A 300-foot-long road is pitting an industrial giant that has operated for decades on the bank of the Buffalo River against Old First Ward neighbors who want access to the emerging new waterfront across the river.
General Mills, whose flour milling and cereal production operations have employed generations of Buffalo residents when many other companies have moved out of town, is asking the city to grant the company exclusive access to a stretch of South Michigan Avenue that bisects its property and leads to the city ship canal. Across the water is the outer harbor and, at one time, a bridge that connected residents to that land.
But Old First Ward residents and others are raising objections to the General Mills request, saying the street offers the only view of the ship canal.
“Just as we are re-gaining public access to our waterways, we potentially will be blocked from one of the most historic points of interest,” said Peg Overdorf, executive director of Buffalo River Fest Park.
The company more than a year ago asked the city for permission to put up an 8-foot chain-link fence across South Michigan Avenue west of Ganson Street, with controlled access by way of a sliding gate and a guard shack, to allow for greater security and employee parking. The request recently appeared on the Common Council’s agenda.
The proximity of General Mills’ flour mill and cereal manufacturing plant to international waters makes it subject to stringent security regulations imposed by the Department of Homeland Security, the Coast Guard and the Port Authority, according to General Mills.
“We see little non-General Mills traffic on this street today,” General Mills lawyer Andrea Carruthers wrote in a letter to the city. “The traffic we do see is almost entirely people who appear to be lost.”
The company also would “like to use the street itself for supplemental employee parking and circulation within our campus,” Carruthers wrote.
The proposed agreement would only terminate if the fence posed a threat to health and safety of city residents or if General Mills breached their agreement with the city.
That doesn’t sit well with Arthur J. Robinson Jr., a local resident.
Robinson remembers using South Michigan Avenue, and the bridge that was once there, to get to Times Beach on the outer harbor when he was young.
Back then, there was more activity, as motorists used the bridge to access Route 5, and many more companies operated in the area.
Robinson, a member of the Citizens’ Planning Council, which advises the mayor about big-ticket infrastructure improvements, remembers when the idea was floated a few years ago to resurrect the bridge. It was shelved after objections from General Mills, Robinson said.
Robinson worries that a fence would inhibit waterfront revitalization.
“We’re on the move,” he said. “We don’t need a hiccup right now.”
Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper has also objected to the request, saying it would eliminate the public viewing access of the city ship canal.
“It is not a street to nowhere, it’s a street to the ship canal,” said Laura Kelly, director of the Old First Ward Community Association. “It’s one of our arteries.”
Nonetheless, the city Planning Board has recommended that the Common Council approve the General Mills request, and lawmakers could vote on it as early as Tuesday.
“I beg you, don’t give up a street,” Overdorf told lawmakers last week. “It’s not the General Mills empire, it’s a city of Buffalo street.”
Ellicott Council Member Darius G. Pridgen said he would like to hear from the company about its security concerns before a vote is taken.
“With development coming in to this area, people are going to have to learn to get along and play in the sandbox,” Pridgen said.
Just a few hundred feet from the street in question, Buffalo RiverWorks, a proposed entertainment complex at 339-389 Ganson St., which would include hockey rinks, a restaurant and space for concerts and performing arts, has been the subject of a similar debate: Whether the grain-milling operations can coexist with more recreational uses, which would draw hundreds of visitors at one time.
Though RiverWorks developer Doug Swift was looking for approval of entire site plan last week, the city’s Planning Board decided to wait two weeks so that a traffic study from the engineering firm Wendel could be reviewed by city engineers and others. RiverWorks hired Wendel, and the study showed no traffic impacts.
The board also wants to hear from the city’s Department of Public Works how a newly reconstructed Ohio Street will improve traffic flow.
Several representatives of companies that operate in the area, including ADM, St. Mary’s and a union leader, attended Tuesday’s meeting to reiterate their concerns about the project, which were aired when the board took its first look at the project two weeks ago.