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Lancaster village agency nixes only proposal for West Main Street development

Lancaster village officials for years have been seeking a developer to transform a vacant section in the heart of downtown, but they have little to show for their efforts.

Now after rejecting the only proposal it received for the West Main Street project, the Lancaster Community Development Corp. is back to square one.

At issue is a meandering 5-acre parcel on the banks of Cayuga Creek. Anchored by a partially demolished building, the site is owned by the CDC and is on the market for $845,000.

The CDC was formed in the early 1990s so it could legally purchase the property and rent it out, said Lancaster Mayor William C. Schroeder.

"Unfortunately the building outlived its usefulness and has become an albatross," Schroeder said.

And there are more drawbacks, village officials admitted.

"The per-acre cost is too high," said former Mayor William G. Cansdale, now the superintendent of public works. "The parcel is small with a 1-acre flood plain leaving less than 4 acres available for development. None of the major players are interested in it."

Attorney Mark Aquino, a small developer who grew up in the Village of Depew, managed the property for the CDC from 2003 to 2015. Aquino also served as the agency's legal counsel. He resigned both positions after he assembled a handful of investors and submitted a proposal to develop the property. The plans called for several mixed-use, multistory buildings with commercial and residential tenants.

Aquino, who is passionate about his project, still is feeling the sting of rejection by the CDC and the Village Board, which also turned down the designated developer agreement Aquino needed to proceed with his plans.

"There's a lack of leadership at the CDC level and in village government, that's the problem," Aquino said. "That's why it's taken 40 years for this property to be developed."

Filling a void

In the late 1960s, the colossal building that started the headache on West Main was built by Harvest the Best, one of the original superstores that sold groceries, clothing, tires and sporting goods.

"At that time in our history, everyone thought it was great," said Schroeder. "But the building had a 40-year life span and the company went bankrupt a year after the Lancaster store was built."

But Erie 1 BOCES was looking for a regional hub to become the Board of Cooperative Educational Services center. When BOCES eventually left Lancaster for its current home on Harlem Road in West Seneca, it created a void the village is finding difficult to fill.

"Looking at it from a practical standpoint, the Village Board wants to make sure whatever we do works," said Schroeder. "We don't want mistakes from the past."

In May of this year, the Village Board accepted $40,000 from Empire State Development Corp. to help fund a feasibility study that would determine some options for development of West Main. LaBella Associates, a consulting firm headquartered on Pearl Street, should complete the study by April 2018, said Schroeder.

"We need to know what could work there with an eye to making more green space, more community friendly and walkable," said Schroeder. "This should have been done two years ago."

Growing the village

Dutch, German and Italian immigrants settled along the banks of Cayuga Creek building sawmills, churches and homes to form the Village of Lancaster nearly 200 years ago.

"That's where all the building developed, right along that creek," said Richard Young, a fourth-generation village resident who operates Performance Advantage Co., an industrial manufacturer located on Central Avenue. At 87, Young is big on history and proud of his ancestry starting with his great-great-grandfather Jacob Jung, a farmer who traveled from Alsace in the 1880s to settle along Cayuga Creek.

Young would like to develop a portion of the property. His proposal for Cayuga Landing calls for a modern history museum, restaurant, a condominium tower and public park along the creek.

"I understand the pressure the CDC is under, but I don't think they are doing right. The whole thing stinks," said Young. "An engineering firm should have conducted a study in the first place. Part of the parcel is on a flood plain, but a park could be built there. It can be done."

Aquino, who submitted the lone proposal to the CDC to develop the entire parcel, believes in the potential of the village. His group proposed five to seven multistory buildings with 50 to 60 market-rate apartments on the upper floors. In addition, Aquino proposed two public spaces, one along the creek and the other in the building now occupied by Save A Lot, a grocery store that is under lease until 2023.

"It's been 20 years since there's been any substantive movement in getting the property developed," said Aquino. "There are significant problems structurally and with the roof. I was under the impression everything was a go, and when I was told it had been voted down. I was shocked."

The CDC met in a joint meeting with the Village Board on Sept. 6 and voted Aquino's proposal down 6-4. His Revitalize Lancaster project needed eight votes to pass.

James Allein, president of the CDC, voted against the project.

"There's a lot of unknowns," Allein said. "He came in with a very preliminary plan, not really addressing the walkability, and offering no green space at all. Furthermore, he did not respond to Village Board requests for references and proof of financial backing."

Cansdale suggested the CDC step aside and allow the market to dictate the future of the project. The mortgage debt estimated at upward of $800,000 is held by M&T Bank. The CDC is making interest-only payments, noted Cansdale.

"Maybe the CDC should have closed the doors and handed the key to M&T a long time ago," Cansdale said. "Let the market dictate the future of that parcel."

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