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Jan 28, 2020

NYC billionaire, Amherst spar over park at ‘zombie’ gas station site

New York City billionaire John A. Catsimatidis, whose United Refining Co. owns a deserted former gas station in Eggertsville, objects to the Town of Amherst’s plans to take over the property and convert it to a pocket park.

Amherst has 41 parks, he argues: Why do they need 42?

Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa – whose fight with Catsimatidis has grown increasingly personal – asks why not?

And he’s not stopping there.

At the same time he’s unveiling plans for a gateway park at the former United Refining site, Kulpa is pushing for even more new parks – including at the Amherst Public Library’s Audubon branch and at the sprawling Muir Woods property in Getzville. Not to mention the still-in-development plans for an Amherst Central Park at the former Westwood Country Club.

“I’m trying to see if I can hit 50,” Kulpa said in an interview. “What a great story for a town to say ‘we’ve got 50 parks.’ ”

If Kulpa gets his way, the site at 159 Niagara Falls Blvd., at Kenmore Avenue, would host a farmers market and provide a comfortable place to catch the bus for people who now have to sit on the concrete barriers that ring the property.

The quarter-acre property where the towns of Amherst and Tonawanda meet the City of Buffalo has frustrated Amherst officials since a Red Apple gas station and convenience store closed there in the late 1990s. United Refining later tore down the station.

United Refining and Catsimatidis have cleaned up several other shuttered “zombie” gas station sites in Erie County, but in those cases the company retained ownership.

Kulpa has said the town is not interested in Catsimatidis’ offer to build a park and public transportation hub at the site because United Refining could redevelop the property in the future.

The town filed for permission to take hold of the property through eminent domain. Catsimatidis objected but he lost his appeals in court and the town now is waiting for a judge to decide how much Amherst will pay for the site. The town said it has offered $81,000, the appraised value.

The town would build a gateway park on the former gas station property and a neighboring parcel that Amherst bought for $194,000 in August 2018.

Kulpa earlier this month showed off plans for the combined property that features a curving trellis that would provide shade for market vendors and their customers.

Benches would be added throughout the park, along with two covered bus stops.

“It’s a lot different than sitting on a concrete barrier, isn’t it?” Kulpa said.

The park would have Amherst welcome signs, a lawn, pavers that allow grass to grow through them and rain gardens centered at the corner of Niagara Falls Boulevard and Kenmore Avenue.

“It’s a great entryway into the town,” he said.

The town wants to add bus pullover lanes to the design, but that requires coordination with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.

Assemblywoman Karen McMahon, D-Amherst, is seeking at least $364,300 in grant money to cover most if not all of the park’s cost.

Crews late last year tore down the building on the adjoining parcel at 143 Kenmore Ave. that was home to a hair salon and, before that, a funeral home.

The town would like to begin construction in the coming months, with the bus shelters completed this year and the farmers market ready to open next spring, Kulpa said.

Neighbor Kandie Napier said she welcomes reuse of the site that languished for years but she doesn’t believe the 10 or so planned parking spaces can handle the volume of park visitors. “You know where they’re going to park? Right here in my driveway,” Napier said.

Catsimatidis, the United Refining owner, has blasted Kulpa and town officials, urging voters to throw them out of office and vowing never to invest more money in this area.

He said the town doesn’t need a park at the site. “It seems to me that a half acre of land is too small for another park,” Catsimatidis said in an email.

Beside, he said, Kulpa is better served focusing his attention on his plans for the 170-acre former Westwood Country Club site that remain in limbo two years after he took office as supervisor. The town continues negotiations over the fate of the property with its owners.

In addition to Amherst Central Park and this gateway park, the planned expansion at the Audubon branch library includes a pocket park outside the building on John James Audubon Parkway.

And the town has reached an agreement with Ciminelli Real Estate Corp., the developer of Muir Woods, for a park at that site, Kulpa said in his recent State of the Town address.

Muir Woods spent decades in development and faced sharp criticism from neighbors. It’s now moving forward in phases as a single-family-home subdivision and student apartments planned by an out-of-town company.

Muir Woods in this town is synonymous with the old line of logic, the way the town used to be – combat between business and residents,” Kulpa said in his remarks.

Instead, he said, the town has a new approach of working with the development community and plans to create a Muir Woods Park as part of the proposal to construct town houses and cottage-style apartments for 1,800 college students.

“And for anybody that’s keeping score, I think that’s park 43 or 44,” Kulpa pointedly told the audience. “But who’s counting?”

Published by The Buffalo News

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