Developer Carl Paladino got the green light Thursday to explore renovating the old L.L. Berger building into apartments, but only after a tense City Hall meeting where Common Council President James W. Pitts lambasted the Buffalo developer and his attorney.
"I'll put you right back against the wall," Pitts told Paul Gregory, a Paladino representative attending the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency meeting. "I think you're a crook, both you and your boss."
Pitts also chastised the Masiello administration's planning policies during the contentious session, saying its support of the Berger proposal was "another example of boosterism that's damaging downtown," but it was Paladino who took the brunt of his criticism.
At the end of the debate however, Pitts was the only agency member to vote against allowing Paladino to investigate redeveloping the old women's clothing store, which has been vacant since 1991, into 36 apartments and 5,500-square feet of retail space.
The developer must return to the Urban Renewal Agency with a more detailed plan before being allowed to proceed.
The prickly session had been expected following Pitts' success at the last Urban Renewal Agency meeting Sept. 9 in having the Paladino consideration delayed.
Pitts and Paladino have feuded frequently for years, but the stakes had become much higher in recent months with Paladino attempting to unseat Pitts as Council president by pumping $20,000 into the campaign of his opponent, Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk.
Franczyk lost the Democratic primary last week, paving the way for what is expected to be an easy victory for Pitts in the November general election.
As for the Berger project, Pitts wanted the delay to allow a review committee to have another look at Paladino's plan. A year ago, the committee had endorsed a Cleveland developer over Paladino.
But when the committee met Monday, Pitts was not present.
He said a 10 a.m. groundbreaking ceremony for the Inner Harbor project and another meeting kept him from attending. Others at the ceremony said it was finished in time for them to attend the 11 a.m. Berger committee.
Pitts began his argument at the Urban Renewal Agency meeting by saying the failure of Landmark Management Ltd., the Cleveland developer, to find a financially viable way of renovating the Berger building was an indication the project was not feasible.
He then went on to say that Paladino's firm, Ellicott Development Co., did not have the experience or ability to pursue the job.
When Community Development Commissioner Joe Ryan said that Ellicott Development was asking only for the opportunity to determine if the project was feasible, Pitts escalated his criticism to include the administration's plan for downtown residential development.
"You're talking about going into the center of the Central Business District," he said. "I believe we should be trying to attract commercial proposals to that central area."
He also claimed the Berger project was being rushed because of Paladino's "political connections.
"We should not be gambling on a project that doesn't seem feasible and a developer without the track record to do it," he said. "It's a mistake. I don't know why it's being done this way and I'm extremely opposed to it."
Pitts also said the Paladino redevelopment plan called for demolishing part of the Berger complex and locating a parking lot along Main Street, which he said would go against the intent of the transit mall and previous master plans.
"It's business as usual in Buffalo," he said. "We'll be compensating for a decision we should not be making."
Masiello, chairman of the Urban Renewal Agency, declined to respond to Pitts' criticisms of his planning policies. He did say the Paladino proposal, if it finally moves ahead, would build on the expanding Theater District and the proposed convention center.
"We have to give them the opportunity to see if it can work," the mayor said. "This is an opportunity to create investment where there is none."
Pitts' outburst towards Gregory, who had been standing throughout the meeting, occurred when the attorney began telling the council president that he had seen the Ellicott Development plans for the Berger project more than a year ago.
Gregory said the developer had no plans to create a parking lot along Main Street. The facades of the buildings that would be demolished would remain standing and a courtyard and parking area would be built behind them.
After Pitts' sharp rebuke of Gregory, the mayor intervened and called for the final vote.
Following the meeting, Paladino, who did not speak during the session, defended his company's development record and pointed to several city residential projects it had done recently including the conversion of the former Lafayette Hospital into a 41-unit apartment building.
Paladino described Pitts' accusations as "garbage.
"That was clearly an assault and slander and uncalled for," he said. "We've laid out the facts and I'm sick and tired of it."