UB Hopes to Bring Amherst Town Board to the Planning Table

Release Date: May 16, 2007 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- As an integral part of its efforts to develop a master plan to oversee its 40 percent growth and the development of its three campus centers between now and 2020, the University at Buffalo has been reaching out to government officials and municipal planners in Amherst, Buffalo and Erie County.

The goal: To develop a master plan that meshes with those of the municipalities and is in the best interests of the community. A critical element of this collaboration is how to build connections -- politically and figuratively -- that best link the edges of UB's campuses with neighboring communities.

Unfortunately, the outreach effort has not met with much success with officials in the Town of Amherst. Despite a series of several written communications and analysis, public hearing testimony, individual meetings and an effort to bring the entire Amherst Town Board together to discuss how the university and municipality might collaborate productively on the alignment of their respective comprehensive plans, the university has been stymied.

On March 19, ignoring the advice of the town attorney that what they were about to do was illegal, town board members voted 5-2 to rezone a 22-acre parcel of land on Rensch Road off of Sweet Home Road to permit construction of a 225-unit apartment complex providing housing for 835 college students. The board rezoned the area, which it had designated for research/economic development in its plan adopted in January, to multifamily use, and the town's Zoning Board of Appeals subsequently issued a special use permit to allow student occupancy.

The State University of New York, on behalf of UB, is challenging those actions in a lawsuit filed today in State Supreme Court that seeks a show cause order to annul the rezoning and the special use permit to the student-housing project proposed by GMH Communities, LP.

UB officials said the university seeks to work closely with the Town of Amherst to plan for the development of land along Sweet Home Road on the western edge of its North Campus in line with the town's comprehensive plan and wants to develop a master plan for the North Campus in conjunction with the town's master plan. They note that the town's own comprehensive plan calls for the town to "work with UB to create mixed-use activity centers at the periphery of the campus."

UB officials stress that the university is not opposed to development of the stretch of Sweet Home. UB is opposed to spot zoning decisions on a parcel-by-parcel basis made contrary to the town's own plan for land use and growth.

UB officials want to avoid turning the Sweet Home corridor into a highly commercial strip possessing some of the worst traits of the commercial development along Transit Road: unrelenting traffic congestion and unsightly acres of parking lots fronting characterless retail strips.

"We have taken this action very reluctantly; we would have preferred not to have taken this approach, but the leaders in the Town of Amherst have left us with no other option," said Marsha S. Henderson, UB vice president for external affairs. "This is about how we should collaboratively plan our shared borders. We don't want to prescribe what the town should do; we want this to emerge from discussions with the town."

Referring to the March 19 town board vote and action by the Zoning Board of Appeals, Henderson said, "Fifty-year decisions are being made too casually and without adequate information and input from the university and Amherst residents."

Amherst civic and community groups also opposing the Amherst board's rezoning of Rensch Road include the Amherst Chamber of Commerce, Willow Ridge Civic Association and the Charter Oaks Homeowners Association.

The Amherst Town Board's own professional planning staff, the town IDA, the town's police chief, local media outlets, the Chamber of Commerce, various homeowners groups and individual residents and the University at Buffalo all have expressed concerns about this project and instead of facilitating collaboration, the Town Board expedited, unnecessarily, the rezoning process.

Colleen DiPirro, president and CEO of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber is opposed to a rezoning of the property on Rensch Road for use not in compliance with the Town of Amherst master plan, "which appropriately designates the parcels for research and development."

"We continue to support the town's comprehensive master plan as a guide to development. It was created after extensive input from community stakeholders and should continue to serve as the blueprint for land use planning and development," she added. "We have met with the University at Buffalo, we support its position and we're looking forward to working collaboratively with the Town of Amherst and UB."

Robert Foladare, vice president of the Willow Ridge Civic Association, also has expressed his frustrations with the Amherst Town Board's zoning decisions.

"The short-sightedness of our town board has again allowed a student housing complex that is out of character with both the community and the allowed zoning," Foladare said. "Even before the new 400-plus beds are built on Chestnut Ridge Road, without any regard for future problems with flooding, traffic and noise, Amherst allows the project on Rensch Road -- a project not wanted by UB, the local school district nor the residents of the area."

UB already has met with more than 20 community groups and plans to hold a public community forum for Amherst residents on May 29 to discuss UB's plans for growth and how UB's plan can be integrated with plans for growth in Amherst.

UB's comprehensive planning effort is led by Robert G. Shibley, professor and director of the Urban Design Project in the UB School of Architecture and Planning. Shibley said the university would like to join the town in a process whereby all affected parties could participate in the definition of an innovative mixed-use district that would connect campus to neighborhood.

"We are trying to build bridges with communities around our three campus centers. How can we build a 'bridge' out from our North Campus along Sweet Home to the Town of Amherst not knowing how the 'bridge' from the other side is going to meet it," Shibley said.

Such a process might involve creation of a "university-related district" or development of a special mixed-use zone. What's crucial, Shibley said, is that UB and Amherst work together with property owners and citizens to create such a mixed-use area.

In fact, Shibley said, UB already has participated in such a project. UB planners consulted extensively with Benderson Development Company in the creation of a plan for new development on the 33-acre former Buffalo Shooting Club, which will include retail, restaurant and hotel establishments, and residences along Maple Road.

Among the goals of the Benderson project are to create a campus-like town center, create bicycle and pedestrian links to the UB campus and improve the quality of the environment along Maple Road -- all goals that UB would have for such a center along Sweet Home Road.

The rezoning of land adjacent to the UB campus also limits UB's capacity to positively impact the Amherst economy and tax base because it limits land available for UB spin-off of companies and jobs generated by research activity, Shibley pointed out. Also, the creation of new off-campus housing projects along the UB-Amherst border would spur a sudden relocation of large numbers of students from neighborhoods surrounding UB's South Campus, which would have a significant destabilizing impact on the economy and viability of those neighborhoods.

"We are not opposed to off-campus housing; our plans call for us to house only 30 percent of our students on campus. However, we are opposed to high-density concentrations of largely unsupervised housing for students," Shibley said.

Rensch Road property owner John Giacalla has retained attorney Justin White to voice his strong opposition to the GMH student-housing project.

"These aren't GMH community students, these are University at Buffalo students; and who better to determine the needs of its students than the University at Buffalo," White said.

FAQ: Answers to Questions about UB's Collaboration with the Town of Amherst

Media Contact Information

John Della Contrada
Vice President for University Communications
521 Capen Hall
Buffalo, NY 14260
Tel: 716-645-4094 (mobile: 716-361-3006)
Twitter: UBNewsSource