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Falls development outlook gets no clearer 2 months after 10-year downtown deal ends, no progress beyond 'general discussions'

When Mayor Vince Anello held a news conference in May to announce he was ending a 10-year-old development deal with the private firm Niagara Falls Redevelopment, he alluded to other developers that may be interested in the tract of downtown land the company controls.

Two months later, it is still unclear what will happen on NFR's land.

Anello has continued to meet with NFR representatives, and aside from an argument between Anello and an NFR executive outside a 13th Street building owned by the firm, not much has been said publicly about the land.

And the question remains: Would another developer seek land that has been at the heart of controversy and litigation in Niagara Falls during the last decade?

"Will there be other developers? Well, when you tell them what's out there, people will start to open their eyes," said Ellicott Development chief Carl P. Paladino, who has undertaken the renovation of another prominent Niagara Falls site, the United Office Building.

Most of the land controlled by NFR is in the heart of the city near John B. Daly Boulevard. It sits across Daly from the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel and is one of the first parcels that visitors to Niagara Falls see when they exit the Robert Moses Parkway.

A decade ago, Niagara Falls Redevelopment unveiled plans for a major development on 142 acres of the site and was given development rights for the land in city contracts in 1997 and 2003. The 2003 contract laid out plans for $110 million worth of projects, but today it is mostly undeveloped, with tracts of cleared land or vacant buildings.

NFR and its companies have acquired most of the 142 acres by purchasing properties from the city and private landowners. There are still parcels within the area that NFR does not control.

Anello has said he would consider using eminent domain to help another developer acquire NFR's land if the developer had a "good project that can be shown to be a public benefit." He said last week he has had no more than "general discussions" about the land with other developers. No specific projects have been proposed.

Anello acknowledged that the "hostile" climate surrounding the city's relationship with NFR may deter interest in the land.

"There's also a lot of uncertainity in the air, because, as you know, one of the NFR officials has filed a police report," Anello said, referring to a complaint filed by NFR Executive Vice President Roger Trevino earlier this month accusing Anello of threatening him during a verbal dispute outside one of NFR's properties. "People must realize that the relationship must not be very congenial at this point."

Still, Anello said he is confident that eminent domain could help another developer build on the land if one came forward with a project that would benefit the public.

"You can't stop development if the development justifies the expenditures, whether it's the legal fees or the property acquisition or whatever," Anello said. "There are timetables for eminent domain procedures. You can fight in court for 10 years, but you can't stall the project."

Anello pointed to another downtown parcel, a splash park on Daly Boulevard controlled by NFR, that was taken through the state's power of condemnation last year for the Seneca casino development.

James A. Gardner, professor of civil justice at the University at Buffalo Law School, theorized that NFR's land may actually be more attractive to a developer coming into the city now because NFR has already done much of the work to assemble the properties. Gardner, who was not familiar with the details of NFR's land, spoke in general about the process.

"That kind of condemnation -- property that's in an unproductive use to be turned over to a private developer to be put into more productive use -- there's certainly plenty of precedent for it in New York State," Gardner said.

When Anello held the news conference in May, he said he was using the public forum to notify NFR that its agreement had expired since it had not built a $12 million development project by a deadline in April.

NFR attorney John P. Bartolomei contends that the deadline should have been extended because of the city's nonperformance. He and other attorneys working for NFR, which is backed financially by New York City developer Howard Milstein, are continuing to review Anello's statements about the contract, Bartolomei said.

Meanwhile, Bartolomei said, the firm is working to assemble and clear properties. City records show that a company controlled by NFR has applied for and received 78 building permits since May to erect fences along its properties.

Bartolomei was skeptical that another developer would want to deal with the city to get NFR's land.

"I can't imagine there would be anybody out there who would pay what Howard Milstein paid [for the land]," Bartolomei said. "If you were a developer watching this whole thing from the outside, you'd probably run, not walk, away from Niagara Falls."


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