By Joshua Maloni
What poses a bigger threat to community safety: Cars and trucks exiting onto Center Street, or onto residential roads?
That was the question Monday as Village of Lewiston residents and business owners listened to Ellicott Development CEO William Paladino detail his revised plan for a Center Street plaza at a special Historic Preservation/Planning Board meeting.
The developer and Planning Board members were asked to explain why the project's proposed exits are onto two populated roads: Onondaga and North Eighth streets
"Why is there no exits onto Center Street?" asked Shaun O'Leary of North Eighth Street. "Why are all the exits into adjacent residential areas?"
"Because it's actually dangerous to pull out over the sidewalk into Center Street," Vice Chairwoman Anne Welch said. "We would prefer (the side street exit)."
"There's exits now from Smith Brothers," O'Leary said. The pizzeria is one of the current properties Ellicott Development purchased in 2012 and will demolish upon plaza approval. It sits on Center and North Eighth streets.
"Right, and (Paladino) is taking them out," Welch said.
"Why can't there be an exit on Center Street?' O'Leary asked. "Maybe one on Eighth and one on Onondaga?"
Paladino said part of the problem is the topography. His company's 4.1 acres of Lewiston property falls steeply from Center down to Onondaga Street.
"There's all these grades in here on Center Street. We looked at the exits even when we were acquiring it. It doesn't feasibly work, grade-wise," engineer R. Christopher Wood of Carmina Wood Morris PC said.
The plaza plan calls for delivery trucks to exit onto Onondaga Street. Planning Board members said these vehicles would travel up North Eighth Street before turning onto Center Street.
Lewiston residents are concerned about the practicality of trucks exiting onto side streets and up the steep North Eighth Street.
Chris Budde of Onondaga and North Ninth streets said, "What I can see is an impact on walkability for our community and our street, diverting all of these trucks ... on Eighth and Onondaga."
He questioned the practicality of getting trucks out of Lewiston this way.
"Just consider these large trucks on these side streets. ... How are you going to make turns? Now, if you're sending trucks up Onondaga eastbound, you're going to have to make a right-hand turn off North Ninth Street. Has anybody looked into this? Is there enough room? Are we going to expand the roads?"
Welch said the 99-feet right-of-ways are sufficiently large. She said trucks successfully navigate the south side of Eighth Street delivering items to the CVS and Rite-Aid plazas and the Cayuga Street mini-plaza. Moreover, both Welch and Planning Board Chairman Norm Machelor said they have dealt with truck traffic on their own streets.
Budde asked about adding a stoplight at Center and Eighth streets (replacing stop signs). The board told him that was its plan. However, former Planning Board Chairman and current Center Street occupant and business owner David Giusiana pointed out that road belongs to the state. The Department of Transportation recently told the Village Board it would not approve another traffic light on Center Street.
Regardless, Budde pointed out, "Rite-Aid plaza, Sunoco, Subway - all exit and enter onto Center Street without issues. Why is this a special case?"
"There are issues exiting the other plazas, for various reasons, depending on where they are," Machelor said. He added, "The reason that we recommended that they not exit on Center Street is ... because we think it's a safety issue to have the traffic coming in and out on Center at that place."
Budde responded by asking, "OK, well, at the same time, too, is it a safety issue to divert all of these delivery vehicles and large trucks onto residential streets where kids are riding bikes, people are walking and there are no sidewalks on those streets?"
Rich Donaldson of Onondaga Street said, "That grade on North Eighth Street is pretty steep. You're going to be bringing trucks down there, perhaps in the wintertime. You've got to be sensible about stuff like that. ... Maybe mathematically it works out, but, you know, in reality, I can't see that happening. ... It's not safe."
Traffic safety wasn't the only issue residents had in mind.
Kristen Hibbard-Trunzo of HF Hibbard & Sons said the village has failed to renew its master plan or provide Paladino with a proper framework with which to work. Giusiana said the Planning Board should've formally accepted written comments from the village's zoning and building officers prior to a public hearing.
"There's a lot of other practical problems with it that should be identified, and should be identified by the staff that works in the office here first, before it goes too far," he said.
Jamie Symmonds, also a Center Street resident and business owner who served on the Planning Board, said, "I know this is a difficult plot of land. However, he chose to purchase it."
She referenced the plaza's lack of parking (the proposed lot is 71 spots short, which requires a variance), and said the plaza drawing doesn't have proper truck delivery points.
"There are rules," she said. "People should not buy lots of land and expect us to bend our rules to fit them. It should be the other way around. We shouldn't have to work this hard for ... two years-plus ... to suit this. That should not be our job. ... They should be following the rules. That's what they're there for."
Machelor said, "There are not a lot of variances from this plan. This plan is following the code very closely."
David Loraine of North Fourth Street said, "I'm very, very concerned about the kind of shockwave effect it's going to have when we put businesses into those buildings."
He works at the Orange Cat Coffee Co. His parents own and operate The Villa Coffee House and his sister works at Syros.
"The kinds of businesses that go into these places greatly affect the current businesses run by individuals who live in Lewiston already," Loraine said.
"People don't come to Lewiston for those corporations. Nobody comes to Lewiston for Subway; nobody comes to Lewiston for CVS or Rite-Aid," he added. "People come to Lewiston for the charming, little, people-run businesses."
After receiving a loud round of applause, Loraine said a faceless "drive-thru window" would "drastically hurt the businesses that are already in Lewiston. You're going to put a fast-food something there, and you're going to destroy about four or five other little places along the way."
Paladino said he is seeking a mix of national, regional and local tenants. He has not named names of late.
The plaza plan
Paladino offered an extensive proposal update, telling the crowd of about 80 that his plaza is now about 55,000 feet, down from the original 70,000 he initially pitched.
