Common Council to Hear Richardson Porte-Cochere Appeal

Douglas Development is asking the Common Council to overturn the Preservation Board’s disapproval of a porte-cochere constructed at the Richardson Hotel.  The structure was built at the Richardson Olmsted Complex without first seeking Board approval. Douglas Development obtained the lease for the former Hotel Henry in 2022 after the property was shuttered in 2021 after Covid significantly impacted its business. After a new round of renovations, including the construction of the porte-cochere at the hotel’s main entrance, the relaunched Richardson Hotel re-opened for operations in March 2023.

Portions of the Appeal prepared by Phillips Lytle LLP:

The Porte Cochere is completely independent from the existing historical building, and therefore is freestanding and fully reversible (meaning it can be removed in the future with absolutely no harm to the Complex structure). The width of the structure is the same width as the previously approved addition of the original glass entrance. The structure is also approximately 29 feet in height in order to meet the height of the previous glass ADA addition, and to allow for emergency vehicles to pass underneath the canopy. The length of the structure is approximately 85 feet in order to fit over the sculpture located the central circular round-a-bout in front of the Site.

The metal columns are unadorned, the underside of the roof is finished with dark-stained wood paneling, and there will be minimal recessed LED lighting under the deck. The fascial around the Porte Cochere is finished with simple metal panels to match the metal columns. Further, the flooring system will only be used seasonably and can be removed. The stainless steel cable rail system along the border of the Porte Cochere is currently under review by the NPS [National ParkService]. Lastly, a new top-lit “Richardson” sign will hang from the bottom of the Porte Cochere, rather than above, in order to prevent obstructed views to and from the existing historic buildings.

The Developer strongly believes that the prior hotel entrance was too undefined and the Porte Cochere for the Richardson Hotel is an additional effort to identify the hotel and ensure its successful operation. The Developer submitted an application to the Preservation Board in April 2022 for the addition of a prior design to the current Porte Cochere. After review, the Preservation Board rejected the initial design and directed Developer to work with NPS on a revised design. Thereafter, the Developer pursued an intense and carefully coordinated review of a revised Porte Cochere design through NPS.

In fact on April 12, 2023, NPS, with Brian Goeken AICP Chief Technical Preservation Services at the NPS, visited the site to observe the proposed Porte Cochere and its appearance within the overall context of the Complex. Developer also worked closely with the NPS to design the Porte Cochere, including the appropriate height of the structure, so it would not significantly impact viewshed to and from the historic resource, as well as adhere to the Standards and Guidelines.

After a well-vetted review of the newly proposed design of the Porte Cochere with consideration of the historical aspects and the Standards and Guidelines, the NPS approved the proposed Project and determined that it met the Standards and Guidelines, as long as the conditions listed were met2. See Exhibit A (NPS Historic Preservation Approval). In fact, NPS expressly reviewed the Project for consistency with the Standards and Guidelines. Moreover, the NPS is the entity primarily charged with implementing the Standards and Guidelines.

The Developer then returned to the Preservation Board with the NPS approved design of the Project on October 5, 2023 and October 19, 2023, where the matter was tabled on both dates. On November 2, 2023 the Preservation Board voted to deny the Project “on the basis that the scale and height, as well as visual obstruction of the twin towers of the Richardson Olmsted Complex, contravene the Secretary of the Interior Standards and Guidelines.”

It is undeniable that the NPS would not approve the proposed Porte Cochere if it did not meet the Standards that were most applicable to the Project. More importantly, the NPS made its determination based on the scale of the Porte Cochere in comparison and in the context of the entire Complex, rather than focusing on the main hotel building. NPS views the entire Kirkbride plan as one cohesive building with separate sections, not individual buildings. The size and scale of the Port Cochere responds to the entire building, as it should, not just the hotel.

Using the scale of the Porte Cochere as a comparison to the entire Complex aided NPS’s determination that the Porte Cochere would have no real significant impact to the historical structure or materials that characterized the property, and would be an important and vital piece to the success of the both the hotel and preservation of the Complex. Further, it was clearly presented to the NPS that the Porte Cochere is independent, freestanding, and a reversible structure, that by no means is attached to the historic buildings, and also cohesively blends with the surrounding Complex as to not obstruct any directional views from afar.

Respectfully, the Preservation Board’s decision appears to be based on a misunderstanding that the NPS only reviewed the Project relative to the historic tax credits. Therefore, the Applicant now submits this Appeal to the Common Council to reverse the Preservation Board’s decision.

Portions of a letter signed by Gwen Howard, AIA, Preservation Board Chairwoman:

When Douglas Development came in for the permit for that structure, they filed only for a REPAIR permit and no plans were submitted. The trigger for review never happened because the property was improperly tagged in the system AND the permit did not designate new construction. It wasn’t until the hotel developer started building the structure that it even became apparent, a stop work order was issued, construction documents were still not submitted, just renderings, and the matter was brought before the Preservation Board.

We heard and denied the structure because it was out of scale as constructed, did not possess any refinement in detailing, and there were conflicts and indecision on the part of the design team in the documents they did submit. That lack of clarity would be a basis for a denial with any applicant. We offered the recommendation that a porte-cochere would be approvable if the height was brought down (to reduce the impact on the view of the structures as a guest approaches) and the structure was cut back to project no farther than the flanking buildings (again to reduce the impact on the existing structures). The applicant told us that it was going to National Parks Service and SHPO for review, and they would wait to see what was approved by them. We were also prematurely told that if those entities approved it, we would likely lose an appeal.

