A plan to remake an inactive grain elevator site on the Buffalo River into an entertainment complex won approval from the Buffalo Planning Board on Tuesday over objections from several of the site’s industrial neighbors.
Representatives from General Mills, ADM, St. Mary’s Cement and Sonwil Distribution said development of Buffalo RiverWorks at 339-389 Ganson St. would negatively affect the safety of the public and their employees. The plan calls for a $15 million complex that includes bars and restaurants, a brewery, outdoor ice rinks and a performing arts space on the eight-acre Wheeler-GLF grain elevator site, near General Mills.
RiverWorks lawyer Laurence K. Rubin said the area is already zoned for such development.
Planning Board members should not reject the project or declare the Kelly Island site “off-limits” to any other kind of uses, he said.
Planning Board Member Cynthia A. Schwartz said the city must improve signage in the area as well as intersections and sidewalks. But she said a mix of uses must be permitted. She said this might be the first item to come before the board that tests the ability of industrial neighbors to operate near more-commercial developments.
“We can’t say it’s exclusively one or the other,” she said.
The board stipulated that RiverWorks employ security guards during major events.
RiverWorks hired Wendel, an engineering firm, to perform a traffic study. The proposed complex would not negatively impact traffic conditions, according to the study.
The companies opposing the project rejected that finding.
“There is a serious public safety issue with this project as it stands right now,” said Peter G. Wilson, president and CEO of Sonwil Distribution Services. “Yes, there is an issue with traffic. There is an issue with pedestrians.”
Lee Anderson, director of state and local government relations at General Mills, told the board the project “seems like a fine proposal,” but is in the wrong location.
Christopher T. Riley, director for state government relations with ADM, said a chemical leak has previously occurred at the Buffalo plant, and it could happen again.
If it did, fire trucks would need to access the plant quickly, and the ability to do that could be impeded by pedestrians at an entertainment complex.
Riley told the board the city should evaluate whether the existing jobs on Kelly Island are important.
RiverWorks developer Doug Swift said he was pleased with the Planning Board’s decision.
He said there would be time to finish the outdoor ice rinks on the site in time for a hockey tournament sponsored by Labatt Blue in February, and for restaurants and bars to open in May. A larger build-out, including a performing arts space, would not be ready until fall.
General Mills reiterated its commitment to operating in Buffalo.
The company, however, expressed its desire to control public access around its site, especially in light of the RiverWorks approval.
Following the board’s vote, General Mills appealed to city lawmakers to approve its request for a fence across South Michigan Avenue, which would block public access to 300 feet of roadway and the city ship canal.
“I’m happy to state unequivocally that General Mills is committed to Buffalo,” Anderson said during a meeting of the Common Council’s Community Development Committee.
Anderson told lawmakers that with the approval of RiverWorks, the need for the fence has “increased greatly.” The company cited safety and security concerns in requesting the fence, while community organizations and preservationists object to it.
The committee did not vote on the fence request.
In other business Tuesday, the Planning Board:
• Approved plans for a 250-unit apartment complex at 39-89 LaSalle Ave., known as University Place at LaSalle. Legacy Development has proposed a six-building complex.
• Approved the site plan for a new restaurant in the place of the Buckin’ Buffalo Saloon at 294 Franklin St. Developer Mark D. Croce has proposed a full-service, eat-in pizzeria.
• Approved a 900-square-foot addition to Sun Restaurant, 1989 Niagara St., to expand its dining area capacity from 72 patrons to 99 patrons. The addition would also allow for a commercial kitchen, freezer and storage.
• Approved plans by Ellicott Development to renovate 173 Elm St., now vacant, for an office tenant and five market-rate apartments.
• Recommended the Council approve a new Japanese restaurant at 739 Elmwood Ave. Joshua Smith is planning to open Sato Restaurant where O3 Organic Cafe was located. The Council’s Legislation Committee recommended the full Council approve it as well.