Niagara Falls High School got at least a temporary reprieve from demolition Wednesday when the city Planning Board tabled a request to rezone the school property at Pine Avenue and Portage Road for commercial use.
The tabling was recommended by the city planning staff, which has requested that the city school district forward all studies and estimates for both renovation and demolition to the city for analysis, according to Larry Krizan, director of community development.
Krizan said city staff also has asked the Niagara Falls Area Chamber of Commerce and the Pine Avenue Business Association to cooperate with the city's efforts to look at alternatives to tearing the building down. Both business groups joined Benderson Development Co. and school officials in backing the rezoning request at a public hearing two weeks ago, while members of the general public opposed it.
Benderson has a contract to buy the property from the school district provided the property is rezoned for commercial use. Benderson would tear the 75-year-old structure down after the new high school on Porter Road opens and build a 22,000-square-foot, one-story retail mall surrounded by parking on the 3.3-acre Pine Avenue site. Benderson also has bought the LaSalle High School property on Military Road, which is adjacent to the factory outlet mall it developed.
Planning Board members accepted the tabling recommendation unanimously, most concurring that a lot more study should be done before another of the city's history buildings is consigned to the wrecker's ball. Krizan assured them that the range of possibilities for the school will be fully explored, but that the range may not be that wide because of the economic realities of the area.
Some Planning Board members, such as Matteo Anello believe there may be less costly alternatives than the school district looked at because they were contemplating renovating the building for classroom or office space. Anello said it is possible the entire interior could be gutted and reconstructed for other uses more economically.
Strictly speaking, the board isn't being asked to approve the demolition, but is aware that the rezoning would clear the way for that. A number of board members want at least to make certain that no alternative is overlooked before they take an action that would result in the loss of another piece of the city's history, as it was put by Allen Benton Jr., a board member.
Thomas A. Sy, chief executive officer of Memorial Medical Center, which is located directly across Portage Road from the school, submitted a letter saying the medical center sees as its major obstacle to financial stability the perception that the neighborhood isn't safe. Therefore, he said, the medical center fears "that the level of investment and development planned by Benderson would be a bare minimum and could quickly lead to the decay associated with a retail structure operating at below 50 percent capacity." He said the detail provided by Benderson "has been so minimal that it is insulting and leads us to the decision that we cannot endorse their zoning request." Sy said the medical center isn't opposed to retail use per se.