UPDATE: Following the 3/25/16 publishing of this post, I found a March 24th “Notice of PUBLIC HEARING” in the Buffalo News which indicates that the Buffalo Planning Board will conduct a hearing in Room 901 City Hall on Monday, April 4, 2016, at 4:00 PM “to consider the design and site plans for: … demolition of existing building, 23-story apartment building and 3-level parking ramp at 975 Fuhrmann Blvd.” It also states: “Plans may be examined in Room 901 City Hall weekdays between 8:30 AM and 4:00 PM and at the hearing.”
The sudden rush by developer Gerald A. Buchheit to gain approval by June for his latest proposal for the former Freezer Queen site – a 23-story, 370,000-square foot mixed-use facility – shows a stunning disregard or ignorance of the environmental review process and City of Buffalo zoning laws.
Businessman Gerald A. (“Gerry”) Buchheit has yet another plan for the 20-acre former Freezer Queen warehouse site just north of the Outer Harbor’s Buffalo Harbor State Park (f/k/a the Small Boat Harbor). As announced by Buffalo Business First, Buchheit now envisions a 23-story apartment tower as the center piece of a 370,000 square-foot complex that would as many as 200 apartments, a night club, two restaurants, a three-floor underground parking garage, etc., etc.
Buchheit’s latest proposal requires demolition of the existing 6-story warehouse and frozen food storage facility, built circa 1927. Plans to raze the complex contrasts sharply with the proposal the developer announced just this past October. That plan, as described by the Buffalo News, would reuse the building’s superstructure, remove and replace the façade, add two floors to the existing six-story building and expand the first-floor footprint to include indoor parking covered by a tension-membrane roof structure made by Birdair.
Although, according to Business First, final development plans “are still coming together,” that publication also reports that, “The Buffalo Planning Board is expected to hold a public hearing on the proposed project when it meets on April 4.” The Good Friday holiday prevents me from confirming the Planning Board’s calendar and intent. [Note: See “Update” above.]
But what is more disconcerting than a premature public hearing is Mr. Buchheit’s unrealistic timetable for starting the newly announced project. Business First attributes the following quote to Buchheit: “I hope we can start this by June. Every day I am getting more and more excited about the project.” A similar aspiration was echoed by WGRZ-TV reporter Andrea Marvin, who concluded her March 24, 2016 piece on the 23-story tower project with the following words: “And if all goes well, the developer hopes to break ground by June.”
A June 2016 groundbreaking could only occur if the City of Buffalo recklessly disregards its obligations under SEQRA, the State Environmental Quality Review Act. This project clearly requires the objective and thorough scrutiny called for in a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (“DEIS”), including a hard look at potential adverse environmental impacts, an examination of alternative uses of the prime 20-acre waterfront property, and thorough consideration of mitigation measures. Of equal importance, the DEIS process – if done properly – provides for meaningful involvement by the public and other state and local agencies in the decision-making process.
The call for a shovel in the ground by June also reflects a misunderstanding of the zoning and planning decisions that must be made prior to the proposed project going forward. The former Freezer Queen site is currently zoned “M3” (Heavy Industrial District). New residential units are not permitted in an M3 zoning district. Given that fact, Buchheit’s project needs either:
(a) A rezoning by the City of Buffalo’s Common Council – a process that requires a recommendation by the Planning Board, a public hearing before the Common Council, and, importantly, full compliance prior to a vote with the requirements of SEQRA. Or,
(B ) A use variance” from the City’s Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”). However, according to decades of court rulings by New York’s appellate courts, the entity that owns the 20-acre parcel, Queen City Landing, LLC, is not eligible for a use variance. The prohibition against constructing residential dwellings in an M3 zone predates the 2007 acquisition of the property by Buchheit and his group of investors. Under such circumstances, the need for a use variance is treated as a “self-created hardship,” barring the ZBA from granting such relief.
Fortunately, one City of Buffalo official appears to recognize the importance of a thoughtful and comprehensive examination of the latest Buchheit proposal. South District Councilmember Christopher P. Scanlon – whose district includes the Outer Harbor – expressed the need for a cautious approach to WGRZ-TV’s Andrea Marvin:
“It is a large footprint, so I think we have to just be really careful moving forward.”
“We have been waiting to develop the outer harbor for more than fifty years now and we’re only going to get one shot to do it right, so we should take a slow first step, and be very careful about it.”
Chris Scanlon’s words and cautious approach need to be heeded by all of the City’s officials and boards. Not only that, the moratorium that I recently proposed for the Elmwood Village – while the Common Council deliberates the proposed Green Code/Unified Development Ordinance – appears to be needed throughout the Queen City.
With All Due Respect,