National and State landmark property owners have every right to do whatever they want to a property when they are paying for it out of their own pocket. If Douglas Jemal wants to cover the Richardson with vinyl siding, and it was only a state or national landmark (not a local landmark), he could. He could replace all the windows, he could do anything he wants. This is inside and out. The NPS and SHPO come into play when an applicant wants to do something that uses State or Federal money.

Once someone wants to use tax credits, first the State as a delegate for the NPS looks at the application (and later after it is kind of fleshed out it goes to the NPS too) to see if the property is historic (well proven here already), then they look at the work proposed and see if it is appropriate. They will approve the application for tax credits based on construction documents, and then at the end of the process, they look at what was done and check that it met those documents. When that process is completed, there is a sunset period under which the NPS and State can look at later improvements and has some governing authority. The Richardson Corp undertook this process, as well as using other state and federal funds to do the central buildings and were subject to a five-year sunset period. At five years and a day, anyone can go back in and do whatever they want.

At the time of Richardson Corp’s project, they wanted a porte-cochere and it was expressly denied by the National Park Service when submitted by that design team. Every possible configuration and size was denied by the NPS. They were firm on this. They were firm that the tax credits couldn’t be used for the porte-cochere. That project needed every possible penny to be completed so there was no “private money” available to spend on a porte-cochere. An addition or new build cannot be covered by tax credits.

Because he spent private dollars on the deck, they have no say. Frankly, they have no say over the interior either. But, he wanted those tax credits, so they had some leverage here. It was originally not slated for approval by the State or Federal offices (as evidenced from the FOILed information provided by other parties as a response to this appeal). There ultimately was intervention from Congressman Higgins on behalf of the project, which applied pressure to the NPS to approve the porte-cochere. The NPS called ALL of their reviewers together (per Laura Hughes, Jemal’s historic consultant) and discussed what to do. You don’t have a huge meeting of people from all areas of the agency if it is a no-brainer to approve. They needed to discuss this. They can’t fund the porte-cochere with tax credits because it is an addition/new construction. Their review was a stretch. They said if you want the tax credits on the rest of the buildings, you need to do a few things for us, and they would then approve under the pressure from Congressman Higgins:

Set very thin railings back a prescribed distance from the edges and give us a sight line study to prove you can’t see them.

It has to be seasonal and “temporary”. They are using a temporary decking surface when it is in season.

Nothing can be permanently mounted to this, and it can’t be tall (again so you can’t see it).

You can’t have a permanent means to access it (so they are using something like an aluminum jet bridge to cross over to it).

If you follow these instructions, we will allow the tax credits for the rest of the project.

Their approval wasn’t an approval of the deck. It was the best they could get on a deck they had no control over, yet they were being pressured to approve from above. Left to his own devices, Mr. Jemal could do whatever he wanted, as long as he is paying for it himself.

Now – locally, things are different. Local landmark and district designations are the ONLY way that there is binding governing authority on work on those properties, regardless of how it gets paid for. And the local process is the ONLY one that the public has the right to weigh in on. Note that this is only on the exterior work. Inside, the Board has no governing authority. Local Board approval is triggered when a building permit is applied for is the same process regardless of who is doing the work or how it is paid for. This is the process under which the porte-cochere came to the Buffalo Preservation Board. The building permit was issued in error because no one flagged the new private property address in the HANSEN system at the City once it was removed from the State property’s address.

So Jemal started the deck with a permit that was issued without construction documents for repairs to the building only. Once it was noticed that he was operating outside the bounds of his permit (building a deck without any review or construction documents), he was told to apply for the approvals required for the landmark property, as the error in the HANSEN system was corrected. We reviewed the application, which was not construction documents, but a few sketches of what it might look like when it was finished. The deck was already started, and a stop-work order was issued. We looked at the incomplete information, listed to the public comments as we are obligated to do, and reviewed it against the Secretary of the Interior Standards for Preservation. We denied it.

NPS was not looking at the project in the same way we were because they were looking at a tax credit project with a porte-cochere project they had no authority over. They were trying to impose as many restrictions as they could on something they had no jurisdiction over. At the end of that process, they issued an advisory opinion and said that the “project will meet the Secretary of the interior standards when complete”. That PROJECT is the tax credit project before them. It is the item they have jurisdiction over.

The project reappeared at our Board once the tax credit project was approved by NPS and SHPO. Though denied again, our denial still comes with the same pathway for approval. We would approve it if it is lower and projects less from the building. This would still “announce the entrance” allowing for signage and vehicle protection and would permit emergency vehicles under it. It would not restrict the view of the towers, which it does now as people approach the building.

We are grateful as a community for Douglas Development’s investments in our community and in this important National, State and Local landmark. That involvement comes with a process that we are obligated to follow regardless of the project size or stature.

The Common Council meeting begins at 2 PM on Tuesday.

The post Common Council to Hear Richardson Porte-Cochere Appeal appeared first on Buffalo Rising.

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