A Cleveland developer has abandoned his plan to renovate the old L.L. Berger Building into residential space, and now City Hall wants to turn to Carl Paladino to do the job.
But first, Paladino has to get his proposal for 36 apartments and first floor retail space past Common Council President James W. Pitts, a longtime critic of Paladino. And it may not have helped Paladino's cause that he has contributed $20,000 to Pitts' opponent in the Council presidency primary.
Pitts was successful Thursday in persuading fellow members of the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency to delay designating Paladino as developer for the empty downtown department store. Community Development Commissioner Joseph Ryan had recommended giving Paladino the nod.
"What's new?" Paladino said. "Of course, Mr. Pitts wants to delay it because he wants to find some way of extracting a pound of flesh. Why does he do these things? Because we've let him get away with this for years."
Pitts denied his reasons for holding up the designation were politically motivated, saying it's important for the city to find out why Landmark Management Ltd., a premier Cleveland developer of apartment projects, couldn't make the Berger project work after more than a year of trying.
"If they (Landmark) are saying they had major problems, our committee should reconvene to review that and also see if the project is feasible," he said. "The problem you have is Mr. Paladino tries to make everything political."
The proposal by Ellicott Development Co., Paladino's firm, was one of three submitted to the city in May 1998 for redeveloping the Berger Building at 500-518 Main. The building has been vacant since the women's clothier went out of business in 1991.
Landmark submitted a plan for a $6.5 million project that would convert the top seven floors of the Berger Building into 75 upscale apartments and convert the first floor into retail or office space.
Ellicott Development pitched a $3.5 million plan for 36 apartments and 5,500 square feet of retail space. Rents for the two- and three-bedroom units would range from $900 to $1,800 a month.
The Ellicott plan also called for demolishing two adjacent buildings to make room for a courtyard and secured parking spaces.
A third proposal from EI Team, an Amherst company, for a $9 million development that would include apartments, retail and office use, was rejected quickly by a task force established to make a recommendation on who should redevelop the Berger Building.
Pitts said Landmark edged out Paladino's firm because of its extensive experience and expertise. City officials also hoped the company would help draft changes in the state building code laws that would make the redevelopment of older buildings more economical.
In the end, Landmark could not get its numbers to work, Ryan said. The community development commissioner said the firm wanted up
to $3.5 million in subsidies, an amount that was considered too much for the project. "Not that it was a bad proposal," he said, "it was just too expensive."
Officials from Landmark could not be reached to comment.
Ryan said that when Ellicott Development indicated it was still interested in pursuing the project with its own money, he decided to recommend the company to the Urban Renewal Agency to replace Landmark as the designated developer of the project.
"I'm comfortable with the Ellicott development proposal," he said, adding that he expects the Urban Renewal Agency to approve the designation when it meets again next month.
Paladino said he has a solid redevelopment record, including just completing a $3.5 million renovation of the old Lafayette Hospital into 41 apartments, and renovating the Commodore Apartments at 1240 Delaware Ave. and the Sherwood Apartments at 140 Linwood Ave., a total of 130 units.
The developer, who has sparred throughout the years with Pitts, has contributed $20,000 through seven corporations to Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk in his race to unseat Pitts.
He said Pitts' objection at the Urban Renewal Agency meeting was an example of why he is unhappy with the incumbent.
"I'm supporting change on the Common Council, it just happens to be David Franczyk there," he said. "I've gone through 20 years of the kind of nonsense you heard this morning (at the agency meeting)."
As for Pitts, he said: "If Mr. Paladino has enough money to finance almost singly Mr. Franczyk's campaign, he should go clean up the old Rite Aid buildings around the city.
"If Mr. Paladino and Ellicott Development are not going to be responsive to issues like that, why should we be giving him public dollars to redo the Berger Building?"
Pitts added that he does not believe Paladino can do the job privately.