Lawsuit seeks to stop downtown project

Developer Rocco Termini and several businesses that operate out of his company’s downtown properties filed a lawsuit last week against the City of Buffalo and Ciminelli Real Estate Corp., seeking to hit pause on Ciminelli’s most-recent plan to develop a city-owned surface parking lot at 201 Ellicott Street.

The Ciminelli plan entails 200 apartments and condominiums, plus a grocery store and food distribution terminal run by Braymiller Market, based in Hamburg. Braymiller is also named in the lawsuit. 

The 2.5-acre site is across Ellicott Street from Termini’s Hotel @ The Lafayette. The downtown public library is to its north; the Greyhound bus station and ECC City Campus are to its south.

The lawsuit argues that City of Buffalo, its planning board and its zoning board of appeals failed to follow city laws regarding the sale of public property to a private entity. It further argues that the city failed to perform adequate studies about the impact of the Ciminelli project on other downtown properties, in regard to quality of life, traffic, and parking, among other issues.

Perhaps most importantly, the lawsuit argues that the project constitutes what Termini has described as a “bait and switch.”

Mayor Byron Brown first announced plans to sell and develop the property, at his 2015 State of the City speech. The plan Ciminelli submitted during the subsequent bidding process checked all the boxes the city listed in its request for proposals. It comprised two buildings — one 18 stories, the other four stories — including an 800-space parking ramp, which would offset the loss of 375 spaces in the existing surface lot and accommodate customers and employees of a full-sized grocery store. The proposal also included office and retail space, and tenants living in 200 new, market-rate apartments and condominiums.

However, Ciminelli has scaled down its plans since winning the bid to develop the property. 

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The current proposal, which has won variances and approvals from city agencies, jettisons the parking ramp and the 18-story building. The grocery store operation would be housed in a single-use, split-level building with little parking and a truck loading site facing Oak Street, for supplying the market and shipping produce to area restaurants. The 200 apartments, now affordable housing, would be contained in a separate, four-story building.

The lawsuit argues the city should be required to go back to the drawing board and issue a new request for proposals. Ciminelli is one of the only local firms with the capacity to finance and build a project on the scale of the original proposal, Termini said. Given the change in scale, other local developers — including Termini, who said he has a proposal to offer — might want to take a shot at acquiring the parcel.

Ciminelli’s original plan fit the scale of surrounding buildings in terms of height and land use, Termini said, but the current proposal does not. The lack of parking has drawn criticism from other downtown property owners, too. 

“I’d prefer they would build what they originally proposed four years ago,” Termini told Investigative Post’s partners at WGRZ-TV News back in March. “It’s like a bait and switch.” 

Ciminelli had planned to begin construction in the fall. The case has been assigned to New York State Supreme Court Justice Emilio L. Colaiacovo, who is scheduled to hold a preliminary hearing on July 3.

Here’s the petition filed last week:

201 Ellicott Lawsuit (Text)