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Plan to move Queen City Landing 25 feet draws concerns

Twenty five feet.

That’s how far developer Gerald Buchheit wants to move the site of his 23-story Queen City Landing tower to avoid building on an aging wood pier foundation left after demolition of the former Freezer Queen warehouse.

It may as well be 25 miles.

Critics of the planned Outer Harbor construction plan are calling for a full environmental review of the proposed changes to thoroughly evaluate any risks, seeking what one opponent called “a second bite at the apple” to make up for what they described as an inadequate review earlier this year.

“We are not opposed to development on this site,” said Margaux Valenti, program advisor with Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper. “But the development has to ensure there’s no adverse impacts on this site.”

The Planning Board on Monday tabled the request until members could evaluate public comments with engineering and other experts from the city. “We have a lot to review. It’s almost impossible for us to render a decision based on what was presented today,” said board chairman James K. Morrell.

Buchheit spokesman Phil Pantano said the two-week delay won’t affect the ongoing work, the signing of construction contracts or the purchase of materials.

The Planning Board did approve a related but separate request to subdivide the peninsula into two parcels, keeping all of the current development and environmental cleanup on the eastern end while leaving the western portion for future action. That was done at least in part at the request of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, officials said.

Buchheit won approval in May to demolish the six-story former Freezer Queen refrigerated storage warehouse at 975 Fuhrmann Blvd. and replace it with the glass apartment tower containing 197 one- and two-bedroom apartments, plus a three-level parking ramp for 320 cars. It would also include two restaurants, a fitness center, recreational facilities and floating docks.

Critics have fought to stop the project with a lawsuit. Crews finished demolishing the old building and are now clearing the site in preparation to start construction in the spring.

When crews finally unearthed the old foundations, they found several hundred wood pilings that “did not readily allow themselves to redevelopment,” said Buchheit attorney Marc Romanowski, of Hopkins Sorgi & Romanowski. As a result, the developer has sought to move the project 25 feet to the north.

Since the distance from the water would increase, that opened up opportunities for more landscaping along the water’s edge, as well as a redesign to the decking area along the water and reconfiguration of the road.

Buchheit has also proposed reducing the height of the tower and the parking ramp by about 19 feet to make them less imposing, while lengthening the garage and shifting more parking spaces outside. The ramp will now have 244 spaces, rather than 320. Instead of a boat slip where people could store boats, the plan now calls for a pull-up floating dock for patrons of the restaurants.

Romanowski stressed that the request is an amendment, not a new project, and should not need an extensive new review.

But project opponents raised questions about whether the land beneath the project site is unstable and noted that the Outer Harbor is exposed to very severe weather.

They also reiterated past concerns about environmental contamination on the site and demanded to know what pollution has been found.

“We believe the issue of constructability includes what’s in the soil, what may have seeped, what tests have been done and access to test results for the board and public,” said environmental attorney Arthur Giacalone.

Speakers at a public hearing on the proposed changes also questioned what Buchheit plans for the western half of the 20-acre peninsula property and how contamination and construction on one side might affect the other.

“Right now, the contamination issues are very, very serious about this building,” said Lynda Schneekloth, advocacy chair of Western New York Environmental Alliance. “You need to have significant information on these issues and you need to get it.”

Romanowski rejected the arguments, calling some of them “inappropriate.” He noted the state has overseen the cleanup.

“None of the contaminants that we found in the study have changed,” he said. “We don’t expect any new issues to arise.”

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