OLEAN — For almost two hours on Thursday, proponents and neighbors of a $13 million housing project on East State Street offered their thoughts to the city Zoning Board of Appeals.
The board took no action on requested use and area variances for the proposed redevelopment of the former Market Basket warehouse at 422 E. State St. at the meeting, with around 30 people in attendance and more than a dozen offering comment to the board.
“We have a lot of information to sift through,” Shayne Certo, the board president, said. “We received a lot of information tonight.”
At issue for the ZBA are two variances — a use variance, as the general commercial zoning district allows for residential use, but not on the ground floor as proposed; and an area variance, as city code calls for 81 parking spaces for the number of housing units and only 71 are proposed.
Several property owners of nearby homes and rental properties spoke in opposition to the project.
Paul Petruzzi, an Olean native who owns several properties in the area, requested the board turn down the project based on impact to the neighborhood.
“This is not a good project, it should not be approved by the ZBA,” he said. “I haven’t heard anything here tonight that would necessitate a variance.”
Petruzzi said that the project is not a good fit for the neighborhood, with traffic and density issues that would harm the mostly single-family residential area.
In addition, he questioned whether there was need for 46 new housing units.
“There is no shortage of housing in Olean — there is too much housing,” he said, noting the many vacant properties in the city that have been left dilapidated as the city’s population has fallen over the past 60 years.
In addition, “we have a vested interest in making sure the things that befall many housing projects don’t happen — which is my fear,” Petruzzi said, adding it is important to make sure those in the project are protected against fraud or taken advantage of. “I know that someone has to be vigilant and be there.”
As an alternative to one large project, Petruzzi recommended “fix up those old homes” that are currently run down in the neighborhoods.
John Hanigan, who owns the Century Manor restaurant on East State, said he had concern over traffic into and out of the project’s parking area.
Adele Sawaya, whose sister lives on Fulton Street, noted traffic entering the project from Fulton will harm the neighborhood.
“There’s so much traffic that goes down that road,” she said, adding a stop sign was added in an attempt to calm the one-way street. “That is not the right location for this.”
Other property owners shared concerns over parking, as well as access to the rear areas of their lots and potential storm runoff issues.
Project proponents said that there is need for this type of development in the city.
“It’s on the bus route, it’s on the river trail, it ties into the Walkable Olean concept — it’s as integrated as you can be,” said Lenny Liguori, CEO of Directions in Independent Living, noting demands from the state to increase integration of those with developmental disabilities into their communities, as opposed to group homes or institutions.
Liguori also noted that, having disabilities himself, “I could have needed this type of facility, if my life had turned out differently … don’t let the suit jacket fool you.”
Ray Weatherby of CDS Housing noted that most of the existing housing projects in the city focus on “those who make zero to 30 percent of the area median income,” and noted the Olean Housing Authority reports around 78 percent of its consumers fall into that income bracket.
“At $11, $15 an hour, you can’t afford market-rate housing,” he said. “We’re targeting those working families.”
Weatherby also noted CDS Housing’s similar developments in other communities have proven effective and have not brought crime or blight to their neighborhoods.
Cyndale is a corporation owned by the Smith family of Olean, with Nate Smith speaking at the meeting in support of the variances. The family purchased the building in 1998, leased space to several commercial enterprises and started a business in the property — all of which failed, Smith said.
“We’re not novices at business, either,” he said, referring to the family’s Worth W. Smith hardware stores, Cindy’s Emporium on North Union Street and Rock City Park south of the city. The location adjacent to the East State Street bridge and lack of similar commercial buildings nearby make operating a business at the site difficult, Smith said.
“There’s a lot of complications to turn it into a commercial, retail or office space,” Smith said, with the building as it stands best serving as a warehouse as originally intended.
The cost to renovate for commercial purposes, Weatherby said, would run roughly $7 million, but only rent out at about $8 per square foot.
“You wouldn’t be able to get a loan from the bank for that,” he said. “What else are you going to put in there?”
The next ZBA meeting is set for 5:30 p.m. Nov. 8 at the Olean Municipal Building.
(Contact reporter-editor Bob Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @OTHBob)