"We've made some changes since the last time we were in front of this board, because of a lot of the comments people have made," he said. "Each comment we did address in some fashion."
Building No. 1 - A restaurant with drive-thru window and retail stores
Paladino addressed one of the Planning Board's main concerns, which was connecting Building No. 1 to Center Street. At one point, the structure was below grade, with only its very top and roof visible to passersby.
"At this point, you'll be able to walk along the sidewalk ... and then come right into the front of the building here on the first floor," Paladino said.
"There would be one tenant occupying the upper floor, we'll call it, and then, potentially, up to three tenants occupying the lower level of this building," Paladino added. "We've also reduced the size of this building by about five feet in the back. So, at this point, there is no more residential (unit) in this property.
"From the lower grade, it will be a two-story building. From looking at it from Center Street, it will look like a one-story building."
Building No. 2 - Mixed use
"This building here remains as originally shown: 5,400 square feet per floor; roughly 10,800 square feet total," Paladino said.
Building No. 3 - Two-story pharmacy/apartment complex
"Another substantial change we made was in the rear," Paladino said. "This was originally proposed as a three-story building with two stories residential, one story commercial - potential two tenants or more on the lower floor."
"We've since reduced the size of this building down to two stories, and eliminated one floor of residential," he said. "So, at this point, we're calling for roughly a 32,000-square-foot building in the rear, with roughly half being retail on the first floor and 13 apartments (a mix of one- and two-bedroom market-rate units) on the upper floor."
The clock tower shown on the previous plan is gone.
"We don't feel at any one time we'll need more than 189 (parking) spaces," Paladino said. "As you can see, there's plenty of parking on the site as we show right now. Roughly 25 percent of the site is green space. Roughly 16 percent has buildings. Our coverage is not a lot."
The project, as shown, would require one "smaller curb-cut" for a new roadway down into the plaza. Its amenities would include pine trees to mask the drive-thru, landscaping throughout, plus a gazebo "refuge area" in the middle right island with some seating. Paladino said the Center Street side's exterior would "seamlessly" match the road's streetscape.
"On this site, drainage has also been questioned," Paladino said. "We've been talking to the DPW here in Lewiston. There will be underground detention on this site. There will be no drainage going off the site other than where we do come into this pipe, which we believe will be on Eighth Street ... and then connect into your main sewer that's in the area.
"The onsite detention will hold enough capacity to not further hurt the system anymore than it is currently. We know that the system there ... does have troubles, currently, and we are going to look at ways to possibly upgrade that and work with DPW to do so."
Finding the best plan
After Paladino's presentation, Peter Diachun of Page Avenue asked, "What are the benefits of this project to the Village of Lewiston and its residents?"
When no one responded, he asked a second time.
"I would like to have an answer," Diachun said. "I'm not trying to be silly. I just want to know. What are the benefits?"
"If there aren't any (benefits) - or not impressive ones - then I would ask you to question why would we consider - even consider - providing variances of any kind for a project that doesn't have much benefit," he added.
Welch said the project would add to the tax base and create new places to eat, shop and live. Machelor said it would result in more new jobs, too.
Some asked if Paladino would apply for tax credits. He said this project would not be submitted to the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency for a tax break.
Paula Burko of Smith Street said, "There's a lot of people here today, really, for a tiny little village. I hope that you take these concerns seriously - that our safety goes before Mr. Paladino and the trucks and the noise and everything else. Don't become Amherst."
Welch said, "Mr. Paladino does not come in here and get everything he wants. We have had several conversations with him. His property is zoned commercial. It is zoned business. He is allowed to develop his property. It's our job to make sure we get the best plan that we can for everyone in the community.
"We can't say, 'No, we don't like it. So just go away.' "
Machelor said, "The purpose of the Planning Board is to get the best possible project for our village while following the code."
Pictured is the most recent proposed plaza plan for Center, Onondaga and North Eighth streets.
While Ellicott Development employees have appeared before the Planning Board a half-dozen times now, no plan has been formally submitted.
Machelor promised, "The community will have more opportunities to weigh in on what they would like to see before there's a planning decision."
"I think the developer has been working with us to try to make a project that we can be proud of, and help Lewiston continue to be a destination for people. That's just my opinion," Machelor added. "He's cooperative. They've got a good reputation. And we hope that they follow the rules and develop their property."
Paladino said the changes he's made in the past five weeks - namely reducing the size of building No. 3, are "much more expensive and costs us, definitely, a decrease in revenue."
"I think we have (tried to accommodate residents). People look at a flat piece of paper there and they think it's very easy to develop this property. It's not. It's very difficult. And we could easily put a huge building up on the front and put a sea of parking in the rear," he said. "I think we have the best plan that properly divides up this property. It accomplishes what we like to accomplish - that means developing it - and it develops in a way that the businesses that go in these places are going to be sustainable.
"I think you see on Center Street now you've got a lot of businesses that go in and out, just because the locations aren't as attractive; the buildings are a little older, possibly; and the rents are a little higher.
"When we're done here, I think the buildings themselves are going to very much complement the village. The site itself is going to be beautiful when it's completed, and I think it will be a gateway into the village."
Paladino said, "I wouldn't be doing (this project) if I didn't (think it)" brings value to the Village of Lewiston and its residents.
"Every community we go into, we just don't look to go do one development in those communities. We get to know the people in the communities and we develop, hopefully, not one, but two, three other things," he said. "We've been coming to Lewiston for a long time. Unfortunately, we've never been able to get anything done to this point. But most of the communities you see we develop in, we do always, I think, complement those villages. I haven't been to one place yet where people have said our final product has not been something they haven't wanted or needed."