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Elk Street redevelopment OK'd over objections from chemical company

A plan by the owner of Ontario Specialty Contracting to redevelop an old industrial site on Elk Street gained city approval Tuesday, after the Buffalo Planning Board turned back an attempt by a neighboring chemical company to derail the project.

Ontario Specialty owner Jon Williams plans to turn the former Schoellkopf Powerhouse and Connector buildings at 229 Elk St. into commercial office and flex space, with the possibility of space for a coffee shop or restaurant, primarily to serve tenants of the complex.

The demolition and abatement company could use some of the complex for its own offices and equipment, but other options could include using some space to host meetings and events.

That idea alarmed PVS Chemicals Inc., which produces sulfuric, hydrochloric and other acids at its nearby plant at 55 Lee St.

The 6.03-acre site at the corner of Elk and Lee streets was occupied by Buffalo Color until 2005, but is now vacant. It is in a longtime industrial zone dating back to 1879. The land was once part of the Allied Chemicals complex, before the facilities were sold to different owners, including Buffalo Color and PVS.

David L. Roach, an attorney for PVS Chemicals, said PVS officials didn't have any objection to Ontario Specialty's presence there, including for displaying equipment. But allowing the general public to come to social or cultural events there could change the nature of the neighborhood and hinder its operations, Roach said.

In particular, Roach said, PVS officials worry that heavy truck traffic, noise, chemical odors and emissions from its facility's smokestacks, while typical in a heavy industrial area, would be disruptive or offensive to people coming for other purposes.

"Someone coming to the restaurant to have lunch or dinner is going to be somewhat surprised if there's a slight acid spill at PVS, making its way down to the Buffalo River, and the company has limited time to respond. It's noisy. It can be smelly," Roach said.

"So if there is going to be change in use, and especially a change in use that could invite the general public to this facility on a regular basis, it will drastically change the nature of our neighborhood, and reflect unfairly on our perfectly legitimate, longstanding operation," Roach said.

He said PVS gets 14,000 tractor-trailer loads delivered every year along Elk Street, as well as 900 railcars that come to PVS each year through a railroad spur that comes within 20 feet of Williams' proposed redevelopment project. "We continue to be, rightfully, in a heavily industrial zoned area," Roach said. "That's why heavy industrial sites are occupied by heavy industrial users."

Additionally, he said, PVS is heavily regulated by the federal and state governments, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. But it is also regulated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, under a 2009 law called the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards Act, which identified chemical manufacturing and storage facilities as posing higher risks as terrorism targets, Roach said.

Under that law, Roach said, PVS had to be assessed and confidentially rated by the federal government. It also had to implement a security plan, including a security perimeter, that is subject to modification if conditions change. "This change in use will require a complete new assessment of the risk to our facility and will require amendments," Roach said. "It is a serious issue."

The company must also report suspicious activities around its property to law enforcement, which must respond every time, and that would only increase with more people coming to the area, the attorney said. "There will be a burden if this becomes a facility that will attract the general public," Roach said. "If we see anyone even casually observing the facility, we have to call the police."

That's overly "dramatic," said architect Steve Carmina, who is working with Williams. "This site has gone through complete brownfield remediation, top-down, and meets all the requirements for re-use," he said, noting that the proposed reuse is consistent with the Green Code. "We recognize that this is a road that has truck traffic, as well as other traffic. It's no different than any other street in Buffalo."

Carmina urged the Planning Board not to set any restrictions on the reuse. "It's not on us that they have to meet the regulations," Carmina said. "This should not stand in the way of approval. This is a project that should move ahead."

Plans for the $4.2 million historic restoration and adaptive reuse project call for the 36,270-square-foot complex to remain intact, with the initial focus on converting the connector into the offices and flex space for other commercial or restaurant use. Carmina said there are no definite plans for the boiler house yet.

A new enclosure will be added to the east and south sides of the building's interior, creating new lobby entrances, while the rest of the outside work will consist of restoring deteriorating brick and mortar, restoring existing window sills or installing new ones, and installing new doors. A new roof also will be erected over the existing flat roof area.

Williams had previously tried to also save the historic Icehouse building, which was located in front of the power or boiler house building, and had received approval for an earlier proposal that incorporated it. But the 25,000-square-foot building was in such bad shape that the company took it down in an emergency demolition after consulting with city engineers and the State Historic Preservation Office.

Planning Board to review plan to redevelop Schoellkopf Icehouse

"Our client went in to try to see how we could save the Icehouse, but it was literally falling down as we tried to restore it," Carmina said.

That allowed the developers to make changes to the project, including moving the parking closer to the remaining buildings. Plans call for keeping the foundation of the old Icehouse as a retaining wall to separate the parking area from the street, while still displaying where the edges of the old building were. "We never want to lose a building like that, but it does allow for some amazing sight lines to the boiler house," Carmina said.

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