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Council debates wisdom of allowing higher buildings

City leaders debated Monday whether developers should be allowed to construct high-rise buildings downtown that would rival the 26-story glass hotel at the Seneca Niagara Casino.

The City Council is considering a complete overhaul of the city's zoning codes and comprehensive plan that would allow much taller buildings in some areas of the city, while limiting the height of new structures as they get closer to Niagara Falls State Park and the Niagara Gorge.

"You're maximizing the number of properties that end up with views of the falls," said Senior Planner Thomas DeSantis.

The work session at City Hall on Monday was the latest step in a process that has taken three years to create a vision for the future of Niagara Falls and to implement laws to encourage developers to follow that plan.

The Planning Department has rewritten the city's zoning codes and comprehensive plan to, among other initiatives, allow developers to construct buildings on streets near the Seneca Niagara Casino and Hotel to build as high as 300 feet -- or about 30 stories.

Buildings are currently limited to 20 stories.

The city cannot control how tall the Seneca Nation of Indians constructs buildings on its property in Niagara Falls. The zoning proposal attempts to cluster new high-rise buildings and dense development near the Senecas' land.

Buildings closer to the falls would be limited to four to 12 stories, depending on a building's design and its location.

The zoning proposal also provides incentives for developers to follow new design guidelines. For example, if a developer incorporates an enclosed parking ramp into a building, it could be constructed taller than if a developer chooses to use a surface parking lot.

Several Council members have questioned the need for restricting building heights in some areas when city leaders are desperate for development.

"With all these great restrictions that we're proposing, I want to see the list of all the developers," said Council Chairman Robert Anderson Jr.

DeSantis told the Council there is currently one proposal for a high-rise hotel downtown and that the new zoning codes would accommodate that plan, if it is built.

By limiting the height of buildings in some areas, DeSantis said, city leaders would still be able to amend the law to allow taller buildings in the future.

"You can always up zone far easier than you can down zone," DeSantis said.

The Council debated the zoning proposal during an afternoon work session and agreed to hold more public meetings to review its environmental impact and gather public opinion.

Building Commissioner Guy Bax urged the city leaders to carefully consider what zoning codes they implement so that the city does not end up having to grant variances for projects that don't comply. Once a variance to a zoning law is approved by the city, Bax said, it can set precedence for future development.

"The board's going to have a heck of a time telling the next guy no," Bax said.


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