And the winner is ... the veterinary school.
Kaleida Health's board of directors Tuesday announced the selection of Chason Affinity's $65 million proposal to create a school of veterinary medicine in the former Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital, completing an 18-month process to find a developer for the nearly 10-acre site that closed in March.
"Chason Affinity's proposal is visionary, is a good reuse of the hospital and can bring tremendous economic impact to our community," said James R. Kaskie, Kaleida's president and chief executive officer.
Chason Affinity's winning proposal – which came with a $1 million prize – was picked over a plan advanced by Uniland Development, which proposed creating "Chapin Place." That design imagined a six-story apartment building, two-story townhouses, underground parking, boutique hotel and office and retail space, as well as an "Olmsted-like" park on the axis of Chapin Parkway and the extension of Lancaster Avenue east toward Linwood Avenue.
Ted Walsh Jr., a former Kaleida board chairman who led the project advisory committee to find a suitable developer, said the reuse of existing buildings, the new jobs expected to be created, retention of hospital use and the timetable were key elements in favor of the veterinary proposal, as well as one other:
"It caught the imagination of our community," Walsh said.
While many questions concerning funding and how the project will proceed were left vague, Mark Cushing, a national consultant in animal health and veterinary education advising Chason Affinity, said he is "100 percent confident" a veterinary school will operate at the site within five years.
Cushing, who is involved in the building of a veterinary school now under way in rural Tennessee, said he is confident a public or private college will want to open a second campus at the site or that a start-up school could be interested.
He also said there would be a public hospital for small animals, suggesting specialized treatments and service to animals housed in shelters that wouldn't put the hospital in competition with local veterinarians.
"This project fills a great void," said Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy, on hand outside the former hospital for the announcement.
"There is no doubt that when this project is done, with the jobs it creates and the excitement it creates in this area ... it [will be] a winner."
Mayor Byron W. Brown praised the announcement as the kind of creative economic project the city desires.
"It's rare for new colleges to come into a community," he said. "This is certainly a major development. The Chason Affinity group has indicated that having a veterinary school in Buffalo could put Buffalo on the map nationally and internationally."
There are only 28 veterinary schools in the United States – and just one has been built in more than 25 years, according to Cushing. Only three veterinary schools – at Cornell, Princeton and Tufts – serve nine northeast states with a population of 53 million, and there are slots nationwide for just one out of nine applicants.
That has forced many young Americans to go overseas to study, despite a veterinary shortage created by retiring baby boomers. There is also a shortage of veterinary schools overseas, despite growing demand in China, India and other countries with improving economies. Ontario has one veterinary school serving 15 million people.
"There is great demand internationally to be trained at U.S. veterinary schools," Cushing said. "There are at least 10 international veterinary schools that have hundreds of American students there every year at top tuition rates. This is certainly going to be viewed as a wonderful alternative to that."
Cushing also predicted that Buffalo colleges that offer undergraduate programs related to animal health, animal behavior or preveterinary medicine would want to become involved.
A major appeal for opening a veterinary college was converting an existing hospital rather than building one from scratch, something Cushing said would have been "cost-prohibitive."
The plan calls for using the main hospital building as a veterinary teaching hospital with classrooms and support services. It would remove buildings considered nonessential to create park- and pedestrian-friendly areas throughout the campus and would renovate the original 1911 Homeopathic Hospital, now obscured by other structures, as a dormitory for graduate students.
The outside appearance along Delaware Avenue and Gates Circle would also get a makeover. Translucent additions would be made to the brick tower building, including a ground-level addition that would serve as a student center, an atrium in the center of the campus and a glass-walled, 10th-floor enclosure to make the complex more transparent to the community.
Chason Affinity is a family-run real estate management and development company that includes office space, single-family homes and student housing. Mark Chason, company president and a neighborhood resident, said his son Martin, the company's vice president, originally suggested building a veterinary school after learning from a friend that there were too few openings for students.
But it was walking the family's three dogs with his wife last year, at Chapin Parkway and St. James Avenue, that crystallized the idea, he said.
"I'm pretty sure this happened: One of the dogs pulled me in the direction of the hospital. I looked up and I saw the hospital and the dog, the hospital and the dog, and I said, ‘Maybe this can happen.' And this is a true story, really. That's really the start of how this idea, as crazy as it may be, came to be," Chason said.
He got together with architects, who concluded that the Gates Circle hospital could work. Then they looked at the whole campus, coming up with the idea of saving the original Homeopathic Hospital to create a lot of green space and tie it into the Olmsted parkway.
"We see this as a privilege to be able to do a project like this here in this community," he said.
Kaleida, which opened Gates Vascular Institute in March, the same month it closed the hospital, is consolidating many of its operations on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. But instead of allowing the property to sit empty, it established the project advisory committee and brought in the Urban Land Institute, based in Washington, D.C., in March 2011 to talk to people in the community and issue a report with recommendations on reusing the site. The company's group of experts has worked on other large-scale reuse projects in the region, ?including the Richardson Olmsted Complex.
Four firms responded with proposals for the $1 million prize by this May's deadline for reuse of the Gates Circle facility, but only two were seen as viable. Opinions from neighborhood groups and consultant developers were solicited.
An eight-member jury, led by Robert G. Shibley, dean of the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, judged the contest, with Kaleida's board of directors making the final decision.
Howard Zemsky, who served on the advisory committee, and is co-chairman of the Western New York Economic Development Council, praised Kaleida for its inclusive process and the project for investing in the city, creatively reusing a historic building, emphasizing entrepreneurial opportunities and for focusing on one of the area's strengths – higher education.
"When you have a project like this that builds on [the region's] strengths, the likelihood of success is that much better," Zemsky said.