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Planning Board members hope for a good turnout at Wednesday's public hearing, which might be the first step toward demolition of Niagara Falls High School.

Benderson Development Co., which is set to buy the building from the city school system, wants the 3.3-acre site at 1201 Pine Ave. included in the surrounding neighborhood commercial district to permit retail development.

Wednesday's hearing, at 6 p.m. in City Hall, will examine Benderson's request to change the zoning from multifamily residential.

Benderson's request seeks to extend commercial zoning all the way to the north side of Walnut Avenue, a residential street.

Such a rezoning would be legal and would not constitute spot zoning, according to Thomas J. DeSantis, senior city planner.

The conceptual site plan submitted by Benderson calls for replacing the school with a 22,400-square-foot L-shaped building "with ample parking in front and back and entrances on Pine Avenue, 13th Street and Portage Road," according to Harold Faba, chairman of the Planning Board.

"It is the intent of Benderson to demolish the existing high school and to create a retail center in its place that would blend in nicely with the existing commercial properties adjacent to the high school site, thereby benefiting all properties in the area," Richard Franco, Benderson's director of acquisitions, said in a letter to the Planning Board.

Matteo Anello, a board member, strongly opposes demolishing the landmark structure, which has played a vital role in the city's history for about 75 years, and has appealed to the community to get involved.

"Without you citizens presenting ideas to the board to counter or improve on those of the parties interested in the rezoning, we on the board may be compelled to recommend to the City Council to rezone. Translated, that means that the school building will be torn down for the sake of adding yet another retail center to the city, competing directly with those that exist, especially hurting any possible development on our Main Street," Anello wrote.

Others on the nine-member board say privately that they also are concerned about the loss of the four-story structure that has prominently filled the southeast corner at Pine Avenue and Portage Road for three-quarters of this century.

But they say they don't believe they should try to sway public opinion before the hearing.

The rezoning "may be the only way we can go, but we really want people to show up at the public hearing to hear all sorts of ideas," Faba said.

So far, virtually no public discussion has been held on the plan. H. William Feder, a former teacher, former county legislator and local history enthusiast, says people have become immune to the constant erosion of the tangible reminders of the city's -- and their own -- history.

"It is an irreplaceable loss. We have torn down better buildings than we have put up from one end of the city to the other. Where's the accountability in any of this?" Feder said. "I just sense an enormous hurt, a sense of betrayal. I think they have just given up hope."

Feder, who is acting county historian but stressed that he is speaking only for himself, said other options should be explored.

He suggested using the building for "other kinds of learning activity" to continue its heritage. He suggested Niagara County Community College classes and an Empire State College office such as the one in Lockport.

School Superintendent Carmen A. Granto said he would love to see the building put to that type of use if someone could come up with the money.

The district had agreed to sell its central offices and annex on Walnut Avenue to Benderson, intending to move the operations into the high school. But when officials started tabulating the cost of the needed renovations, he said, "We stopped at $5 million. I don't want to see that building come down, but there's no way we can afford that."

He said that the sale price is about $2 million but that the schools would get only $500,000 in cash. The rest consists of the $1 million to $1.5 million cost of demolishing the building, which Benderson will assume, and the return of the central office and annex, for which Benderson was to pay about $500,000.

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