Bad chemistry between a proposed outdoor soccer field for college students and an industrial neighbor put the goal of a proposed Elk Street athletic facility at risk, as objections by a longtime sulfuric acid manufacturing facility delayed approval of the $1.6 million sports project.
PVS Chemical Solutions, a Detroit-based company that has operated a plant on Lee Street in Buffalo since 1981, said a planned public sports complex simply doesn't belong in the city's heavy industrial corridor, where its recreational nature would conflict with the type of existing companies already operating there.
Plant Manager Chris Cancilla said that such a facility – particularly with its outdoor playing field for youth and college sports – would lead to changes in the nature of the neighborhood and community expectations. In particular, he said, it would expose more people to the sights and smells that typically accompany its operation, inevitably leading to new complaints that the company currently does not face.
That, in turn, could put its own local business in jeopardy in the future, potentially squeezing it out of the area.
"PVS is opposed to development of a recreational facility where the general public will be invited in, directly adjacent to and downwind from our chemical plant," Cancilla told the Buffalo Planning Board. "We believe the proposed site is an industrial site. It should remain industrial."
Cancilla stressed that it's not a question of safety, but perception. The plant has reported 19 spill incidents to state regulators since Jan. 1, 2000. Its last incident was on May 16, 2017, when an equipment failure caused 1,725 pounds of sulfuric acid to spill into the Buffalo River.
"Our current operation is certainly safe. That's why you haven't heard of us. There is no danger to the public," Cancilla said, noting that he has worked there for 30 years, including 17 as manager. "I do fear that somebody could misconstrue something and take it to a higher level."
Cancilla and attorney Corey Auerbach of Barclay Damon LLP called for changes to the plan by Jon Williams' South Buffalo Development LLC, to keep the public as far away from the chemical plant as possible. Options could include relocating the field on the larger property, or screening an area between the field and the factory fence.
"Industrial zones are industrial for a reason. There are buffer zones that should be maintained," Cancilla said. "That's what PVS would be looking for."
Yet even that might not work. "I'm not sure you can adequately screen an outdoor recreational facility," Auerbach said. "I'm not even sure there is a buffer that can be done. But there's not even an attempt in the site plan."
Marc Romanowski, an attorney who represents Williams, rejected PVS' arguments, saying the city already determined that the sports complex is an "appropriate use" for the site, and dismissing safety and other concerns. "If PVS is indeed the responsible neighbor that they claim to be, we have nothing to worry about," he said.
The attorney also said rearranging the site plan may not work. And he suggested that PVS just wants to control what happens next to it, but didn't take Williams up on a 2013 offer to sell the land to PVS. "If you want control over your property, then buy it," Romanowski said.
The project was already approved by the Buffalo Common Council as a "planned unit development," and the Council also accepted an environmental review, so Planning Board approval is the last step.
But the board decided on Monday to delay acting for two weeks, to give the developer and PVS some time to discuss options and work out a solution. Otherwise, "one side or the other will be unhappy in two weeks," said Board Vice Chair Cynthia Schwartz.
PVS was pleased. "We're confident that in working with the developer and the Planning Board, there can be some sort of solution where PVS's concerns can be mitigated appropriately," Auerbach said. "It's going to require the parties to put their heads together and see if we can't find an cooperative solution that is amenable to all parties."
However, that's another delay for the project, which Romanowski said has already been pending before the Planning Board since January. "At this point, we've been through an extraordinary delay," he said. "We don't think it's reasonable for us to beat a dead horse on this issue."
Williams, owner of Ontario Specialty Contracting, is proposing to construct a Downtown Sports Center on 15.8 acres along Elk Street. Plans by Carmina Wood Morris PC call for a one-story, 26,400-square-foot field house at 427 Elk, with a 61-space parking lot, and a 300-by-300-foot outdoor athletic field at 85 Lee St. The property also includes parts of 98 Maurice St. and 229 Elk.
It's part of the larger 21.7-acre project at the Schoellkopf Power House, a complex across the street that is being converted into a mixed-use facility with residential, industrial and commercial space. Williams had purchased the entire site at a tax foreclosure auction in 2009.
Cancilla said the plant at 55 Lee St. has been manufacturing sulfuric acid and other hazardous materials for over 130 years, under different owners. The facility employs 50 workers – including 30 represented by the United Steelworkers – and has an annual payroll of $5 million.
Currently, the operation handles 7,000 tractor-trailer trips annually, and processes 200,000 tons of hazardous materials every year, including 35,000 tons of molten sulfur.
"Sulfur will smell. I fear that people enjoying the game and a beer will smell that, and create a problem," Cancilla said. "I know in the world of social media, the chemical plant loses. If there is an odor, the sight or sound could be misconstrued."
For example, he said, while spills are infrequent, the odor is more common. And it's not unusual for an alarm to be triggered, he added, prompting "men to come fully equipped with white suits and full gas masks on."
That's "normal for them," Auerbach said. "But if you're there watching your kid's soccer game, and you see 10 men with white suits run out, it's going to raise concerns with people."
In turn, that could lead to problems with the company's environmental permits, if there's an increase in public complaints. "They're afraid of what's going to happen if we allow a recreation use in the city's industrial district," the attorney said.
However, Planning Board members noted that there's already a longtime residential neighborhood located just across Elk Street. So "the smell is going to continue on here as well," Planning Board Chairman James Morrell said. "If there was a problem, these individuals would have complained a long time ago."
Additionally, the state Department of Environmental Conservation – which is overseeing a brownfield cleanup of the site to residential standards – has not raised any objections to the plan, Romanowski noted. And if there's concern about an athletic facility 330 feet from the chemical plant fence, he said, then there should be more concern about the Buffalo River, which is even closer. "I guess we have to shut down people using the Buffalo River," Romanowski suggested.
In the end, Planning Board members were very divided. "We don't want to lose PVS and we don't want to lose this project," Schwartz said. "The city is changing, and somehow we have to find a way to be compatible neighbors," said Schwartz.
"We will consider the feedback we heard from the Planning Board today, and take it back to the developer and see where we are in two weeks," said Phil Pantano, a spokesman for the project. "If the site is safe enough for people to live there, and live around there, and to congregate there, it's certainly safe enough for them to kick a soccer ball."
Story topics: Buffalo Planning Board/ Downtown Sports Center/ Elk Street/ Jon Williams/ jonathan d. epstein/ Lee Street/ Ontario Specialty Contracting/ Schoellkopf/ soccer field/ South Buffalo Development