Representatives of the school district and business community spoke in favor of a commercial rezoning of the Niagara Falls High School property Wednesday, but members of the public all opposed the move, which would result in the demolition of the 75-year-old landmark.
Eight residents spoke against the rezoning during the hourlong public hearing held by the Planning Board, and others said they would submit written protests. About 30 people attended the hearing. Harold Faba, chairman of the board, said comments should be submitted in the next few days. He said the board probably would make a decision on the request at its next meeting, Sept. 22.
The rezoning is being requested by Benderson Development Co. Benderson has a sales contract with the school district to buy the property if the rezoning is approved. The company has submitted a site plan for a 22,000-square-foot, one-story retail center surrounded by parking on all four sides.
Richard A. Franco, director of acquisitions, said it would be premature to discuss what the building would look like or what type of retail business would go into it, because "there is not a project without the rezoning."
Several speakers had ideas about how the school could be reused. Former Mayor Jacob A. Palillo suggested that, with Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center across the street, a hospital clinic, such as the Cleveland Clinic, concentrating on certain medical specialities, could be started. And, with the casino in Niagara Falls, Ont., he suggested the inclusion of a clinic to treat gambling addiction would be a natural. He said the tourism industry would be helped, because people who came to the clinic would need places to stay.
John C. Merino, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services, which turned the former Ferry Avenue School into senior citizen apartments and rehabilitated a dozen two-family homes around the high school, suggested tearing down only the 1950s additions to the school and keeping the 1920s structure with the theater intact. The site could then be developed with a combination retail and cultural center "that could be done beautifully" and serve as a gateway to Pine Avenue's Little Italy center.
Paul A. Dyster, a candidate for City Council, said that since once torn down a building can't be replaced, it seems that more time should be given to exploring the possible alternatives.
Gino Forte of 13th Street presented a petition opposing the rezoning signed by many of the school's neighbors. Forte said the residents don't want the additional traffic a shopping mall would bring. He and several other speakers pointed to the many vacant storefronts in the city as evidence that the city can't support another shopping mall.
Jean Caprio said she believed one of the reasons people went along with building a new high school was "because we were told it wouldn't be torn down. All of a sudden, surprise. It seems like it got snuck through."
Several school district representatives spoke about the number of years and studies that went into the decision to build a new high school and close Niagara Falls High and LaSalle High and ultimately demolish both. Benderson also is buying the LaSalle property, which is next door to the factory outlet mall it developed on Military Road in the Town of Niagara.
They said they studied rehabilitating Niagara Falls High School for district administration offices, and that would have cost $11 million to $12 million. Roy W. Rogers, school business administrator, said that would have amounted to an increase in the tax rate of $1 per thousand of assessed valuation every year for 15 years.
Evelyn Perkins said that in 100 years "that dollar we're going to add to the tax rolls isn't going to amount to a hill of beans" compared with the history and heritage that will be lost.
"I can't imagine why they would want to tear it down," said Clara Palka, who lives across the street from the school. "It's a sin. It's beautiful. It means a lot. Go around the city. There's nothing beautiful anyplace."
Asked if he heard any ideas that seemed worth considering, Franco said, "We haven't really considered a reuse of the building." He said he understood the building's importance to the community. "But there are some buildings that outlive their useful purpose."