UB and the Town of Amherst:

Working Toward a Collaborative Relationship

By Karin Abu-Middain

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


The University at Buffalo has a strong desire to build collaborative relationships with all of its neighbors so that we might align our respective plans for the future to achieve the economic development and improved quality of life that we all desire.

It is unfortunate that UB was forced to bring a lawsuit against the Town of Amherst and others to preserve the framework for planning adopted by the Amherst Town Board.. We have done so reluctantly and with regret, but also after serious study and with firm conviction.

UB brought the suit to protect its own interests, but we have the support of a range of other parties, including the Amherst Chamber of Commerce, the Willow Ridge Civic Association, the Charters Oaks Home Association, the Amherst Industrial Development Agency, and a variety of homeowners and individuals.

Indeed, we believe it also is in the best interests of the Town of Amherst that UB act to stop the dismantling of the Town of Amherst Bicentennial Comprehensive Plan and to prevent the worst kinds of development from taking place around the UB campus.

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 the town’s comprehensive plan adopted earlier this year, to multifamily use, and the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals subsequently issued a special use permit to allow student occupancy. On May 16, the State University of New York, on behalf of UB, filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court seeking a show cause order to annul the rezoning and the special use permit to the student-housing project, proposed by proposed by GMH Communities, LP. The university’s press release announcing the lawsuit may be read at http://www.buffalo.edu/news/8630

It could have been if the leadership in the Town of Amherst had resolved to work with UB on planning issues involving areas along our shared boundary. Instead, they ignored our concerns and rebuffed our invitations to work together. Moreover, the town board ignored its own professional planning staff, the Amherst Industrial Development Agency, the town's police chief, local media outlets, the Amherst Chamber of Commerce, various homeowners groups and individual residents, who all expressed concerns about this project and urged the board to follow with the adopted town plan. Instead of facilitating collaboration, the town board actually expedited, unnecessarily, a rezoning process contrary to the town plan.

UB resorted to a lawsuit at the point where the interests of the university – and those of the community– would have suffered irreparable harm. Not only would a project detrimental to UB have moved forward without the suit, the whole framework for planning and zoning for the periphery of our campus would have been put in jeopardy. Now, there will be time for all parties to reconsider the situation and to recommit to a more collaborative relationship.

When the Town of Amherst adopted its comprehensive plan earlier this year it confirmed the use of land along the Sweet Home Road corridor as research and development, the same as it had been designated since the 1970s. We agreed with the R&D zoning because it will help serve the needs of UB and the community for job-creating growth near our campus. It was only in December 2006 that this particular project – and rezoning contrary to the old and new comprehensive plans – was proposed. So, the University couldn’t have objected to this specific project any earlier.

Once the University became aware of the proposed rezoning, 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 were implemented.

But more broadly, the university has been reaching out to the Town of Amherst – and everyone else, for that matter – as conscientiously as possible since the beginning of our current planning initiative last September. The Town of Amherst planning staff was involved in the development of our planning scope and the selection of our consultant team. We have asked for Amherst town officials to engage in a collaborative process to help align our respective plans. But all of this was to no avail.

We also have made our objections known to the Amherst Town Board regarding other off-campus student housing projects that are high-density, single-use, unsupervised and un-serviced developments. Such projects put our students at a disadvantage, drain Town resources in the form of police and other services, and do not provide the net fiscal gain to the Town that R&D projects do. For example, UB representatives last year objected before the town board to the American Campus Communities’ plan for new student housing on Chestnut Ridge Road. .

We made our views clear to the Town as early and as often as we possibly could.

We have invited them to do so and they have declined. More than that, when we have expressed our concerns, Town officials have generally ignored them. They also have ignored the concerns of many of their own constituents. We can only judge by what they have done.

No. It is about every developable parcel on the entire periphery of our campus, how they will be planned and developed, and what they will ultimately become. We want to create a great campus and great neighborhoods around it. To do that, we need regularity and predictability in the planning and development process. Its actions on project proposed by GMH Communities, LP shows that the Amherst Town Board is willing to abandon the town’s comprehensive plan and change the zoning for proposals on a parcel-by-parcel basis. We fear the result will be an environment similar to the worst of Transit Road.

