Merani project gets conditional OK

Merani Hotel Group's 83-room hotel with 28 private apartments planned for the 400 block of Buffalo Avenue.

After unanimously rejecting a planned Buffalo Avenue development project in December, the Falls Planning Board, on Wednesday night reversed course and gave conditional approval to a plan by Merani Hotel Group to construct an 83-room hotel and 28 private apartments in the 400 block of Buffalo Avenue. 

The project had sparked controversy because it was proposed for a neighborhood that is zoned R4-A (residential historic) and includes a Tim Horton's coffee shop with a drive-thru. The Merani Group had also sought a change in the area's zoning to D1-C (downtown commercial), which would have allowed the project to use "less expensive construction materials" and exceed the current five-story limit on building heights.

In its return to the planning board, the developer dropped the request for the zoning change and agreed to 13 revised conditions governing the project. 

"We have accepted all the conditions (recommended by city planners)," Merani Hotel Group’s Vice President of Operations Michael Marsch told the planning board.

During the meeting Marsch also agreed to cosmetic changes to some of the building's windows and to some cosmetic works to the side walls of the hotel to satisfy neighbor's concerns. City planners will also meet with the developer to determine if the plan to create a traffic line for the Horton's drive-thru can be adjusted.

The drive-thru remained a source of frustration for neighbors, who complained that it will create both parking and traffic-flow problems. The planning board had previously ruled that a drive-thru was not permitted in the historic district, but Merani appealed that decision.

The Falls Zoning Board of Appeals then overturned that interpretation of the city zoning code.

Planning Board Member Michael Murphy predicted the Horton's related traffic would lead the city to reduced on-street parking in the area.

"They have a variance and they have a right to have a drive-thru," City Planner Tom DeSantis told the board. "We have to figure out how to do this and what are the things we can suggest that will ameliorate the (citizen's) concerns."

DeSantis and Marsch agreed that they would meet to "review the best way to handle the (traffic in the drive-thru). Marsch also said he would have a discussion with Horton's about its planned hours of operation.

The property was once the headquarters location for Nabisco Shredded Wheat and the Merani project would replicate the look of the cereal maker's former offices. It features an 83-room Holiday Inn Express hotel, 28 private apartments, the Tim Horton's coffee shop and a convenience store. 

With a price tag of between $22 million to $25 million, it is expected to create 27 full-time and 14 part-time jobs with an annual payroll in excess of $680,000. The building will top out at five stories and have 80,000 square feet.

The developer has received a tax break package, approved by the Niagara County IDA, worth $2.53 million over a decade.

Looking at the revised site plan, Board Member Timothy Polka told Marsch, "You've come a long way since December."

The board approved the revised project plan by a vote of seven in favor, none opposed and one abstention.

"We got some really good feedback at the zoning board meeting," Marsch said. "We want to do a project that we can be proud of and that the neighborhood can be proud of too."

While the project has been slowed by the novel coronavirus pandemic, Marsch said in May that he was hopeful that work would be underway by this summer.

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