Frizlen Denied: A Report from the Zoning Board Meeting
by Artvoice Staff (@Artvoice) - posted 10:46 am, January 24, 2016
Having read last week’s cover story about Architect/Developer Karl Frizlen’s proposed project for 794 Potomac Avenue, you may be wondering what transpired at the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) hearing, held on January 20. Because social media spreads word faster than wildfire, you may already know that the variance Frizlen sought to double the currently allowable density, from thirteen units to twenty-six, was denied. But how did it go down? Artvoice was there.
But before we get to the play-by-play, a note about a couple of developments (so to speak) that occurred between our cover story and the ZBA hearing:
In a post on Buffalo Rising, which gave the impression of boosting the project, several commenters noted the historic significance of the farmhouse on the site, one of only a handful remaining farmhouses in the Elmwood Village. As some are coming to learn, the farmhouse is also the only remaining structure from the large “suburban” estate of the Lord family, one of the most prominent families of 19th-Century Buffalo.
And at last Saturday’s Elmwood Village Green Code forum, City Hall’s top Green Code expert, Chris Hawley, deflated Frizlen’s assertion (made to the neighbors) that his project would qualify under Green Code (apparently, a lot of developers have been saying that lately). “My impressions are that the building would be too large for Green Code,” Hawley said when the issue was raised. At the same forum, Assemblyman Sean Ryan, who articulated a number of concerns about how Green Code might affect the Elmwood Village, and who lives a block away from this proposed project, joked that he couldn’t walk his dog anymore because neighbors keep stopping him to express their opposition.
Given all that stage-setting, it came as no surprise to find an estimated fifty community members at the ZBA hearing, spilling out into the corridor and hallway beyond the ninth-floor hearing room.
We arrived with the presentation by Karl Frizlen already under way. The Zoning Board of Appeals Chair, Rev. James Lewis, apparently eager to get to the community’s input, was trying to cut Frizlen off before he could finish. Karl protested that he had just two more points, and Lewis let him go on.
“We’ll hear a lot of contradictory voices here…,” Frizlen tried to continue, drawing laughter from the crowd, before Lewis interrupted him. “I don’t want you to editorialize. I need you to help me here, from the heart.” Frizlen resumed, “typically the people who support a project don’t show up for meetings like this…” “You’re editorializing again,” Lewis interrupted. “This stack of letters (pointing) says you don’t own the property, so there’s no hardship, correct?” “Not right now, no.”
That was enough for Lewis, who then moved into community input. He referenced the petition of 151 signatures the board had received. “And each one wrote a letter.” The audience laughed as he again pointed to the stack of letters. Looking at the crowd spilling out into the hallway, Lewis suggested that representatives of organizations speak, rather than entertaining dozens of comments.
First up was Attorney Norman Viti, speaking for his Potomac Avenue block club. “This quasi-governmental entity has wide discretion, but it’s based on burden of proof. Frizlen hasn’t yet met that burden.” Explaining their opposition, Viti claimed misstatements and inaccuracies on the part of the developer. “Frizlen says the neighborhood is all multi-family residential, but we’ve identified at least thirteen single-family residences. Windsor is mostly single-family, and Saybrook is all single-family.”
After more cogent comments, Viti made the kind of summation one could imagine might win him a case in court, “The good news is that people want to develop in the City of Buffalo now. But we don’t have to accept second-rate options anymore.” “The reason people want to be in that neighborhood now is because of the investments of the residents—over decades.” “There’s no argument here: you have the do-nothing option. This property has not been on the open market. Someone will buy this property, and develop it in a manner consistent with the neighborhood.”
His remarks drew widespread applause, and Lewis joked that perhaps Viti should be running for District Attorney.
Another attorney, Lauren Turner, spoke on behalf of the Inwood Place block club. She said that they are not opposed to the development of the site, but opposed to the variances. She talked about the character of Inwood Place and Potomac Avenue—both part of the Elmwood East Historic District—with houses built close to the street, and with full-width porches. Frizlen’s project would be the first new build on the block in a century.
Resident Joe Kennedy, who owns Spars Sausage in Black Rock, and who owns one of the properties on the block with no driveway access, talked about the challenges with parking there. It’s not just an inconvenience to him, he pointed out, but can also create problems with renting second units.
