Are there “very soft and very loose” subsurface conditions under the Outer Harbor’s Terminal “A” & “B”?
(to link directly to the blog click the headline)
[Full disclosure: I represent four City of Buffalo residents and environmental activists who are challenging the City of Buffalo Planning Board’s approvals for the 23-story tower Queen City Landing project at the former Freezer Queen site on the Outer Harbor. The geotechnical report referred to in this post is part of the City’s “Certified Record” in the pending lawsuit in State Supreme Court, Erie County.]
The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC) recently spent a chunk of the public’s money for an “Existing Conditions Assessment” of several of the agency’s Outer Harbor properties. (Here’s the August 2016 Executive Summary.) A significant portion of the assessment focuses on the 50-acre “Terminal Complex” (that is, Ford’s Terminals “A” & “B”) at 901 Fuhrmann Blvd.
The recently released Executive Summary discusses surveys and sampling of asbestos, hazardous materials, lead, and mold, as well as structural assessments of buildings, structures and slip walls. What is not mentioned is subsurface conditions. That omission is troubling given the content of the belatedly-revealed May 2016 Geotechnical Report prepared for the proposed Queen City Landing project by Empire Geo-Services, Inc., of Hamburg, NY.
The May 2016 report provides a detailed characterization of the soil, bedrock and groundwater conditions present at the former Freezer Queen site. The following facts and conclusions regarding the Queen City Landing site caught the eye of this non-engineer:
(a) The QCL site, which was originally part of Lake Erie, was reclaimed to the current site grades with various man-placed fill extending to depths ranging between 10 feet and 19 feet. The fill is contained within the existing marine bulkheads. The fill appears to have been placed in a generally random and uncontrolled manner, and was generally “not densified” in a controlled manner at the time of its placement. [501-503]
(b) “Medium to very soft and loose to very loose indigenous soils” were encounteredbelow the existing man-placed uncontrolled fill, and were found to extend to at or near the top of bedrock. Bedrock was encountered in test borings at depths ranging between about 70.0 feet and 75.8 feet below the existing ground surface.  The medium-to-very-soft consistency clays were first encountered at a depth around 25 feet, and are “under-consolidated.” [502-504]
(c) The existing fill and underlying soft clay soils have “very marginal bearing capacity support” and would be “susceptible to excessive total and differential settlement” of a conventional spread or mat type foundation system, and are not considered suitable for the use of spread or mat type foundations to support the proposed 23-story building and parking ramp structures. 
(d) Due to the extensive amount of existing fill and the known soft soil deposits present in the area of the site, along with the anticipated heavy foundation loads, both the building and parking ramp structures are expected to be supported on a deep, driven pile foundation system bearing on the Limestone bedrock at depths ranging between about 70.0 feet and 75.8 feet below the existing ground surface. [507-508, 498]
(e) The expected settlement within the existing fill and indigenous soils, particularly the soft to very soft soils, due to the site filling, will need to be taken into account when sizing the selected piles for the foundation system. 
(f) The raising of site grades as much as 7 feet within the building and parking ramp areas, to establish at-grade level finished floor elevation of 583.0 feet, is expected to result inexcessive post-construction settlement beneath the additional fill, potentially resulting in approximately 4-inches + of long term consolidation settlement. Due to the thickness of this highly compressible stratum, it is estimated that a period of around 3 to 7 years would be required for approximately 75% of the consolidation settlement to occur. [507-508]
(g) Freestanding water was observed in the test borings at depths ranging from 5 feet to 14 feet, corresponding to elevations ranging between 575.0 feet to 562.4 feet. It is possible that some perched or trapped groundwater could also be present in the upper more permeable fill soils, which overlie less permeable fill soils.
(h) Lake Erie is prone to a seiche effect (that is, an oscillation of the surface of the lake) from a strong sustained wind event out of the southwest, during which the northeastern end of the lake can rise several feet. These fluctuations can also occur in the groundwater levels along the adjacent shoreline. [505-506]
(i) Based on the subsurface conditions encountered in the test borings – that is, soft to very soft clays – the proposed Queen City Landing apartment/mixed-use building and parking ramp development site should be classified as Seismic Site Class “E” in accordance with the Building Code of New York State. [515, 504] [Note: Soft soils with slower shear-wave velocities generally produce greater amplifications of ground shaking than stiff soils with faster shear-wave velocities.]
The QCL partners, Gerald A. Buchheit, Jr., and RP Oak Hill Building Company Inc., did not make the geotechnical report available to the City of Buffalo Planning Board or the public prior to city’s decisions on May 31, 2016 to skip a SEQRA environmental impact statement for the 23-story tower project, and to approve the proposed 23-story mixed-use development without any conditions or mitigation measures.
QCL also neglected to submit its geotechnical report to the Planning Board in November 2016 when it applied to move the building 25 feet to the north due to (in the words of its lawyer) “constructability” issues.
Given that history, I presume that QCL has not sent the geotechnical report to the officials at ECHDC (with potentially troubling findings underlined and highlighted in yellow). After all, Buffalo Business First reporter Jim Fink wrote in a February 2016 article that Queen City Landing’s Gerry Buchheit has “expressed interest in the Port Terminal complex for a separate but related development to Queen City Landing.” Additionally, a September 2015 vision for a development called “TERMINAL PLACE at Queen City Landing” – attributed to the NFTA – expressed a plan to “coordinate simultaneous development with the neighboring Freezer Queen parcel creating a critical mass to revive the waterfront.”
[Note: It may merely be a coincidence, but the executive summary for the ECHDC’s “Existing Conditions Assessment” contains the following observation – at page 11 of 12 – “There is a section along the west side of the wall near the southwest corner showing more significant cracking and loss of fill material from behind the wall, which has led to a corresponding sinkhole in the parking lot at that location.”]
The ECHDC and the public needs to know – sooner rather than later – whether the soils on the parcel adjoining the Queen City Landing site is comparable to the subsurface conditions described in the geotechnical report. It is our job to make certain that the ECHDC doesn’t bury its collective head in these very soft and very loose soils in an attempt to avoid this significant environmental issue.
With All Due Respect,