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SWIATEK SEEKS FUNDING FOR LANDSCAPING OF VACANT LOT

Cheektowaga officials think they may be able to use federal funds to landscape the southwest corner of Harlem Road and Cleveland Drive, one of the highest-profile vacant lots in the town.

The better the lot looks, the better its chance of being developed and becoming an integral part of the neighborhood's business-revitalization program, officials say.

Cheektowaga Council Member Jeff Swiatek said that, during a work session Wednesday night, he will ask the Town Board for permission to pursue the idea. Money spent to dress up the corner lot would be recouped when the lot is sold or developed by the current owner, he said.

The lot has been a sore point in the Harlem-Kensington neighborhood on the Cheektowaga-Amherst border ever since three buildings were torn down three years ago to make way for a Rite Aid drugstore that was never built.

The rocky, weedy lot "has turned into a truck stop as well as a parking lot," Shelly D. Schratz, president of the Harlem-Kensington-Cleveland Business Association, wrote last week in a letter to Cheektowaga and Amherst officials. "The safety of the community is now in question."

Swiatek, who lives a block away, said the use of federal community development block grant funds to landscape the lot was discussed Thursday with Michael F. Merrill, director of community planning and development in the Buffalo office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Cheektowaga Community Development Director Jerome J. Gabryszak also attended the meeting.

"He (Merrill) said it's possible. The next step is to get the board's support," Swiatek said.

Gabryszak said, "This property has a blighting influence on the neighborhood, which discourages investments and improvements."

By improving the property, Swiatek said, its marketability would be enhanced, along with the likelihood of its attracting a new business and jobs to the community.

If the Town Board approves, officials expect to add the Harlem-Cleveland project to the town's proposed 2000 block grant program, which will be submitted to HUD in a few weeks.

"We're talking about cleaning it up and doing some planting -- grass, trees along the border, that sort of thing," Swiatek said. "The idea would be to work from the outside in, since whatever eventually goes there is going to require peripheral landscaping anyway."

The property owner, Rite Aid of New York Inc., has been ordered to clean up the lot twice since buildings housing an ice cream shop, a dentist's office, a tavern and some small offices and businesses were torn down for the drugstore project in the summer of 1997.

Rite Aid subsequently dropped plans for a new store at Harlem and Cleveland in favor of building on the site of Jimmy's Restaurant, a neighborhood landmark just over the Cheektowaga border in Amherst. That plan fell through, too, when Jimmy's customers objected and were supported by Amherst officials.

Now, financial troubles swirling around Rite Aid Corp. have the pharmacy chain reconsidering plans to build new stores across the country, including several in Western New York.

Cheektowaga has ordered the vacant lot at Harlem and Cleveland cleaned up in each of the last two summers. Records show that when Rite Aid did not do the work, the town sent in its own contractor to cut weeds and clean up and rough-grade the unsightly lot. The cost -- $650 in 1998 and $950 last year -- was added to Rite Aid's tax bill, officials said.

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