The town board has expressed its willingness – both in word and deed – to undermine Amherst’s comprehensive plan. Members of the board have made other decisions and zoning designations counter to plan. They have made public in their comments their determination not to be bound by the plan. The pattern of behavior has already been set. Beyond that, the Rensch Road site is critical. Once this key parcel has been rezoned and redeveloped counter to the plan and its zoning designation, there will be no legal rationale for the Town of Amherst to refuse requested rezoning for any other proposed development. After that, anything goes – and that will be extremely detrimental to all of us in Amherst.

Up until now, the Town of Amherst has not taken the university seriously as a partner in the planning endeavor. It is the university’s sincere hope that the filing of this lawsuit will require that the Town Board take our input and positions more seriously. That will engender respect; we hope congeniality will follow.

There are other parties involved whose opinions should be heard and respected. . These include the Amherst Chamber of Commerce, the Willow Ridge Civic Association, the Charter Oaks Home Association, the Amherst Industrial Development Agency and various other individuals and homeowners, who support the university’s suit. Others still have supported our arguments, including the Amherst Police Department, the Amherst Town Attorney, and the Amherst Planning Department. We think the lawsuit will prompt the Town Board to listen to these voices more carefully.

No, because the University at Buffalo has been reaching out to government officials and municipal planners in Amherst, Buffalo and Erie County since beginning our comprehensive planning efforts. We’ve been able to develop good and supportive working relationships with all of these institutional colleagues. Amherst is the one exception, not the rule.

The University has a serious obligation to protect the interests of the institution – and it is important to remember how broad those interests are. They include those of 27,000 students, nearly 7,000 faculty and staff, more than 200,000 alumni, and the health and well-being of the region and the state that we serve. They also include generations of students to come. So, of course, we are looking out for our university.

However, we also feel we are looking out for the interests of the Town of Amherst to avoid bad development and preserve job-producing and tax generating opportunities in R&D. We are concerned about the impact of poor quality, poorly-planned development on everyone who lives in Amherst. Based on the support we have drawn – from business groups, neighborhood organizations and professionals – others feel their interests are in tune with ours.

Mostly we’re just trying to get the Town of Amherst to do what the town board promised to do when it adopted the comprehensive plan. At the same time, we agree that no plan can be a static document. So, what we want to do next is set up a formal process to work with the Town of Amherst on issues of shared concern on our shared borders and decide together what is best for these areas.

No. We have an open-door policy with the Town.

Absolutely not. Our goal is to provide somewhere around 30 percent of student housing on campus – which is roughly what we do now. The remainder is there for the private sector to provide.

Yes. We plan to build 1,200 units of new housing on campus by September 2009 with an additional 1,800 in the years to follow. Indeed, student housing is likely to be a key element in the university’s comprehensive plan that currently is under development, a plan that will provide the means to make its three campus centers more accessible, attractive and better connected to the neighborhoods in which they are located.

No. The demand for on-campus housing far outpaces the supply we can provide.

It seems to us that building private student housing immediately adjacent to campus on property like that on Rensch Road is the best, most convenient option. This gives the students immediate access to campus and will cut down on traffic congestion.

The University doesn’t think a single-use development, without mixed uses including retail and other services, and without the supportive services undergraduates receive on-campus, is really a good option. Current student housing projects in the vicinity have experienced heavy volumes of police calls. And many students still may need to drive to campus or shopping simply because the distances are too great.

That would not be an environment that would be very accessible to students without cars. Instead, it will be development pitched to a much broader market driving from much farther away. We'd like to have stores and restaurants and other services in a mixed-use development, but not in a typical suburban strip like the worst of Transit Road.

A great plan for the future of the university cannot be accomplished in isolation. UB actively is seeking input from the community to help shape its comprehensive plan. UB officials have been meeting with community organizations and leaders for several months. On May 29, in conjunction with the Amherst Chamber of Commerce, UB held a public forum to discuss the university's plans for growth and to seek input from town residents on those plans. To read a report on the meeting, click here.

Members of the public can share their thoughts with the university at http://www.buffalo.edu/physical_plan, by email to UBMasterPlan@vpsa.buffalo.edu or by mail to Building UB: The Comprehensive Physical Plan, 544 Capen Hall, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY 14260. The university would like the public's input on questions such as, but not limited to:

What is your vision for UB?

What issues do you think are important for the university to consider in planning for the future?

In your opinion, what is the single most important thing that UB can achieve through its planning process?