Controversial Blocher Homes project approved in Williamsville

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A divisive $31.5 million plan to convert a senior housing complex in Williamsville into mixed-income apartments has narrowly received its final go-ahead.

The village Planning Board on Tuesday approved the project’s site plan by a 4-3 vote and granted a favorable architectural review by a 6-1 vote.

People Inc. now can take over the century-old Blocher Homes property on Evans Street and transform it into more than 90 apartments for people of low and middle incomes and those with developmental disabilities.

The approval of the project that stirred up considerable neighborhood opposition came after the Planning Board had agreed to postpone a decision from last month at the request of People Inc. The agency had preferred that the full seven-member board take part in the vote, given that the applicant had submitted updated site and architectural review plans.

People Inc.’s attorney, Sean Hopkins, on Tuesday gave a 50-minute presentation that outlined what he described as extensive changes made to address concerns raised by neighbors and Planning Board members. He emphasized that the project is considered an acceptable use in this section of the village.

The most recent changes included shifting some parking spaces on the site; increasing how far a privacy fence, driveway and other features are set back on the property; adjusting the elevation of the northernmost of three new planned buildings; and reducing the apartment count by two units.

Much of Tuesday’s discussion covered building aesthetics and the effect of the project on neighboring properties. One resident who lives across Evans Street from the site, Chris Valentine, said he feared traffic and glare from headlights of vehicles exiting the property. Hopkins agreed to meet with Valentine to address his concerns.

This wasn’t enough to satisfy board member Wally Pacer, who said he liked the applicant’s willingness to improve the exterior appearance but argued, “I don’t think it fits the area.”

Member Amy Alexander, for her part, said the Planning Board needed to vote based on whether the project adheres to village code and not based on “emotional” factors such as their concern for Blocher residents or their feelings about mixed-income housing.

People Inc. previously has said mixed-income housing is badly needed in this part of Williamsville and Blocher’s owner, Beechwood Continuing Care, has said it can’t afford to continue to operate the senior residence as is.

However, the proposal has drawn sharp criticism from Blocher residents, who don’t want to leave; Blocher employees, who aren’t assured of a job elsewhere with Beechwood; and Blocher neighbors, who say the project is a poor fit for the area.

The debate dates back to July 2019, when People Inc. and Beechwood officials began describing it to Blocher residents and neighbors.

The plans changed in response to neighbor feedback and People Inc. now proposes building 93 mixed-income apartments across the existing senior residence, which opened in 1970, and three smaller buildings it would construct on the 5.3-acre site at 135 Evans St.

Beechwood has said it has room on its Millersport Highway campus for any Blocher seniors who wish to move there, but Blocher residents have said they don’t want to go. There’s no set move-out date for Blocher’s residents.

Blocher residents have picketed outside the Evans Street property, joined by some neighbors from Evans and Village Pointe Lane. Critics say the development is out of scale for the neighborhood, would bring increased traffic and would pave over much of the property’s landscaping.

Opponents of the project packed public hearings before board meetings shifted online during the pandemic.

The Planning Board previously found the Blocher Homes project would not significantly harm the environment and the Zoning Board granted a parking variance.

The project is the subject of an ongoing court challenge brought by neighbors who say the project’s environmental effects require a more thorough review than granted by the Planning Board.

Elizabeth Holmes, an attorney who represents the neighbors in their legal challenge, said Tuesday that the project would have an “irreversibly detrimental impact” on what is an historic section of the village.

Published by The Buffalo News

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