which is currently used as a parking lot, is bounded by Ellicott, Oak, Eagle and Clinton streets. It is adjacent to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority bus terminal, the library and the Lafayette.

Officials have already had some talks with library officials, as well as developers Rocco Termini and Jake Schneider, who own the nearby Hotel @the Lafayette and Warehouse Lofts.

"This is the right moment to get public comment back," Juron-Borgese said. "There are many details and things that are still evolving, but this represents our program goals for the site. Our intent is to keep refining and moving forward what you see here."

Ciminelli's plans envision a multi-layered complex designed to attract residents and users from both downtown and the adjacent East Side, while reconnecting that growing part of the city - termed the South Ellicott neighborhood - to the rest of downtown through the 12,000-square-foot to 15,000-square-foot grocery, restaurants, shops and public space.

"This is an asset, an amenity for residents on the East Side, for people working downtown, for people living downtown," said Juron-Borgese. "This is a magnet drawing people together."

The parking component includes two full levels underground, handling about three-fourths of the overall needs, with one and a half additional "terraced" levels above ground but condensed into a much smaller footprint.

The above-ground parking structure would be "wrapped" along Ellicott, Clinton and Oak by 44,000 square feet of lobby, retail and restaurant space, anchored by the Orchard Fresh. Portions of the retail section would range from one to three floors. No tenants other than Orchard Fresh have yet signed on.

The developer would also create a street-level public park at the southeast corner of Clinton and Ellicott, with a set of Spanish-style steps and both elevator and escalator access leading up to a much larger public green called Upper Terrace Park on top of the parking structure. That plaza, as large as a hockey rink, will include a giant lawn, a series of rain gardens, and a forested area with trees and park benches.

The lower park would be open 24 hours, but the 60,000-square-foot upper plaza would close overnight. The apartments and 110,000 square feet of office space would look out onto, and even open to, the terrace, as would the restaurants and cafes. In all, officials said, it's meant to mimic elements of Bryant and High Line parks in Manhattan.

"I'm really excited by the presentation," said Courtney Grim, a professor at Medaille College, who lives near Delaware Park but has a studio in the Cobblestone District. "I love that they incorporated an element of New York City and Italy. It made me feel like I was in Toronto."

Officials have already been in contact with the NFTA about using the north side of the bus terminal for a "public art and projection piece," said Cannon Design partner Mike Tunkey, with viewing from the plaza area. The developer is also planning to work with the city's Complete Streets program in remaking the streetscape around it, with extra wide sidewalks, bike lanes, pedestrian access, plantings and lighting.

"The whole project is meant to be an anchor for this neighborhood, so we're trying to do things with the facades that are welcoming and inviting," Tunkey said. "We see this as a really big connector in the city, east to west."

Besides Cannon and Tops, Ciminelli is working with contractor LPCiminelli, Allpro Parking, architectural firm Wendel, Watts Architecture & Engineering, and New York City-based DirtWorks PC.

"We believe Cannon and Ciminelli have come up with an outstanding concept, and we look forward to working with them, and with you, to see this project become a reality," said Bart Coleman, director of real estate for Tops, which already has seven stores in the city. "Buffalo is our hometown. If it makes sense to put a supermarket downtown, we want to be that supermarket."

Juron-Borgese would not provide the project cost, which she said would depend on many factors, including when construction starts. She also declined to specify how long the project would take to construct. "We haven't drilled that deep," she said. She said officials have developed a "pro-forma" financial plan.

Other large-scale projects in the city have had a wide range of construction costs. Terry and Kim Pegula spent over $200 million to construct the 20-story HarborCenter. Uniland Development Co.'s 12-story Delaware North Building, at 250 Delaware Avenue, cost $110 million. Ellicott expects to spend $75 million on the 12-story 500 Pearl, while Buchheit's 23-story project has been pegged at over $60 million.

Ciminelli officials plan to examine the feedback and incorporate it into their design, making tweaks where needed or appropriate. The exact materials and colors aren't final, for example. And "real-world considerations" may come into play, Juron-Borgese said. The firm will also continue to work with city officials, and take public comment through the project website -- www.201Ellicott.com.

As a result, formal plans aren't likely to be submitted for several months. But after already going through 50 to 60 versions, Ciminelli doesn't plan major changes, she stressed.

"This is what we're working toward. We're not looking to remove any element of it," she said. "We have a vision and our task as a developer is to realize it."