A parade of preservation, environmental and community critics of a proposed 23-story waterfront apartment tower spent more than 90 minutes Monday evening laying out a host of objections to the $60 million project, as they sought to win over Buffalo Planning Board members to their arguments.
Orchard Park businessman Gerald A. Buchheit is seeking to tear down the six-story Freezer Queen building on the Outer Harbor and replace it with the new residential complex that he has called Apartments @ Queen City Landing. The project at 975 Fuhrmann Blvd. would include 198 one- and two-bedroom apartments, two restaurants, a bar, a pool, rooftop tennis courts and a three-level parking ramp.
But opponents want to derail the project, which they denounced as inappropriate for the site. From the impact on migratory birds, to the perceived historic value of the existing building, to traffic, noise and environmental harm, they cited a litany of reasons why the application should be denied.
“This proposal is an affront to the entire city,” said James H. Carr, a retired urban planner and Outer Harbor advocate, who served on the Urban Waterfront Advisory Committee from 1975 to 1980. “This 23-story development, if constructed, will be a stick in the eye for the city.”
One even took to derisively citing Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, whose prominent visit to town was simultaneously taking place a few blocks away from City Hall at First Niagara Center. “In a day when people are lining up for hours to see a particular Republican candidate, this eyesore is less appropriate for this Outer Harbor than Mr. Trump sitting behind the Oval Office desk,” said Arthur J. Giacalone, a retired environmental lawyer who lives in South Buffalo.
Stepping to the microphone one after another, the speakers dominated the second public hearing this month on the ambitious project. Critics asserted that the existing building has been deemed eligible for listing on the National Register for Historic Places, potentially negating the possibility of demolition that Buchheit had hoped to start in June. They warned of health risks from both the demolition and the disturbing of potentially contaminated soil, where pollution could affect Lake Erie or recreational users of the nearby state park. And they called for preserving the look and feel of the lakefront for residents to enjoy.
They also reasserted a significant risk to birds from such a tall glass building on the edge of Lake Erie, noting that the threat to birds derailed the effort to replace the Peace Bridge with a new “signature bridge” that wasn’t even as tall as Buchheit’s 402-foot-high project.
Critics also questioned if there was adequate infrastructure for the project, in terms of sewer and water connections. Giacalone demanded an updated traffic study rather than “something that was dusted off from 2009.” And Buffalo resident Lynda Stephens said the project’s location in a flood plain makes it unsafe and “possibly illegal.”
Giacalone, in particular, focused on procedural and technical issues, such as whether the property’s rezoning by the Common Council in 2008 for an earlier proposal was still valid because Buchheit never properly filed the paperwork with Erie County. “When you wait from 2008 to 2016 to file papers, you’ve waited too long,” he said. “… Apparently, Mr. Buchheit starts projects and never finishes them.”
Land-use attorney Marc A. Romanowski, representing Buchheit, tried to downplay or even dismiss several of the issues, while also acknowledging prior errors and incomplete information in environmental and other documents already submitted to the Planning Board. In particular, he acknowledged that the property is within the Buffalo Coastal Special Review District, where any development is subject to a special-use permit from the Council.
Apologizing for the omissions and mistakes, Romanowski said corrected materials are being refiled, a permit application has been submitted to the Council, and additional information will be supplied to respond to concerns before the board takes any action.
Romanowski also said the rezoning documentation is being filed now by the city, which actually has the legal responsibility to do so. As a result, the board tabled the issue for at least two more weeks. He rejected some of the criticisms, dismissing one about the historic review “reconnaissance” report as “a drive-by survey.”
He dismissed the concerns about the birds, saying Buchheit had hired a wildlife biologist to evaluate the issue and had already been told that tinted windows and adjustments to lighting can easily address the potential effects. And he said the developer plans to update the traffic study.