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Brown says he’s not opposed to Outer Harbor tower

Buffalo’s mayor said he has no objection to a proposed 23-story apartment tower on the Outer Harbor, even though its height would violate the current draft of the new Green Code that officials have been working on for six years.

Gerald Buchheit wants to spend about $60 million to replace the dilapidated Freezer Queen building with a new waterfront residential complex dubbed Apartments@Queen City Landing. The project is before the Planning Board.

It’s come under fire at public hearings in recent weeks from a handful of critics, who say its size and design don’t belong on the Outer Harbor. They also cite environmental, noise, traffic and historic preservation concerns, plus risks to birds.

But the project has also received support online and elsewhere from others, who reject the criticisms and say they see the proposed development as positive progress in turning around an underused asset.

Brown did not go quite as far in backing Buchheit, because a regulatory decision is still pending. But he said he sees nothing wrong with the concept. “The Green Code would probably call for a building that would not be as high, although we are not necessarily troubled by the proposed height of the building,” he told The Buffalo News Editorial Board on Friday. “We are certainly very open to the project, and we want to give the community the ability to have their input into the project through the planning board process.”

Brown and Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of the city’s Office of Strategic Planning, noted that the 20-acre peninsula on which the Freezer Queen building sits has long been viewed as an area for development, along with the former Terminals A and B to the north. That would continue under the Green Code, although the new rules would cap the height at six stories.

By contrast, the vast acreage directly to the north of the terminals would be largely reserved for public access, in keeping with the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.’s blueprint for the area. Under the Green Code, 75 percent of that land would remain green space, while only a quarter of it could be developed.

So the Freezer Queen and terminal properties could be a “node of development” in the midst of open space that “allows people to interact with the environment that’s around them,” Mehaffy said. And Queen City Landing could be attractive to residents because of the quick access to downtown. “As you come out of Ohio Street, all of a sudden there’s the building, and the development going on there,” Mehaffy said. “There could be some exciting possibilities that come from it.”

And the fact that there is no other large development on the Outer Harbor yet makes the height of Queen City Landing less of a problem than some critics might suggest, Mehaffy said. “It’s standalone. It’s not like you have to say it works next to a five-story building,” he said. “It can be a dramatic feature at 23 stories, and not necessarily out of context with the remainder of what’s going on out there. … We’re open to much greater height out there.”

The comments come as the Common Council holds meetings and public hearings to review Brown’s new 330-page Green Code proposal, which would rewrite the city’s zoning rules and land-use regulations for the first time in more than 60 years. The current 1,800-page zoning code dates to 1953, when “we were still making televisions in America,” the mayor noted. “That doesn’t happen anymore, unfortunately.”

Brown said the new “form-based” code is designed to “make the development process in the city faster, quicker, cheaper and more predictable to residents, to developers, to small businesses, to homeowners and to investors in the city.” Rather than being out of date, he said Buffalo would “join other progressive cities” like Denver, Miami and Cincinnati with a set of rules for the 21st century.

“It is going to essentially be the development DNA of the city, and it will help to drive the development process for the next few decades,” Brown said, noting that developers are big proponents. “They want to build projects without delays, without lawsuits, without fighting. The predictability that this process provides for them is certainly very desirable for the developer community.”

The Council is now seeking additional input, and some “tweaks” are expected, especially since residents are now asking for changes based on what they’ve seen in recent projects. Among key topics of discussion are a desire by some in the Elmwood Village to lower the maximum height of buildings on Elmwood from five stories to three stories, limit the number of apartment units per acre for multifamily buildings, and reduce the maximum commercial space on the first floor of buildings along Elmwood from 10,000 square feet. Current zoning code has a 2,500-square-foot limit.

But Brown said the issues have been consistent throughout, and officials hope to have the final code passed and signed by year-end, although it won’t take effect immediately.

“At the end of the day, we want a code that will be supported by the community,” Brown said. “People are actually clamoring for the document now, which is pretty exciting.”

email: jepstein@buffnews.com