Blocher Homes assisted living facility will officially become a mixed-income apartment complex, as the Williamsville Planning Board approved the controversial project with the minimum number of votes needed.
At a virtual meeting Tuesday night, the Planning Board voted 4-3 for the site plan converting Blocher Homes into mixed-income housing run by People Inc. The board also approved the architectural review, 6-1.
The $31.5 million project will renovate the existing 57-bed Blocher Homes building on Evans Street and construct three new ones on other parts of the 5.2-acre property, creating 93 units for medium- to low-income people. Twenty units will be set aside for people with developmental disabilities who can live independently.
However, the plan has been hotly debated ever since Blocher Homes’ parent company, Beechwood Continuing Care, first announced plans to sell the property to People Inc. in July of last year.
Elderly residents of Blocher Homes protested outside the facility in October, saying they did not wish to be transferred to Beachwood’s skilled nursing campus in Getzville. A couple dozen neighbors spoke out against the project at a public hearing in December, citing concerns it will increase traffic, decrease property values and that it overall doesn’t fit the area. Employees of Blocher Homes have also raised concerns they will not be guaranteed jobs with Beechwood.
Planning Board member Amy Alexander, who voted yes, said the board did not let the “emotional merits” of the situation affect their decision.
“We're here to decide based on site plan and architecture review, not based on whether we like Blocher closing, whether we like low-income housing,” she told her fellow board members. “Those are not the issues we need to focus on.”
Sean Hopkins, an attorney for People Inc., told board members they essentially had no choice but to base their decision exclusively on the village’s zoning laws, which expressly permit multi-family dwellings in a neighborhood mixed-use district.
“We've demonstrated compliance. So that really is the controlling factor,” he said.
But another attorney, Elizabeth Holmes, who is representing neighbors in a lawsuit against the project, noted the village zoning laws also say the Planning Board should take into consideration whether the project is visually offensive or inappropriate; reduces property values, and detrimental to the character of the neighborhood.
“This project would result in an irreversibly detrimental impact on this small and historic village neighborhood,” Holmes told board members.
However, Hopkins noted that People Inc. has made many changes over the last year to address the Planning Board and residents’ concerns. For over 50 minutes he presented those changes, which include reducing the number of units, adding more green space and taking a story off one of the new buildings.
“We've really made a concerted effort to address the input provided by this board again and again and again,” he said. “It's been a reiterative process and we appreciate the input received, but we think we're finally there.”
Still, some board members remained unconvinced. Walter Pacer said he voted against the site plan due to the proposed apartment complex’s “striking visual discord” and its scale and density.
Pacer added that he was insulted by a letter from an Amherst resident that he said suggests people oppose the project because they don’t want low-income, disabled and possibly non-white people living in their neighborhood.
“I think that's an affront to this board's decision-making power and the village,” he said.
The Planning Board was originally supposed to vote on the project last month, but delayed at the request of the project development team because only six of the seven board members were present.
On Tuesday, board members debated whether to delay again due to the absence of board member Catherine Waterman-Kulpa. However, Waterman-Kulpa eventually joined the meeting about 90 minutes in. She voted against the site plan, but voted for the architectural review after hashing out several changes with the developer, Matthew Long.
Beechwood has cited a 73% occupancy rate and four years of financial deficits as reasons why it needs to close Blocher Homes and sell the property.
There’s still no official closure date for Blocher Homes, but developers will have to get a building permit within 12 months, or else they’ll need to get approval all over again from the Planning Board.