Planning Board approves Albright-Knox expansion, hears comments on Elmwood Crossing

Community members had a chance Monday to weigh in on two major development projects along Elmwood Avenue — and they didn't take it.

The Buffalo Planning Board held public hearings about the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's proposed expansion and the planned conversion by Ellicott Development Co. and Sinatra & Company Real Estate of the former Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo campus into the new Elmwood Crossing community.

The first was up for approval, while the second is still subject to environmental review.

But no one spoke out about the $160 million art museum plan, and only four testified about the environmental impact statement for Elmwood Crossing — split evenly between criticism about inadequate greenspace and support for the effort.

So, the hearings lasted only about a half hour each — mostly consisting of remarks from the project sponsors.

"Maybe it’s an issue of the heat or something like that and everybody’s taking advantage of the delayed summer right now to be outside," said Ellicott's Director of Development Tom Fox.

"We expected some discussion about traffic issues, about greenspace, which is exactly what we heard. So there were no surprises today," he said. "There’s still the response period that’s open through the end of July, so there could still be a lot of write-in comment."

The board approved the Albright-Knox plan, clearing the last major municipal hurdle for the museum, aside from building permits and other routine procedures.

The venture already received approval from the Common Council in September as a planned-unit development and received Preservation Board approval last month.

The museum's ambitious expansion plan — dubbed AK360 — calls for 30,000 square feet of additional exhibition space in a new all-glass North Building, which will envelop a sculpture garden along with three-walled display areas for other artwork. It will be 14 feet taller than the museum's original building.

The expansion will feature a new entrance and exit on the east facade of the 1962 Building, an indoor Town Square created with a canopy of glass and mirrors over the courtyard, a new education wing for school tours and a bridge to connect the new building and the 1905 Building.

"The civic building that we are building is intended to become Buffalo's beacon for the 21st century," said Albright-Knox Director Janne Sirén. "It's a civic resource that integrates parkland and built environments. Every aspect of this project has taken into account the feedback of our community."

The new building will rest on the current parking lot, with parking shifted to a new underground garage beneath a new lawn but with a direct underground connection into the new North Building. That will improve the view from Elmwood.

Planned are new pedestrian paths through the museum site and into Delaware Park. The 1905 granite staircase on the west side of the gallery will be restored.

The project is already 75 percent funded, with $131 million raised — including $52.5 million donated by investor Jeffrey Gundlach, whose name is being added to the museum.

Officials now plan to begin site work in September or October, with a groundbreaking slated for November or December.

Starting Nov. 4, the museum at 1285 Elmwood will be closed during the construction process, expected to last about two and a half years, before the revamped institution reopens in mid-2022 as the Buffalo Albright-Knox-Gundlach Art Museum. In the interim, officials plan to push the museum's programming into the community, with a display at 612 Northland Ave. and an art truck.

Farther south, Ellicott and Sinatra are seeking to push forward with Elmwood Crossing, their joint remake of the eight-acre former hospital site along Bryant, Hodge and West Utica streets.

Plans call for converting the 700,000-square-foot complex into more than 220 apartments, 27 condominiums, a 78-room hotel, 20 townhouses, an urban grocery store and an EduKids daycare. The developers are also negotiating to buy the Gallagher Ramp from the city.

During the public hearing on the draft environmental report for the project , the development team highlighted efforts to enhance green space on the campus, including the addition of new pedestrian and bicycle paths, playgrounds, pergolas, lawns and trees.

But two of the speakers ridiculed the result.

"I don't see any of this as space I'd be hanging out in on a summer day," said Bill Wisniewski, who lives on Bryant. "It's like going to the Adam's Mark and playing in the fountain."

Story topics: Albright-Knox Art Gallery / Albright-Knox expansion / Buffalo Planning Board / Elmwood Crossing / elmwood village / environmental impact statement / jonathan d. epstein