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23-story apartment tower proposed for Outer Harbor faces new obstacles

Gerald Buchheit’s $60 million proposal for Apartments @ Queen City Landing – a 23-story apartment tower on the Outer Harbor – encountered a new source of potential trouble Monday, as even members of the Buffalo Planning Board began expressing their own doubts about the scale, location and appropriateness of the ambitious project.

After an hourlong public hearing in which Buchheit’s attorney sought to beat back largely environmental and preservation objections from a handful of opponents, board members voiced concerns that they still lacked enough information or guidance to make the best decision.

Besides pending environmental and coastal reviews, acting Board Chairwoman Cynthia Schwartz noted in particular that there’s no final public plan for overall development on the Outer Harbor. Also, the city’s new Green Code isn’t in effect yet. “We’re just caught at an interesting nexus of planning for the future on the part of the city, and we’re not quite ready for prime time,” she said. “We need to have some additional input that is perhaps a broader cross-section of those who care about the waterfront.”

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The Green Code, for example, would have a maximum height for the waterfront, which Schwartz cited as one of her concerns about Buchheit’s project. The tallest nearby grain elevator is about 100 feet high, where Buchheit’s tower would be 328 feet. She also criticized the plan for a parking facility on the site. “The idea of a three-story parking ramp at the water’s edge with a second one proposed is a terrible precedent,” she said.

Board member Martha Lamparelli also said “the height does concern me,” but noted that the project seems to have widespread support in social media, in comments on various websites, and in the broader community.

Buchheit’s attorney, Marc Romanowski, reinforced the project’s benefits, calling it a “dramatic new addition to the waterfront.” He argued that it would not impede public access to the water. He said the rest of the Outer Harbor land is held by the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and that Buchheit’s intends to integrate walking paths and boat access into his property.

“We feel it’s a signature building and a fantastic start, and it’s consistent with what we’re talking about, for the waterfront,” he said. “We think this is a fantastic project.”

And he noted that Buchheit’s land is private. “There’s no lack of publicly owned or controlled land out here. This just happens to be one that is not,” he said.

Romanowski said the project had support from Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, a waterfront advocate, but board member Henry Burns said he wanted to hear that directly. “I’d love to see the mayor come or the congressman, and I’d like to hear them support this project,” he said.

Buchheit, an Orchard Park businessman, wants to demolish the six-story Freezer Queen refrigerated storage building at 975 Fuhrmann Blvd. and replace it with a new glass-facade luxury apartment complex with 198 units. If approved, he wants to finish demolition by mid-summer and wrap up the project by the end of 2017.

But the project has faced intense opposition from a small group of critics, citing historic preservation, environmental hazards, a threat to migratory birds, and the public’s desire for the waterfront to be open rather than private.

Romanowski rejected those arguments, citing research showing no threat to birds, and no increased traffic, noise or wind. And he noted the property will be subject to the Brownfield Cleanup Program, under state oversight.

The Planning Board could not act anyway until the standard regulatory review process wraps up by the next meeting May 31. The Common Council is holding a public hearing on the project Tuesday.