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by Joshua Maloni
William Paladino met with the Village of Lewiston Planning Board Wednesday to update members on the status of his development plan. The Ellicott Development CEO intends to create a U-shaped plaza with three main units: 1) two restaurants (one fast food) and a retail store; 2) a two-story retail/bank/commercial building; and 3) a drug store. He may build condos on the lot's west end, too.
In late 2012, Ellicott Development purchased 756, 784-790 Center St., and adjacent vacant land on Onondaga Street (just west of North Eighth Street). Last summer, David M. Hall, the firm's planning and development coordinator, presented a plan to convert the space into a retail plaza similar to the Colonial Valley (CVS) and Rite-Aid plazas.
Customers would enter from Center Street, drive down a slope where they'd find parking on both sides, be encouraged to loop around the lot, patronize the businesses, and exit on Eighth Street.
"It's taken us long to get to this point, because every time we move or tweak anything, it has to go back to the engineers and they've got to redo everything because of the site grades and slopes and things of that nature," Paladino said Wednesday.
"This is probably one of the more difficult sites we've ever tackled," he said. "Every time we change one thing, there's a whole new analysis that goes on."
Planning Board members have expressed concern over the proposed location of the stand-alone units. They've suggested Paladino build more on, or closer to, Center Street, and less below it.
As the project was informally presented this week, the two-story retail/bank/commercial building would have its top story on Center Street, and its bottom story facing into the plaza. The double-restaurant unit is 8 feet below grade and 68 feet off the main road. It could provide space for one fast food and one sit-down restaurant. The drug store is at the bottom end of the plaza, several hundred feet off Center Street, and technically faces Eighth Street.
"We went through many different variations of the plan ... obviously our topography is our main problem area," Paladino said.
He indicated there isn't enough space to build more units on or closer to Center Street - unless view of the drug store is blocked, which would be a deal-breaker for a national tenant.
"We have looked at bringing the buildings all to the street and what it would do, and then we can't get anybody interested," he said.
Two national chains - Rite-Aid and McDonald's - have been mentioned as interested tenants, but there is no deal in place. These units would offset the project costs (site work is estimated to cost more than $1 million), and provide enough rent money to essentially subsidize smaller businesses that would potentially round-out the plaza.
"Up here, we need some national tenants, but we want to make it affordable for some local tenants," Paladino said.
"We're cognizant of the community and its local flavor and mom-and-pop-type stores that have been here for years, and ... the people do come to this community look for those arts and crafts and antiques and other businesses such as that," he added. "And we're trying to build to accommodate them, but the site's just challenging. If this was a little flatter and this a little deeper, we could do some different things and it would change our thinking on it."
Planning Board members looked at sketches, but did not receive a formal proposal from Paladino.
"I personally like it," Planning Board member Ernie Krell said of Paladino's idea. "I think a lot of thought's gone into it."
"It has," Paladino said. "About eight-nine months, that's what's delayed this thing from coming back."
Conversely, "You've put us in a bad spot," Planning Board member Norm Machelor said. "What you want us to do, of course, is approve something like this that's completely different than the way we want the village to develop. And the reason that it's like that is because your tenants require things that may or not be things that we think are a good idea."
That includes drive-thrus, which are now banned on Center Street proper, as well as below-grade units and parking that would partially be on a slope.
"Center Street is many different, unique - every block's unique in its own way on Center Street," Paladino said. "And as you get down to our end, topography dictates what you're going to do down there - it has for every other tenant down there. You can't tell me it hasn't, because it has. And everyone's tried to work around it the best they can."
He asked the board if there was any other way to build the CVS plaza, which is across the street.
"It all comes down to finances," Paladino said. "You could tell me you want all that up there (units on Center Street), and I understand. I understand what you want and what you're looking for. It's just impractical. You're not going to find anyone to do that."
"If I were a tenant, I wouldn't want any of those spaces," Planning Board member Loretta Frankovitch said of the two-story retail unit. "That doesn't look like I'm visible enough."
"These (bottom) spaces on the side, they're not going to be visible," Machelor said.
"Either the tenants are going to have to compromise what they want, or we're going to have to," he added. "And then we gotta' sell it and say, 'Oh, well, we're going to do this because we can't really have a drive-thru restaurant unless this happens.' And I know what (they're) going to say, (the public), 'We don't need one.' They don't say 'You can't have one,' they just say, 'We don't want one that doesn't fit our plan (for the village).' "
"It comes to if you want the property developed or not," Paladino said. "A lot of people in this community are not going to like what we present here. I can tell you that. Some people are going to like it, though. ... That being said, do you want the property developed or not is what it's going to come down to. Where is going to be that compromise in between? That's the compromise I'm trying to work between what you guys are looking for and what the tenants are looking for."
"I think it's better because what's there now is a pizza place, a dog building that used to be an automobile building, and that's the only thing there," Krell said of the property's current configuration. "This is going to end up as a nice plaza, I think."
"Well, it's not going to conform to the rest of the village," Machelor said.
"You could make it visible, clearly, even if you had some storefronts up on Center Street and have a beautiful walking area - even a driving area - coming down that opens up to Rite-Aid," Frankovitch said. "You could see it, but still have the buildings on Center that will house maybe a little restaurant with a balcony or a seating area - something that's very visible."
Paladino said that would not be economically feasible "for anybody."
He said he has to be mindful of what his tenants need. Paladino said it's a hard sell convincing businesses of the merits of operating off Center Street. Without enough visibility, he would lose a Rite-Aid or McDonald's.
"There's not many other people out there that can help absorb the cost of the project," he said. "I still will not be able to find any tenants to build buildings all the way up to the street."
"I know we're asking a lot," Paladino added. "I know it's a puzzle, and it's difficult."
"My concern is that our master plan specifically says that we are a walkable community," Frankovitch said. "This, to me, does not look walkable. I see fences; I see plenty of space for cars; but I don't see any place for people walking around.
"Looking at it, it doesn't look friendly - it doesn't look like I could just walk down Center Street and go to that restaurant."
"It is both," Paladino said, and suggested it would be more walkable than the CVS plaza.
"It sat vacant for 20 years before. ... It can sit vacant for another 20 years. I'm trying to do something," Paladino added. "It's been tough."
He told Planning Board members his firm would run some additional unit layout scenarios before officially presenting a plan.
If the proposal moves forward, the Village of Lewiston Board would work with Ellicott Development in completing a SEQR. Paladino's plan would then go to the Planning Board, which would deny the proposal - if it was not amended - on the grounds the plaza requires additional parking spaces and doesn't meet the 20-feet-maximum setback requirement. Such an action is common for the Planning Board. Paladino would then be sent to the Zoning Board of Appeals, where he could apply for parking and setback variances. The plan could then, ultimately, go to village trustees for a "yes" or "no" vote.
>>Read the Sentinel/Paladino interview; click the link below: