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BUFFALO PLACE MULLS HAVING MODEL LAW DRAFTED TO ALLOW APARTMENTS ABOVE STOREFRONTS

Downtown planners, hoping to speed efforts to relax state safety codes that are viewed as hurdles to converting old buildings into apartments, may hire an outside expert to help shape legislation.

The push for changes in state building and fire codes has attracted the attention of Buffalo Place Inc., the not-for-profit agency that runs the Main Street pedestrian mall.

The group is being urged to hire a lawyer who could draft proposed reforms in hopes of bolstering the chances that the state Legislature will take action before it breaks in July.

Carl Paladino, a Buffalo Place director and downtown's largest private landlord, said Wednesday there is a consensus that codification changes are essential if Buffalo is to succeed in transforming the upper floors of aging downtown buildings into apartments.

"The will is there, but we haven't found a way," he said. "We need professional counsel. Someone has to draft the legislation and hand it to members of our state delegation."

He underscored the importance of seeing action on the long-debated item before state lawmakers break for summer recess. Mayor Masiello agreed, claiming the push to bring more residential into downtown's central core has ignited the interest of some developers and prospective renters.

"Now is the time to strike. Let's try to capitalize on the momentum we've built," the mayor the board.

In the coming weeks, managers at Buffalo Place will discuss the feasibility of hiring a housing-code expert to help draft the proposed legislation. The full board may be asked to approve a plan next month.

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, said local leaders will have to devise a "reasonable plan" if they expect the Legislature to pass the reforms on such a tight timetable.

"I'm ready to take the ball and run with it, but we have to see a package that does not endanger the health or safety of prospective occupants," said Hoyt.

Reform advocates insist that the code revisions wouldn't compromise public safety. They claim the changes would merely give builders a wider array of options for protecting residents against fire and other dangers.

They cited efforts by New Jersey to bolster economic development by revising building codes for residential projects in urban areas. Rehabilitation costs have been reduced by 4 percent to 40 percent, depending on the scope of work and the age of the building, according to officials in that state.

Meanwhile, a group that is prompting residential development in downtown Buffalo, the lower West Side and the near East Side, made a presentation to Buffalo Place directors. Cynthia A. Schwartz, who heads the not-for-profit entity Heart of the City Neighborhoods Inc. said the group wants to launch a demonstration project.

"We want to take the second or third floor of a turn-of-the-century downtown building and convert it into residential," Ms. Schwartz told the Buffalo Place board of directors.

The group, which is seeking city funds to finance the pilot project, said the final product would provide solid data involving the savings that could result if more flexibility is given to developers.

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