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Opponents speak against 23-story waterfront apartment project in Buffalo

A new proposal for a 23-story glass apartment tower on Buffalo’s Outer Harbor faced its first public opposition Monday night, as critics of the $60 million project by Freezer Queen owner Gerald Buchheit sought to derail the initiative before the city’s Planning Board.

Buchheit, an Orchard Park businessman, wants to demolish the existing six-story frozen-foods warehouse building at 975 Fuhrmann Blvd., beside the Small Boat Harbor, and replace it with a new 370,000-square-foot residential apartment structure that will tower 320 feet over the waterfront and bring permanent dwellers to the area for the first time. The radical departure from his prior reuse proposal sparked much of the resistance.

The new Apartments @ Queen City Landing would feature 197 luxury units of 600 to 1,400 square feet each, with balconies, and would also include a three-story adjacent parking ramp with 320 spaces. About 60 percent of the units would be one-bedroom apartments, while the rest would have two bedrooms, with some as penthouse apartments on the top floor.

The opponents – preservationist Daniel Sack and attorney Arthur Giacalone – called the new tower out of sync with both current development in that area as well as the grand plans for the Lake Erie waterfront. “Twenty-three stories tall is certainly out of character with our waterfront,” said Sack, vice president of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo. “It doesn’t make sense. I can’t imagine it would be appropriate to approve such a large building.”

They criticized Buchheit and his attorney Marc Romanowski for submitting improper and incomplete paperwork about the project to the city, which they said denied the public enough access to the proper information in advance of Monday’s initial public hearing. They also challenged the developer and his attorney about whether the land was properly zoned – it was originally zoned as heavy manufacturing.

Romanowski said it was rezoned to commercial in 2009 in anticipation of a prior Buchheit project, although Giacalone said there was no formal evidence of the rezoning.

The opponents also questioned if it was located in a special coastal zone district that would require a special-use permit from the Common Council. Romanowski said the special district ended just to the north. Giacalone even suggested that the project would have a significant environmental impact by posing a threat to migratory birds, which Romanowski ridiculed, noting that there has been no problem with the dozen wind turbines nearby.

The facility would also include both a first-floor waterside restaurant with terraces and boat docks, and a fifth-floor restaurant with an accompanying indoor and outdoor bar, as well as a unique corner infinity pool that would appear to flow over the edge into Lake Erie behind it. The restaurants would be open to the public, while the pool would be open to tenants and restaurant patrons. Plans also include a health spa and fitness center, some additional commercial and retail space on the first floor, and a combination of tennis courts, patio space, a cabana, a fire pit and other recreational activities on the roof of the parking structure.

“What we’re proposing is really going to be a jewel of the waterfront, a pioneer, something we can all be proud of,” Romanowski said.

Buchheit would build a new roadway from Fuhrmann on the north side of the new building, leading to the indoor parking, a valet parking area and a roundabout, and would seek to have the public bike path extended through the peninsula property. There would also be an extra 80-space surface parking lot – giving the project more than 400 spaces in all, exceeding what would be required by zoning code.

In all, the project would occupy about 8.8 acres of the 20-acre total peninsula. The western portion of the land, which will be subdivided into a separate parcel for future additional development by Buchheit, would remain untouched.

“I’m excited to share this project with you, and excited to see it for the future of our city,” said Timothy Rider, architect with Trautman Associates, which is designing the project.

Buchheit, who bought the site nine years ago for $3 million, had planned to convert the current 273,120-square-foot warehouse into 120 units. But after further study and engineering reviews, he decided that the project faced structural and high-cost challenges because the building’s location in a flood plain made it susceptible to routine flooding on the first floor, which was effectively rendered unusable without raising the entire structure by three feet.

“Efforts were made to redevelop and reuse the existing Freezer Queen Building,” Romanowski said. “We have tried every way but sideways to make that work, but we have come to the conclusion that it just does not work.”

Buchheit is now seeking Planning Board approval to demolish the existing 89-year-old concrete building, proceed with the site plan for the new project, and divide the land. The public hearing will continue April 18, and no action is expected for about 30 days. In the meantime, board members asked the Planning Department staff to provide a legal opinion regarding the zoning, coastal review, public notification and other matters.