The Queen City Landing project faces a long road ahead.
No sooner did Gerald Buchheit file his revised plans for his ambitious apartment tower on the Outer Harbor than project opponents responded with renewed complaints, criticism and threats of more litigation to stop it.
The nature of the objections are familiar.
The project is too tall and large for the site.
It's inappropriate as a private development on the waterfront because it'll impede public access to the lake.
It will endanger the environment and create too much traffic.
It's not a safe place to put people because of the risk of flooding, and it's a danger to migratory birds and fish.
"Any development on the Outer Harbor must undergo careful and thoughtful scrutiny. It must be held to the highest standards," said Margaux Valenti, staff attorney for Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper. "The Green Code never envisioned for this type of development along our Outer Harbor."
But this time the process is taking place under the city's Green Code – which puts new limits on developers but also new offers opportunities to streamline the process. That includes a new planned-unit development, or PUD, designation to establish a consistent set of zoning rules for the entire site, which Buchheit is seeking, much to the alarm of his critics.
Even if Buchheit ultimately wins approval, his attorney is now assuming that a legal fight is inevitable, and is acting accordingly by providing voluminous documentation to the city Planning Board and Common Council to back up the developer's application and justify the conclusions they desire.
"I’m usually accused of killing a few trees, but we did go way over this time," said Adam S. Walters, an attorney representing Buchheit, explaining to the Planning Board on Monday why they had just received such a thick packet of information. "It is a lot to throw at you. We really felt it was important, in light of the possibility of additional litigation, to make sure there was a thorough record."
Opposition to the project is mobilizing among environmentalists, Green Code advocates and other activists to prevent an infringement on the waterfront that violates the land-use and public access principles they hold dear. On Tuesday, a parade of 15 speakers rose before a Common Council committee to denounce the project and demand that the city reject the PUD application, raising uncertainty about its prospects.
"It’s also more about the type of development we want in Buffalo," said Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, executive director of the Partnership for the Public Good. "To approve the Queen City plan would be a major setback to a city that is just rediscovering the beauty of its waterfront."
Critics said the proposal violates not just the Green Code – which limits building height at the harbor to six stories and 90 feet – but also the principles of the Local Waterfront Revitalization Program, which seeks to protect coastal habitats and discourages large-scale residential development in that area in favor of recreational use.
"Why should the city approve yet another violation of the Green Code?" asked James Carr, a 45-year resident of the city. "We need to provide the quality of life people want, not the profits a few developers want."
They noted that the site was flooded at least three times last year, including by wind-blown seiches, and would impose new costs on the city for services.
"Instead of protecting people from coastal hazards, it deliberately puts people in harm's way," said city resident Carl Dennis. "No one can predict when the next storm will come."
And they questioned the appropriateness and justification for the PUD, which they suggested was merely an attempted end-run around the regular zoning and variance process in order to achieve his dream. Instead, they argued, the Council should affirm the current zoning, and stick to the city's comprehensive plan.
"This is not a planned-unit development. This is clearly an effort to get rid of the six-story requirement in the Green Code," said Deborah Williams, a city resident. "There is no other reason to be there, other than that."
The city – which was repeatedly sued by opponents in the last round – is also being extra careful. Instead of making a recommendation to the Council regarding the PUD request, the Planning Board on Monday tabled it, citing the need for both answers to some specific questions and more time to digest the documents.
"We have a pile of paper in front of us," said Vice Chair Cynthia Schwartz. "Obviously, the board has not had a chance to crack the cover."
The Council committee followed suit on Tuesday, leaving the public hearing open for additional future testimony.
Project spokesman Phil Pantano said the delays were anticipated. “This is a multi-step process, as we know,” Pantano said. “Today was the first step in that discussion and there will be more discussions to follow… We’d love to be in the ground in the spring, [but] we have an extended process in front of us.”
And he said the development team expected the comments they heard. “A lot of what we heard today we heard previously. This was a project that was approved, on a larger scale, three years ago, and a lot of the concerns that were expressed then have been expressed again,” he said. “We certainly weren’t surprised by anything we heard today, but we heard a lot of good feedback and we’ll work to digest that and work to address the concerns that we can.”
Buchheit also agreed – under pressure from Common Councilmember Christopher Scanlon – to expand upon the PUD application, laying out what he plans to do with the entire 20-acre site, instead of just the 8.8 acres affected by Queen City Landing.
"We really do think that the PUD is the most appropriate way to address the reduction in height of the building and the other changes," Walters said. "But that being said, we certainly heard a lot of feedback today, and we look forward to addressing those concerns."
Buccheit, an Orchard Park businessman who built Quaker Crossing shopping plaza, has been seeking to develop the peninsula jutting out into the water at 975-1005 Fuhrmann Blvd. since he acquired the former Freezer Queen property 13 years ago. Initial attempts fell through until 2015, when the redevelopment boom in the city gave him enough confidence to propose converting the former concrete warehouse into a new apartment building.
That low-rise reuse project won approval from the city, but fell apart after his team realized the extent of the building's deterioration put it at too much risk of flooding. So he turned around in 2016 and proposed demolishing the older structure and replacing it with a new 23-story glass-walled apartment tower with 198 units, a separate stand-alone parking ramp and other features.
The Planning Board and Common Council approved what had been a $60 million plan in early 2017, but opponents quickly filed suit to challenge and overturn the city's actions. They said the decisions were arbitrary and contrary to the city's own plans, and accused the city of failing to follow proper procedures under state environmental law.
Although the courts sided with the city and Buchheit in one ruling after another, the litigation nevertheless delayed the entire project for more than a year. In the meantime, Buchheit demolished the old building and spent $10 million on a state-supervised environmental remediation - taking out underground tanks and replacing soil - under the Brownfield Cleanup Program to clear and prepare the site. And he went back to the drawing board with a new architectural firm from Toronto - Diamond Schmitt Architects - that brought more experience in similar projects.
The newest version, unveiled late last year, is scaled down in height by three floors and 48 feet, and is pulled back 80 feet from the water, which opened up more space for a vast terrace and greenspace area.
The 470,444-square-foot project now calls for a 20-story tower, but with 206 market-rate apartments, while incorporating 350 parking spaces on the second through fifth floors of the building. It would also include both a ground-floor restaurant, alongside 9,455 square feet of retail space, and an 18,426-square-foot restaurant, event and banquet facility on the sixth floor.
The apartments - each with its own balcony - would occupy the rest of the building, and Pantano said Buchheit already has a list of more than 200 people interested in the units.
And Diamond Schmitt is incorporating ceramic glass, light shields and other treatments into the design to reduce the risk to birds, leveraging its experience with wildlife concerns and strict regulatory requirements in Canada. "We're intimately familiar with how to control risk from bird strikes," said architect Duncan Bates. "We will be implementing everything we do in Toronto."