Ellicott Street at the Center of Two Incredible Projects

Development posts used to be far more frequent on this space in past years but I’ve lagged in my coverage as other responsibilities took precedence over complaining about the hole at Canalside, for example.

But in an effort to commit to providing insight and attention to the various projects happening around the city, I’m going to try and get back in the saddle of writing about Buffalo development. Plenty has gone on in the last few months and I’ll have to work to catch up on the latest in the Skyway debate, Douglas Jemal’s continued work in the city and the decades long development of Canalside.

Photo: Buffalo Rising/Douglas Development

This week saw progress with the City’s efforts to redevelop the Mohawk Ramp that sits between Washington and Ellicott streets. All six proposals initially submitted were quite impressive and the proposal that may have been the sexiest of the group didn’t even make it as a finalist. That the Wynn Group is still aiming to build that glass tower elsewhere in the city is exciting news in its own right.

I’d imagine that the proposal from Douglas Development has first position as the city evaluates the three finalists. Jemal’s track record since he arrived has been nothing short of astonishing and he’s worked on timelines which would have been unheard of in the past. The partnership he has with the city and his willingness to go fast on projects has to give him a leg up on this process. He’s also slated to redevelop the Simon Electric properties right down the block. So I won’t be surprised if he’s the winner here.

The thing is that Douglas Development probably shouldn’t win this bid. Douglas’ overall proposal for Ellicott street is tremendous. As a sucker for renderings, their proposal for that space has me over the moon for what that project can mean for this stretch of Ellicott and Huron.

Just imagine hanging out in “Electric Alley”, maybe grabbing a bite from a restaurant that set up shop there and then wandering down the alley for a beer at Big Ditch and then up the street at Fattey. That mix of pubic space with private development is the sort of thing we need to see more of in the city. Just look at how vibrant Roosevelt Square is with Fattey, Graylynn, Overwinter and others. Douglas’ plans for the Simon properties is excellent and should stir up excitement for those who have been tracking the growth downtown.

If there’s one thing Jemal and Douglas Development have done better than anything else, it’s finding the right scope and site design for what Buffalo is lacking. The real magic of their work has been powering through on short timelines for projects most felt would take decades. But I don’t think we should overlook the fact that they understand the market they’re working in.

What exists with Douglas’ plans for the Simon properties and the pending decision for the Mohawk ramp is a tremendous opportunity to further develop a strip of the city that’s already seen a fair bit of attention over the last 10 years. What isn’t necessary is to put all of these projects in Douglas’ basket.

Yes, they have exhibited the ability and willingness to get these projects done and to do it quickly. However, the Douglas plan for the Mohawk ramp simply isn’t the best of the bunch. And considering that Douglas will be proceeding with their work on the Simon Electric parcels no matter what, why not take advantage of the ability to see two new projects sprout up almost simultaneously?

Of the three finalists selected, the project proposed by SAA EVI, McGuire Development and Passero Associates strikes me as the one that is most unique to the city and is certainly the most visually impressive and striking.

The McGuire plan for a 12-story tower (and accompanying seven-story tower) wouldn’t just be a nice addition to Buffalo’s skyline but is really a project that is quite original to downtown. It has something of a big city feel with the large, enclosed courtyard and additional building amenities. The added street-level activation means the project would integrate well with the surrounding neighborhood. It also appears that this project better ties into Washington St. while the other two appear to be slightly more focused on Ellicott. Which isn’t a negative as that stretch of Washington isn’t exactly the most exciting strip of road in the city. But it’s still notable that the McGuire project would better integrate with the entire neighborhood. Not to mention the new residents who would be plugged into the center of downtown once the building filled up.

What has really hit home with this proposal when compared to the other two is that it feels like a far more impressive statement for the city. That’s far more intangible of course but when I think of the last couple of similar bid projects we’ve seen the city execute (201 Ellicott and the Webster Block), the winners were statement projects. While 201 Ellicott was scaled back significantly, Harborcenter was not and the key takeaway, for me at least, was the winning bids were the two most impressive submissions visually and functionally.

Whether that trend continues with this parcel remains to be seen. But the “Mohawk Commons” proposal has that impressive mix of neighborhood integration with the added visual statement the city has leaned towards in the past.

I’ll look forward to whatever project is ultimately chosen. But the Mohawk Commons plan put forward by SAA EVI, McGuire and Passero strikes me as the best of the bunch. And I’d encourage you to visit the city’s site for public comment on this project and express your opinion on the three as well. More positive public comments keep quiet obstructionist efforts from the likes of Tim Teilman and the rest of the axis of no.

So visit that site and put your support behind any of the three you feel is the strongest. Hopefully you also feel strongly about the Mohawk Commons project but any positive reinforcement of this process is what’s in the best interest of the city.

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