Amherst is in the midst of a hotel boom after nearly a decade of relative dormancy in the hospitality market – and not everybody is happy about it.
Three hotels are currently under construction or working toward site-plan approval. And Supervisor Barry Weinstein is asking the Town Board today to seek proposals for another new hotel or two at the site of the Northtown Center ice rink complex.
In addition, rumors of two other hotel franchises coming to town are circulating, according to David Carroll, president of the Western New York Hotel Motel Association.
But many residents are telling town leaders they don’t like the size and scale of the hotels along Main Street. Two projects in the pipeline for the Snyder area have stirred neighborhood outrage and calls to revisit the town’s six-story height limit for commercial properties.
“This, I think, is going to be the next wave of development issues that residents have to be concerned with,” Council Member Mark Manna said.
“There hasn’t been that much push-back on a development in Amherst since the gun club in 2008,” he added, referring to the outcry over plans to redevelop the former Buffalo Shooting Club on Maple Road.
The surge of hotel activity in Amherst isn’t a complete surprise, given the greater-than-average hotel occupancy levels in town and the inability – until recently – of some developers to gain financing for their hotel projects, said Dennis Murphy, CEO of INNVest Lodging and chairman of Visit Buffalo Niagara. Plans that had been kicking around for some time are now moving forward as the economy recovers, he said.
“Anywhere we see occupancies that exceed the national average, which Amherst and Williamsville do, you are going to see people looking into the market,” Murphy said.
The most conspicuous of the new hotels is the $35 million, six-story building that Carl Paladino’s Ellicott Development is putting up at the intersection of Main Street and South Forest Road. Its towering size relative to the one-story buildings that flank it on Main Street has led some local residents to denounce it as “an architectural travesty,” even though the building is in keeping with the town’s comprehensive plan.
The 220,000-square-foot building will feature retail and restaurant space, 33 luxury apartments and interior parking. It also will house a 120-room Wyndham Garden Hotel and Suites, the first of this brand in the region.
Ellicott Development is also working with Bevilacqua Development on a 4.6-acre mixed-use “University Place” project between Sweet Home and Rensch roads just west of the University at Buffalo North Campus. An anchor to the project is a $15 million six-story Staybridge Suites extended-stay hotel, now under construction, featuring 105 rooms.
Both the Staybridge Suites and Wyndham Garden hotels are scheduled to open by September of this year, Paladino said.
Another hotel project, this one by Iskalo Development, would put a 137-room Hyatt Place behind the Lord Amherst Hotel at Main Street just west of the Youngmann Highway interchange. If all goes as planned, construction could start in the spring, followed by an opening in late spring of 2014, said Vice President David Chiazza.
The $15 million hotel would be part of a “hospitality campus” that would also include the preservation and renovation of the Lord Amherst and the Sonoma Grille.
Both the Hyatt Place and Wyndham Garden have faced strong opposition from angry neighbors, who see the six-story projects as being destructive to neighborhood character and property values even though developers are abiding by general business zoning restrictions. Some homes closest to the proposed Hyatt Place are worth more than half a million dollars.
The appeal to developers of placing hotels near the Main Street/I-290 interchange is obvious.
“It’s one of your highest-income areas in Western New York and one of your highest-traveled areas in Western New York,” Elllicott CEO William Paladino said.
The hotels are near shops and services in the Village of Williamsville and provide easy highway access to the airport as well as to UB, which is in the midst of a major expansion.
In Iskalo Development’s case, the Hyatt Place would overlook the I-290, giving the hotel great visibility.
“We think that’s a top-of-the-mountain location for development,” said owner Paul Bohdan Iskalo. “It’s a site that has been underdeveloped for decades.”
Another possible hotel project is near the Northtown Center ice rink complex, the town’s recreational jewel, which attracts thousands of out-of-town visitors. It’s enough of a draw that Weinstein is introducing a resolution tonight asking for hotel proposals on what is now a baseball field on town property adjacent to the four-rink building.
Weinstein said he’s already received several inquiries from interested developers over the past year.
Given the scarcity of available commercial property in town, several developers believe it’s just a matter of time before more larger, taller buildings come to town.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunity in Amherst of going higher in structures,” Paladino said. “Land values are high, and the ability to acquire land is very difficult.”
Iskalo said he’s worked hard to promote a “context-sensitive” project that addresses neighborhood concerns. But he also said projects like his adhere to an anti-sprawlmodel that comes with certain realities.
“If you believe in smart growth, you have to support densification of our existing urban areas,” he said. “It’s important to understand that a village is an urban area by definition.”
He and Chiazza, his vice president, said town zoning should be consistent with marketplace demands.
Many residents, however, say the town’s interests in property tax revenue and higher-density development shouldn’t override neighborhood interests and the impact on community character, particularly along the Main Street corridor, where commercial zoning backs up to residential lots.
In response to their concerns, the Town Board recently created a Building Height Review Committee to reconsider the blanket 65-foot height limitation for commercial properties that was established in 1976.
Council Member Guy Marlette tonight plans to seek a broadening of the committee’s work and develop recommendations that may further overhaul the town’s zoning codes to address overall building design, including height, in the context of the broader neighborhood or community.
“No matter what we do to the code, I don’t think it will ever prevent future controversies,” Marlette said, “but hopefully, it will lessen them.”