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Investors plan a $25 million underground aquarium featuring 5,000 ocean and lake creatures beneath Occidental Chemical Corp.'s building overlooking the Falls.

Toronto developer Edwin A. Cogan and New York City investor Howard P. Milstein would team with a group of international investors and a New Zealand company that built and operates the same sort of unusual below-ground aquatic parks in Asia.

Calling themselves 360 Rainbow Boulevard LLC, the investors have signed a contract to buy the nine-story Occidental building for an undisclosed sum.

"It's not a deal until it is a deal," Cogan said from Toronto on Wednesday. "I expect it to be a deal."

Occidental officials confirmed the contract Wednesday and expressed hope of finalizing the sale by mid-year.

The proposed "walk-through" aquarium is one of two such facilities the investors are planning for the United States. New York City's Times Square is the other target location. Eventually, up to a dozen similar aquariums are planned for the U.S. and Canada.

They would be similar to a so-called "Blue Zoo" in downtown Beijing, an 85,000-square-foot aquarium built by the investors' New Zealand partner, Rachina Pacific.

The Blue Zoo, opened in November 1997, features a 363-foot-long acrylic walkway that allows visitors to pass among sharks, rays, eels, piranas and thousands of other species.

It is unclear what the investment group would do with the glass office building, which is currently two-thirds vacant. While the aquarium would need part of
the lobby for its entrance, ticketing and retail operations, the attraction would not extend beyond the two-floor atrium.

George C. Hamburger, of Buffalo's Hunt Commercial Real Estate, said there's been a lot of interest in the building during the nearly two years he's brokered it on Occidental's behalf.

"We had local, regional and international lookers, several of them quite serious, including a couple letters of intent. But none of them ever made it to the altar," Hamburger said.

The broker said it's ironic the all-glass structure, with its unparalleled views of Niagara Falls, could end up taking a back seat to an underground project.

"I wouldn't have imagined this in a million years, but I think its a fantastic opportunity for Niagara Falls," he said.

Buffalo attorney Greg Davis, who represents David Ho of Hong Kong and Gilles Assouline of Paris, the prime movers behind the Asian aquatic facilities, said they picked Niagara Falls over several other U.S. sites for their first American project.

"Coming from such diverse backgrounds, the one location they knew a lot about and were excited about was Niagara Falls, N.Y. If all goes according to plan, it will be the first to open," Davis said.

The partnership is also eyeing sites in Chicago, San Diego, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, officials said.

Creation of a new, world-class aquarium a few blocks down Rainbow Boulevard from the existing Aquarium of Niagara Falls came as news to Nancy Chapin, the aquarium's executive director.

"I'm surprised, this is the first I've heard of it," she said Wednesday when told by The Buffalo News of the planned new competition. "Niagara Falls already has an aquarium."

Ms. Chapin said the Niagara Falls facility -- at 32,000 square feet about a third the size of the proposed aquarium -- has served the city continuously since 1965. It drew as many as 450,000 people a year in those first few years, when large aquariums were still rare.

She said the aquarium, which has major improvement plans and has been talking of a possible merger with the Buffalo Zoo, has drawn about 165,000 people a year for the past three years.

Ms. Chapin did say she met with representatives of Cogan's Niagara Falls Redevelopment Corp. a year ago and told them of the aquarium's proposed revamping. She said she was wished good luck and was assured the development company had no plans for a competing aquarium.

In its first three weeks of operation, the Beijing "Blue Zoo" drew 60,000 visitors, and in its first six months of operation, attendance swelled to more than 600,000 visitors.

Cogan and Milstein, who with other partners purchased the NFL Washington Redskins for $800 million, are partners in Niagara Falls Redevelopment, the corporation that has an agreement with the city to rebuild the Niagara Falls tourist district. Cogan had eyed the Occidental building as a potential visitors center.

The Niagara Falls and Times Square aquariums would reportedly be built at the same time and use the same technical crews and materials.

Among the big question marks is whether the geology of the site is appropriate for installation of behemoth underground tanks. The sale contract reportedly would allow the investors to walk away from the purchase if physical hurdles preclude construction.

The federal General Services Administration currently leases the third and fourth floors of the building and is negotiating to lease another full floor. Manpower also leases space on the first floor.

Built in 1981, the glass building, designed by Grand Island-based Cannon Design, has won numerous architecture awards.

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