A Buffalo developer and a trio of demolition and salvage specialists are teaming up for a new $15 million loft apartment complex along the Buffalo River, but local preservationists want to block their plan to knock down the former Erie Freight House on the site.

Savarino Companies and FFZ Holdings – a partnership of three Frontier Industrial Corp. executives – intend to build a 48-unit apartment complex on Ohio Street along the Buffalo River near Louisiana Street.

The Ohio Street Lofts project, featuring seven connected buildings to be constructed on the foundations of the freight house, would capitalize on the growing demand for downtown living and the redevelopment of Buffalo's waterfront. It would go up on the site of the old shipping facility, whose structural viability has been in doubt after a partial collapse.

The proposed new Buffalo River Lofts at 441 Ohio St. would feature 1,900-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bathroom units with balconies overloooking the river. The five-story building would include 75 enclosed parking spaces, semi-private elevators and tenant gardens, as well as a wharf to allow public access to the water. The project, which would include a condominimum-conversion option, is aimed at young professionals and “empty nesters,” and comes amid plans for redevelopment all along Ohio Street.

“[The] Ohio Street you see now isn't the Ohio Street you're going to see in a couple of years,” said Samuel J. Savarino, the developer who is working with Frontier's David and Dennis Franjoine and Rob Zuchlewski, the principals of FFZ. “We see it as a funky place to be.”

The partners have hired Chantreuil Jensen Stark of Buffalo as the project architect. They plan to apply for the demolition permit from the city in the next few days once all utilities are shut off. Asbestos has already been removed, and construction is expected to start next spring, Savarino said.

But the project faces opposition from the historic community, led by Preservation Buffalo Niagara, which called the building “the last surviving example” of a type of historic warehouse associated with the Erie Canal that once dominated the banks of the Buffalo River.

The building was designated a local landmark in January, over the objections of the developers, who had expressed concern that the designation would hinder redevelopment options.

The Erie Freight House project is one of two big projects that Savarino and FFZ are engaged in simultaneously. The team also is undertaking a $35 million mixed-use redevelopment of 500 Seneca St. – former headquarters and factory of paper box maker F.N. Burt Co. and later used by New Era Cap Co. from 1986 until 2004 – into a multi-tenant office building with Class A office space on five floors, business incubator and cultural space, and storage or flex space for tenants.

The battle for the future of the 150-year-old building demonstrates the ongoing struggle between advocates of Buffalo's past and the developers and business leaders who envision a new future. Developers have sought to work with activists to preserve the city's historic heritage, restoring dilapidated buildings and features where possible. But there is little agreement on where to draw the line.

Built by 1868, the Erie Freight House is a two-story, heavy wood frame structure, about 110 feet wide and 550 feet long, with a rusty metal siding over original clapboards.

The building was acquired by Great Lakes Paper Fibres Corp.– which used the rail and truck connections to ship its product – and was occupied until 2011. That's when a portion of the foundation, walls and roof of the 150-year-old warehouse collapsed, allowing rain and snow to penetrate the interior and causing further damage inside. The city condemned the building, forcing Great Lakes to move out and find a new home in Cheektowaga. Savarino and FFZ, through 441 Ohio Street LLC, bought the building last March for $200,000, planning to stabilize and reuse it.

But the developers hired third-party professionals Tredo Engineers to conduct structural studies, which concluded that prior renovations had already compromised the building's historical integrity and that it wasn't feasible or cost-effective to restore it to “anything close to its original condition.” The report said it also was not structurally sound.

But the preservation group hired its own engineer, Kevin V. Connors, to assess the structure's condition, and said that he concluded the building could be “stabilized and protected by performing selective demolition and salvage operations,” while shoring and bracing the rest of the structure and enclosing exposed portions.

“I've never been in a building like that before. It's absolutely gorgeous inside,” said Tom Yots, director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara, after touring the building Tuesday morning. “The only way I could describe it is it's like this cathedral of our past... It's in rough shape, without question, but it is a beautiful 19th century building. There's so much that could be done there [to] retain that historic fabric that's there.”