A key portion of the riverfront site where the Buffalo Zoo proposes to relocate is owned by Carl Paladino, a high-profile developer, a search of property records has revealed. And he has no desire to sell.
Paladino's insistence that he won't sell the seven-acre piece of waterfront property places yet another challenge to the plan for the spectacular facility on 80 acres along the Buffalo River.
"We have a development we've planned the last five years," Paladino said. "We don't want the zoo there. We're opposed to it, and we'll go to court on it."
Paladino joins a growing number of critics of the new zoo plan that the Buffalo Zoological Society board endorsed in June.
But while most other opponents cite specific reasons for the opposition, the developer known for his Rite Aid projects and stewardship of downtown historic buildings provides few specifics when asked why he doesn't think it's such a good idea.
Paladino would not give details about his development plans for the site, but he made it clear they don't involve a zoo. He added that he would oppose any plan to close Ohio Street, another vital aspect of the zoo's relocation plan.
"This waterfront land has a better and higher use than a zoo," said Paladino, who purchased the seven acres in question along with former Blue Bird Bus owner Louis Magnano in 1983. "It's absolutely silly."
Paladino also owns several parcels of land along South Park Avenue as part of an investment group called Octal Holding Corp. That land, which is in the targeted zoo site, would be for sale, he said.
"It's a good idea to relocate," Paladino said, "but it doesn't have to be as big. They should go north across South Park to the area up to the Thruway, take the (Commodore) Perry projects."
Zoo President Thomas E. Garlock declined to discuss Paladino's opposition, but he hinted the city could be asked to intervene. Buffalo owns the current zoo property, and the city, which has the power to condemn, would be expected to assemble any new property should the project proceed.
Paladino's voice is the latest to be heard on what to do with the zoo, a debate that seems to have heated up from a simmer to a rolling boil.
For example, Tom Bauerle, host of a popular morning talk show on WGR-AM, said, "Anytime we do the zoo, every phone line lights up immediately. There's a tremendous amount of interest not just in Parkside and South Buffalo but the entire region."
Most callers are opposed to the relocation idea, Bauerle said, particularly since the price tag of what is being billed as a world-class zoo and aquarium featuring six different ecological zones climbed to $160 million over the summer.
The zoo, for its part, is sticking to its course, saying a bold move from its antiquated quarters in Delaware Park to a state-of-the-art facility in a new location is the only answer for its animals and for attracting the major government funding crucial to its modernization.
Garlock said he was surprised that many people in the Parkside neighborhood would oppose relocating the facility, particularly since some of the same people in the past had worked to hamstring the zoo's efforts to improve at its current site.
After seeing hundreds of opposition signs on yards in the surrounding neighborhoods and viewing computer web pages fighting the proposed relocation, Garlock questions some of the opponents' motives.
"The only animals the people in the Parkside neighborhood are concerned about are the homo sapiens," he said.
"Caring for the animals is very staff-intensive. Some of the neighbors are concerned a subsequent use won't be as staff-intensive. They like the fact the Society is here taking care of the grass and the buildings and the litter."
Garlock said the zoo's prospects for enhancing or adding to its current 23.5-acre site are bleak.
The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, a powerful Delaware Park watchdog group, opposes both any expansion of the zoo into the park and any alterations that would make its current site more congested or visible.
"Any zoo that stays there has to reflect the character of the neighborhood," said Lucy Cook, Olmsted executive director. "If they stay in Delaware Park, it must be in the same footprint and at the same level of activity."
Even if the zoo could attract the $60 million it would cost to upgrade at the present site, Garlock would face a whole new round of opposition. And there would be no rain forest exhibit, no parking garage and no hoped-for influx of 250,000 more visitors.
"If they (the opponents) were sincere, they would say 'don't move, don't change,' " he said, rather than urging improvement of the current facility.
Joel Rose, one of the leaders of the Committee to Keep the Zoo in Delaware Park, said his organization knows the zoo needs to spend money to modernize and would support a modest expansion into Delaware Park if it were justified.
What irks Rose is the zoo's attitude toward the neighborhood and those who question its plans to build an ultramodern facility.
"I think they're arrogant and it makes me mad," he said. "We don't think we need a mega-zoo here. It's basically being built as an attraction for tourists that most people in the neighborhood couldn't afford."
The proposed admissions for the new zoo would be $9.50 for adults and $5.50 for children up from the current $6 and $3.
Rose points out that opposition has grown far beyond Parkside and the Old First Ward, where some residents are objecting to having a waterfront zoo as their neighbor. The unhappiness has spread to the West Side, East Side, University District and Kenmore, he said.
Delaware Council Member Alfred T. Coppola said the torrent of letters to his office is running 80 percent to 20 percent against the new zoo.
A Goldhaber Research Associates poll conducted for Business First found Western New York residents roughly split on the idea, but the question did not include the $160 million price tag of the proposed new zoo.
Bauerle said the zoo has been a topic 10 times on his talk show and the mood has soured as the price has climbed.
"At first, when it was $90 million to $100 million, there was a lot more support," he said. "Since the zoo's ($160 million) press conference, most callers are against it. They were floored by the price tag."
The debate also has had staying power. The radio host said the subject is every bit as hot now as it was when it first came up. Most controversial subjects have a shelf life of a day or two, he said.
One of the major concerns voiced by residents near the zoo is the impact on their property values should the facility move. Carole Z. Holcberg, whose real estate company specializes in city properties, said proper planning is vital.
"The fear of the unknown could have a negative effect on property values in the Parkside area," she said. "Just good solid, thoughtful planning would negate any detrimental effect, however.
"A plan and rendering that showed what the reclamation of the zoo into parkland would look like -- if that was part of moving the zoo -- I think that no impact on property values would occur."
What would happen to the existing buildings if the zoo moves?
A committee established to discuss new uses for the zoo property has met three times, according to city Parks Commissioner Daniel T. Durawa. The meetings are held the third Monday of each month at Mitchell Hall on the Nichols Campus with the next set for 5:30 p.m. Oct. 19.
"There is no doubt in my mind, if that site were left vacant, we'd have a problem," Durawa said. "That's why we're working hard on this thing. . . ." The $160 million estimate for a new zoo does not include money to reclaim the old property or, for that matter, money to obtain land for parking or to replace the recreational facilities that would be lost at 14.5-acre Father Conway Park, which is part of proposed site in South Buffalo.
"We cannot abandon that community," Durawa said. "I know we'll be able to solve that problem."
The riverfront site is the only one being considered because it has the amount of land the zoo believes it needs and offers a chance at helping the city with its redevelopment effort, the zoo official said.
"Can it work in Grand Island or the Town of Tonawanda? Sure. But we see the city as the heart of the region," Garlock said.
He also indicated it will be government officials, who are being asked to foot 87 percent of the $160 million tab, more than web pages and neighborhood yard signs that will determine whether the zoo gives up or not on its quest for a new facility.