Forest Lawn opposes proposed apartments at Locker Room site

Who knew that officials at a historic cemetery would be concerned about shadows?

Ellicott Development Co.’s plan to construct a four-story mixed-use building at the southeast corner of Delaware and West Delavan avenues that incorporates the former Locker Room bar site is running up against opposition from one of its biggest neighbors: Forest Lawn Cemetery and Crematory.

Forest Lawn officials say the 41-unit project, at 51 feet in height, would have a major impact on its business, on mourners coming to pay their respects and even on 35,000 visitors who come to tour the memorial park each year.

The 269-acre burial place for former politicians, dignitaries, celebrities and over 168,000 other people is located across West Delavan from the proposed construction site at 1395 Delaware.

Forest Lawn’s crematory facility is next door on West Delavan, in an E.B. Green-designed Medina sandstone building erected in 1885. It was the fourth crematory built in the United States and is the nation’s oldest continuously operated natural-gas-fired crematory, with the ashes of 332 bodies held in urns in its tower columbarium.

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“Forest Lawn is a really important cultural resource for the City of Buffalo,” Hugh Russ, an attorney and a member of the Forest Lawn board of trustees, told the Zoning Board of Appeals last week, before the board approved a variance that the project needed. “It’s used year-round, and the proposed building would dramatically impact its operations.”

Ellicott, which has been working on the venture for four years, wants to build the structure on a 0.6-acre site, combining a former gas station at 1395 Delaware and a vacant single-story retail building at 885 W. Delavan that was formerly a Black & Decker and DeWalt store and repair center. Both would be torn down, to be replaced by the new building with most of the 6,000 square feet of commercial space, apartments and underground parking.

About half of the units will be one-bedroom apartments, with another 30% as two-bedroom and the rest as three-bedroom units.

The two-story former home of the Locker Room – later Lotis and Blush Nightclub & Lounge – would be connected to the larger building, and would include 1,800 square feet of first-floor commercial space and two upstairs apartments.

But Christopher Converse, Forest Lawn vice president, says the project would mean more traffic from both personal and construction vehicles that “will negatively impact how funeral processions, grieving families and visitors will enter and exit.” He also suggested that the “demolition, excavation, blasting and pile-driving” could “impact the structural integrity” of the crematory and even “our oldest and most famous monuments in the cemetery.”

“The impact this proposed development will have on these two iconic Buffalo properties is hard to assess,” Converse wrote. “Any negative impact to the integrity of this building would be catastrophic.”

Forest Lawn officials tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Zoning Board of Appeals to deny Ellicott’s request for a zoning variance for height, arguing that a four-story building would cast shadows over Forest Lawn’s property and intrude on the privacy of mourners. They also suggested that residents of the apartment building’s upper three floors at the east end of the building, facing the crematory, would have an inappropriate view toward an operation that runs 24 hours a day.

Russ praised Ellicott “for taking on this corner,” noting that “the buildings are an eyesore for the community.” But he said the difference between three stories — which would be allowed under the Green Code — and four stories is 14 additional apartments, which affects not only Forest Lawn but “the entire neighborhood.”

“We’re certain that that additional population would affect the operations of the crematory next door and Forest Lawn across the street,” he said. “We just think that whatever is ultimately built on the site should fit in the community, and not totally dominate the community.”

Ellicott Director of Development Tom Fox questioned “if it’s really creating a challenging situation for Forest Lawn.” The developer conducted a “shadow study,” which found that the proposed building’s shadows would only extend across the street “for a couple of months around the winter solstice,” and would be the same with a three-story building anyway.

He acknowledged the concerns about residents having views of the crematory, and said Ellicott is working with its architects “on a number of concepts” to address that, by shifting living spaces from that eastern wall or modifying the windows so that the views look only toward the north.

But he said the developer needs the fourth floor to make the project financially viable with enough units and income to cover the higher costs, which include a $1 million remediation under the state Brownfield Cleanup Program and construction of a basement for 60 parking spaces. “It’s a challenging project to make sense,” Fox said. “This seven-foot, two-inch variance allows us to push this project forward. Without that extra floor, we can’t go forward.”

And he said the traffic caused by the new project will be less than the combined traffic of the prior gas station, retail building and bar. “The traffic load today will be more because those businesses are closed, but it’s substantially reduced,” he said.

The ZBA also re-approved three variances for a smaller project by Ellicott at 878-880 Elmwood Ave. that has been revised from its previous approval. The project originally called for 14 apartments when it was first unveiled in 2020 and was then revised downward to nine — including seven upstairs and two live-work units on the first floor — and a retail component. That was approved, despite neighborhood opposition to demolishing an existing building.

But now the new Elmwood Lofts will feature a three-story apartment house with only nine traditional units, after changes in market conditions, higher costs, higher interest rates and more restrictive financing forced adjustment because “the live-work tenant spaces didn’t get interest,” Fox said. And instead of a 13-space parking lot, it will have 10 spaces. “The design was found to be unfeasible,” Fox added.

Ellicott sought and received zoning variances for setback, lower-than-required ground-story height and reduced transparency.

Reach Jonathan D. Epstein at (716) 849-4478 or [email protected].

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