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'Zombie' gas station lots frustrate municipalities throughout Erie County

Amherst says it has an un-welcome mat greeting visitors at its front door.

The vacant former Red Apple gas station property at the corner of Niagara Falls Boulevard and Kenmore Avenue has long annoyed Amherst officials.

Surrounded by concrete barriers and often home to an abandoned shopping cart, it is not the first impression the town wants to present to the tens of thousands of motorists who pass the site daily.

"It's the gateway into Amherst from Buffalo, and it's been an eyesore for a long time," said former Amherst Supervisor Susan J. Grelick. "It doesn't send out a very welcoming message."

The property at Niagara Falls Boulevard is owned by United Refining Co., the conglomerate behind the Kwik Fill and Red Apple chains.

The Eggertsville site is one of five former Kwik Fill or Red Apple properties owned by United Refining in Erie County that sit vacant – some nearly 20 years after the gas station closed and nearly all surrounded by the same concrete barriers.

Critics say the sites, many in prime locations, take a toll on surrounding properties while the company refuses to do anything with them.

United Refining isn't the only company that owns unused property. In Lackawanna, for example, the mayor is more concerned about a boarded-up former Mobil and Sunoco at a key intersection in the city.

"It just looks like a haunted shack," Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski said. "It seems to fall into a commercial version of a zombie property."

A United Refining executive said the company is sensitive to the concerns of local officials and will look into making the sites more appealing, including possibly replacing the concrete barriers.

But the executive said one reason the company retains its properties is to prevent competitors from acquiring them.

"We tend to hold our real estate for a long time and await development opportunities," said John R. Wagner, United Refining's executive vice president and general counsel.

 

Owner is worth billions

United Refining Co. of Pennsylvania distributes its fuel through Red Apple and Kwik Fill gas stations throughout New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The owner of the Red Apple Group and United Refining is John A. Catsimatidis, who is worth $3.1 billion according to Forbes.

Catsimatidis is a well-known figure in the state's Republican circles and has his own talk radio show in New York City. He's best known in this area for briefly exploring the idea of buying One Seneca Tower, in 2016, before taking a pass on the deal.

His United Refining has extensive holdings in Erie County, according to real property records, including a refinery on River Road in the Town of Tonawanda and 25 Kwik Fill gas stations.

But it's the long-closed gas stations that are frustrating some local officials.

Public records show that United Refining owns five vacant properties in Erie County that once operated as Red Apple or Kwik Fill gas stations: two in Buffalo, one in Amherst, one in the Town of Tonawanda and one in Lackawanna.

The stations closed between 1998 and 2009, according to state records, and United Refining has removed their underground storage tanks. Four of the five feature concrete barriers.

Station closed 20 years ago

The site at 159 Niagara Falls Blvd. has bugged Amherst officials since the early 2000s.

The Red Apple gas station and convenience store closed in the late 1990s. By 2001, town leaders floated a plan to let the Eggertsville Fire Company demolish the vacant store as part of a training exercise and to replace the structure with a grassy field and a "Welcome to Amherst" sign.

United Refining officials expressed interest, but nothing ever came of it. The store and pumps are gone, but it remains a gravel and asphalt lot surrounded on all four sides by concrete barriers. They keep out cars but don't stop the shopping carts that tend to collect there.

"Sometimes it looks like one of those cart corrals in the parking lot," said Steve Matisz, the president of the Eggertsville Community Organization. "I think they're doing the bare minimum. It's just a bad image for everybody."

By 2015, the Amherst Town Board was so frustrated that members agreed to explore whether the town could acquire the property through eminent domain. Again, nothing happened.

Brian J. Kulpa, the town's new supervisor, has focused his attention on the property as he plans to address the future of the Niagara Falls Boulevard corridor and of the surrounding neighborhood. Kulpa flagged the former Red Apple site when he made a presentation to the Amherst Industrial Development Agency board of directors earlier this year.

Michele F. Marconi, the IDA's vice president, said, "I don't know how long it's been there, but I think as long as I've been driving a car."

Kulpa said he drives past the site at least twice a week and he stares at it "coming and going."

"This is one small area of 54 square miles, but it's telling," said Kulpa.

Taylor Haines has a prime view of the United Refining site from his Encompass Agency office.

"I wish they would do something with it. I think it's good land that could be used," said Haines, the managing broker, who added that the barrier-lined lot "reminds me of a war zone."

'You can't miss it'

The Eggertsville site isn't the only United Refining property that has drawn the ire of local officials.

Community leaders want United Refining to sell this former gas station property at 161 Grant St. to open it up to redevelopment. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

The property at 161 Grant St., near Auburn Avenue, is similarly surrounded on three sides by concrete barriers. It is near a 7-Eleven, a Save-A-Lot and the J&A Nepali Kitchen and Restaurant in the heart of the Grant Street business district.

"You can't miss it," said Jenifer Kaminsky, director of planning and community development for PUSH Buffalo, adding, "It's an asphalt lot with Jersey barriers. It does provide a place to sit while you're waiting for the bus."

Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, has complained about the property for years, since before he was elected to office.

He said he called Catsimatidis in January to personally press him on the state of the former Kwik Fill. Catsimatidis made no apologies for holding onto the property for this long in this condition.

"Just the opposite," Ryan said. "(Catsimatidis said) he's within his rights to keep it the way it is."

Kaminsky said PUSH Buffalo offered to pay the appraised value of the property, a figure she did not disclose, and said United Refining countered by asking for double that amount. The property is assessed at $36,200.

They couldn't reach agreement on a deal.

Kaminsky said the United Refining property detracts from the neighborhood, which has seen a revival.

"They offered no end game, or alternative use or plan," said Kaminsky, who would like to see affordable housing on the site.

The Westminster Economic Development Initiative, a nonprofit whose programs include the West Side Bazaar, reached out to United Refining through a real-estate agent but got no response.

"I think each vacant space definitely affects the neighborhood overall," said Ben Bissell, the group's executive director.

Other sites aren't an issue

Not every site stirs up the same concerns.

The former Red Apple property at 3333 Delaware Ave., five blocks south of Sheridan Drive, hasn't spurred a lot of complaints to Joseph Emminger, the Town of Tonawanda supervisor, nor is there much the town can do about it.

"If I have gotten one call in two years, that's a lot," Emminger said.

In Lackawanna, the former Red Apple at 1135 Ridge Road, is the only one of the five properties that is not surrounded by concrete barriers.

Szymanski, the mayor, said he occasionally notices problems with United Refining's upkeep, but otherwise he doesn't have a serious issue with the site beyond wanting to see it reused. His bigger concern is with the former Mobil and Sunoco at Ridge and Abbott roads, the city's busiest intersection.

"As much as we're trying to change the reputation, sometimes the visuals won't allow us to change it," Szymanski said.

The fifth United Refining property is at 422 Ontario St., in Riverside, across the street from the Shaffer Village housing complex.

Possible 'appealing' compromise

United Refining has no immediate plans to do anything with the five sites in Erie County.

The Pennsylvania-based company hires contractors to maintain the properties and the sidewalks, said Wagner, the executive.

He said United Refining is more than willing to pay the carrying costs on the sites until it finds the right deal.

Wagner said he is aware of the PUSH Buffalo purchase offer "that was deemed insufficient."

He said United Refining put up the barriers to keep vehicles off the sites. He said the company would look into using something more attractive, such as steel bollards, to line the properties.

Wagner also said the company would consider granting rolling leases to the towns or cities that would let them spruce up the sites and post "Welcome" signs while maintaining United Refining's ownership.

"What we're attempting to do is assess how we can make them more appealing from a visual point of view," Wagner said.

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