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Muir Woods Project Update

by Stephen T. Watson

Ciminelli revives plans for site

Fri, Feb 24th 2017 07:00 am
The Buffalo News  [ View Original Article ]

The massive Muir Woods property in the northwest corner of Amherst has sat vacant for 17 years under the ownership of Ciminelli Real Estate Corp.

The developer over the years has proposed millions of square feet of office space, hundreds of apartments and dozens of homes. But nothing has ever happened with the 326-acre site, and the ideas for the property stirred up considerable opposition among neighbors.

Now, Ciminelli is back with its first new plans for Muir Woods in at least two years. The developer is proposing building 133 single-family homes on 87 acres on the east side of the site, according to documents filed with the town's Planning Department.

This is the developer's first step in reviving the project. Ciminelli does plan to move ahead later with market-rate apartments, patio homes and additional single-family homes elsewhere on the property; but for now it has no plans to build office space or student housing at Muir Woods, said Paul F. Ciminelli, president and CEO.

"Everything's going to be market driven, in terms of product and timing," Ciminelli told The Buffalo News.

The plan is not likely to satisfy residents who live near the site, particularly those on Lynette, Joanie and Nancy lanes, off North French Road. Another group of residents who long fought the project live in the Bucyrus Heights neighborhood, off Sweet Home Road.

"I don't think we'll be able to do anything about it," said Judith Colton, a Sunshine Drive resident and member of the Northwest Amherst Residents Association, which once filed a lawsuit to try to block the development. That's because the property is appropriately zoned for single-family homes.

Muir Woods is bounded by the Lockport Expressway to the south, Sweet Home Road to the west, North French Road to the north and Campbell Boulevard to the east.

Ciminelli bought the property from a state corporation in 2000 for $1.37 million. The earliest version of the project called for a mammoth, 1.8 million-square-foot office and research park that would have been the largest in the area.

But shifting market forces, the realization that much of the property can't be developed because it is wetlands and fierce opposition from neighbors surrounding the site all contributed to delaying and shrinking the project.

Ciminelli unveiled a scaled-down version of Muir Woods in 2007 and came back to the town again in 2014 with a revised version that added more residential development.

That proposal included market-rate apartments, patio homes and housing for students attending the University at Buffalo - which is less than two miles to the south - along with single-family homes and 237,000 square feet of office and research space.

Overall, Ciminelli would have developed just 110 acres of the 326-acre site and leave the rest untouched, said Sean W. Hopkins, the developer's attorney.

But Ciminelli never began work on the site, which remains unused.

That could change later this year. Paul Ciminelli said the company decided to start with single-family homes because there's a demand for them in the town. Future development, notably patio homes, apartments and more single-family homes, also would be dictated by the market.

He said downtown Buffalo's resurgence, and the saturation of office parks in Amherst, has prompted Ciminelli to turn away from developing office space altogether at Muir Woods.

"In hindsight, I guess we were better off delaying it," Ciminelli said.

The developer also is no longer considering student housing for the site. Since 2007, and even since 2014, a number of student housing complexes have gone up on Sweet Home and Rensch roads near UB.

Ciminelli would build the 133 homes on lots in the southeast corner of the site, near where Interstate 990 passes over Campbell Boulevard. Access to the development would come from Campbell to the east and North French, via Lynette Lane, to the north.

"I personally prefer single family homes," said Amherst Supervisor Barry Weinstein. "I think that's what most of the town is."

The Planning Board needs to approve the plans for the subdivision, said Eric Gillert, the town's planning director. It's a three-step process that begins with the board reviewing the developer's sketch plan for the project. The sketch plan is on the draft agenda for the March 16 Planning Board meeting.

Paul Ciminelli said if the Planning Board approves the subdivision plan, work at the site could begin by late summer or early fall. Construction on the homes would proceed depending on the pace of home sales. He declined to provide an estimate of the cost of the project.

Colton, who has waged a 17-year fight against development at Muir Woods, greeted the news that Ciminelli is reviving its plans for the site with a sense of resignation. The housing development fits the zoning classifications at the site, so there's not much residents can do to block it at this point, she said.

She said she fears for residents of Lynette, who will have to deal with increased traffic.

But the problem isn't with any one development in the town, she said, but with Amherst's decades-long history of giving in to nearly every builder who proposes developing green space.

"We have built ourselves into oblivion," Colton said.