But it was neighborhood leader Mike Tritto who had the most memorable line of the hearing. “We see this outsized design as the equivalent of docking an ocean freighter among a collection of fishing boats,” Tritto metaphorized. “We have thirty-foot wide streets in the neighborhood. Frizlen’s other projects are on Elmwood, Hertel, Utica—commercial streets with bus routes.” Further, Tritto said he “feels the developer mislead them.” “We believe this project is an attempt to maximize return on investment at the expense of neighborhood character.”
His remarks also drew widespread applause.
Rev. Lewis said he wanted to hear from the district councilman, and Councilman Joel Feroleto said that people aren’t against development, but they’re against the proposed density. He said that correspondence has been overwhelmingly against the project. He asked that the variance be denied.
Someone asked if the Elmwood Village Association was present, and Executive Director Carly Battin spoke, saying that her organization decided—“narrowly,” she said—to oppose the variance, and submitted a letter to that effect. She said that Frizlen “has not demonstrated hardship,” and “it’s our understanding that variances are granted based on consistency with community character.” She said EVA “would like to hold ongoing dialog with the developer and neighbors.”
(As an aside: Isn’t it interesting that despite the overwhelming community opposition—more vocal and unified than on any issue in recent memory—the Elmwood Village Association only “narrowly” decided to oppose the variance? And also interesting that Battin felt the need to clearly qualify their decision as made “narrowly”? She gave the impression that they were almost uncomfortable about being in opposition to even a clearly inappropriate development. It raises the question of whether EVA has gotten seriously out of sync with the community. Along those lines, at Saturday’s Elmwood Village Green Code forum, Deborah Lynn Williams, former Western New York chief of staff for Senator Chuck Shumer, spoke fondly of the days when EVA was engaged in grassroots initiatives like the Elmwood Village Design Standards, under leaders like Jessie Fisher and Justin Azzarella. But it’s clear, she said, that “the Elmwood Village Association no longer represents the community.” At that, the room erupted into applause and outright cheering.)
After hearing from these speakers, Lewis asked for Frizlen to respond. You can see and hear his response in this video clip…
He offered to soldier on. “Of course, we can continue meeting with the neighbors, and shape the building so it’s acceptable—most likely, not to all of them, but hopefully to some of them,” he said. He also mentioned the brownfield tax credits, even though they weren’t a subject of the hearing, saying that while they weren’t necessary for the project, if they were granted, they would be a “bonus.” That prompted a heckle from the back of room that Rev. Lewis quickly squelched.
Frizlen also made a belated pitch (perhaps one of the points he had wanted to make at the beginning, before Lewis cut him off) for accessible housing, claiming to have surveyed the neighborhood and found not a single unit that is “barrier-free or handicapped accessible.” Referring to older residents, he said, “what we are trying to do is accommodate a demographic that is not considered” by most developers.
But it wasn’t remotely enough. When it came time for the board to vote, they denied the variance with dispatch. Board member Anthony Diina moved to deny, and the vote was unanimous.
After the hearing, Artvoice caught up with Lauren Turner and Mike Tritto to get their reactions to the proceedings. Turner said she was struck by the “overwhelming opposition,” and said she was “taken aback by Mr. Frizlen’s inability to articulate a hardship. He keeps pointing out the benefits of his proposed project without explaining why the project needs to be as big as it is in order to provide those benefits.” She said that having accessible units is great, but “why not thirteen instead of twenty-six?”
Tritto told us, “I’m really proud of our neighborhood. We had people from all walks of life who came out today. People have been here for years, have raised families, and want to be here for the rest of their lives.” About Frizlen, he said, “Karl is skilled, and a businessman. But we had to oppose this. We’d be interested in smart density, such as two-family houses. He wants to double the density.” “We’re the ones who sustain a neighborhood, not the developers. We think the Zoning Board of Appeals heard that.”
Speaking of his experience doing community revitalization work in impoverished areas of Buffalo’s east, west, and north sides, Tritto added, “Developers are homing in on middle-class neighborhoods. What about spreading it around?”
From your mouth to the developers’ ears, Mike.