By Michael J. Billoni
Michael Huntress, vice president of Acquest Development Co. of Williamsville, truly believes when one door closes, another opens.
In his case, a door closed when Amazon pulled its approval request on Aug. 12 – one day before the Town of Grand Island’s scheduled public hearing on the proposed $300 million, nearly 4-million-square-foot, four-story distribution center pegged for 123 acres of land owned by Acquest along the New York State Thruway I-190 and between Long and Bedell roads.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Island Dispatch learned and reported via wnypapers.com about the door now open for Huntress. His company presented the Town of Grand Island a site plan package for a nearly 1.1-million-square-foot, one-story warehouse and distribution center. The warehouse would occupy 138 acres on the same property, and the application includes updates to the one submitted by Trammel Crow, the developers who represented Amazon under the guise of “Project Olive.”
The design was created by Langan Engineering, a worldwide premier provider of integrated land development engineering and environmental consulting services for more than four decades.
The big difference with the Acquest application is no zoning variances are required, and the height of the building is under the 45-foot limit.
“It is unfortunate the Amazon project did not come to fruition, especially for us, but we have been able to pick up the pieces that included a lot of legwork by Trammel Crow and Langan Engineering and, along with our design team, we are confident there is a big need for what we are designing here,” Huntress said.
He spoke virtually during an informal conversation Thursday morning organized by Town of Grand Island Supervisor John C. Whitney, P.E., and moderated by Engineer Robert H. Westfall, P.E. The audience included department heads, members of advisory boards, and Town Board members. It was open to the public through the town’s YouTube channel, and was promoted on the Grand Island website. However, only department heads and advisory board members could ask questions.
Huntress said his company’s decision to pursue this project is based solely on “a very, very big demand for high-bay warehouse space” throughout the country. He said Acquest owns a 2.2-million-square-foot facility in Rochester that has been fully rented for the past 48 months. Huntress explained he is also confident of this plan because it sits adjacent to the thruway (for easy access) and it fits into the town’s current master plan.
Kasey Morgan, P.E., a member of the town’s Building Department, who has been reviewing the application against the zoning code this week, researched its size – the equivalent of more than 20 football fields – and found the structure, if built, would be the fifth-largest warehouse facility in the world.
The next step is for the Building Department to submit the full site plan package to the Planning Board for review at a Dec. 14 meeting. The Planning Board can either approve the idea and forward it to the Town Board for subsequent review and vote; or it can deny the plan; or it can ask for more information and table until its next meeting.
Ronald Milks, who heads the Building Department, said the plan appears to meet all of the town’s zoning codes and would not require any variances.
Huntress said he is hopeful of receiving all the necessary approvals by January 2021, so the building process can begin in the spring with the first tenant occupying the warehouse in the summer of 2022.
He noted his company does not have a tenant for a building, but the project is flexible enough to hold either one tenant or up to four smaller ones.
The plan calls for 1,300 parking spaces for cars and 350 spaces for tractor trailers. Traffic and noise impacts are said to be similar to those noted with Amazon’s request.
One difference is this plan will include two acres of wetland property that it would need a permit to alleviate. In addition, Acquest would clean the ditches along the road, which he said help with drainage for the neighbors. He also said his design team would create an appealing look to the outside façade that faces the thruway, and it will look into a landscaping plan around the building.
“I can envision coming over the north bridges from Niagara Falls and seeing this large building in Grand Island and thinking how it shows progress in this town,” he said.
Huntress lived through the opposition to “Project Olive,” as it was called, and fully understands there may be opposition to a building of this size. But he said he has heard from enough people who were upset the Amazon project did not come to fruition.
“For many, they were sad to see Amazon go away, especially when you look at the jobs we lost and what we could have here,” he said.
Landing Amazon would have been a major coup for Grand Island and Erie County. It projected an annual payroll exceeding $32 million with a projected $9.5 million in new tax dollars for Grand Island during a 15-year period and more than $25 million in tax revenues for the Grand Island Central School District. In addition, Amazon was talking about a financial incentive package to the town that could have been spent on projects such as a community center.
William Huntress, Michael’s father and the owner of Acquest, is an avid bicyclist who has cycled around the Island many times.
“The town could have used some of that money to truly make East River Road a much safer road for bicyclists,” he said.
Whitney said the informational session with developers was an effort to keep everyone informed on all aspects of future major projects presented to the town.
“I am resurrecting a past practice from years ago for an informal setting ‘to start the process,’ ” he said. “These meetings, which were dropped in the past, are meant to make the lines of communication better for everyone.”