The next nine months will be pivotal for planners who want to turn long-abandoned industrial land in South Buffalo into an upscale business park and marina.
Planners recently designated Ciminelli Development Co. Inc. the exclusive developer of 84 acres of land near the Union Ship Canal off Route 5 south of the Tifft Nature Preserve.
Mayor Masiello said officials have been soliciting developers for about two years before tapping Ciminelli. He said he thinks the Amherst company has the experience and resources to make the project the catalyst for redevelopment in South Buffalo. The goal is to transform the land into a thriving business campus that would be marketed to research and development companies and other "higher-end" businesses. The city also wants to create a public esplanade and park space near the canal, with eventual plans to build a public marina.
"We're hoping that construction will begin this year," said coordinator Kevin Greiner. "Developers have tenants looking for space like this. We think it will be an attractive site with some unique amenities."
Initially, the South Buffalo Redevelopment Project targeted a 90-acre tract of land off South Park Avenue for the first phase of activity. But the parcels on the former Republic Steel site are owned by LTV Steel of Cleveland and the city is embroiled in a bitter legal dispute over environmental contamination in a nearby neighborhood. The controversial Hickory Woods subdivision near Abby Street was also part of the former steel company properties.
"Our inability to negotiate with LTV has taken the (South Park) property off the market for now," said Greiner. "We've tried and tried for two years and things don't look too promising at this point."
But both Greiner and Alan H. DeLisle, the mayor's economic development chief, stressed that the problems with LTV will not deter the city from moving forward with plans at the Union Ship Canal site.
Late last year, the land was acquired for $1 by Development Downtown Inc., the public agency is coordinating the project. The $1 price tag took into consideration environmental cleanup costs at the site that will likely range from $1.2 million to $2.8 million.
Greiner said officials are poised to complete a voluntary cleanup agreement on a 42-acre parcel located on the south side of the canal. By early July, work will begin on a new road that will improve accessibility to the parcel. Officials are hoping that construction can begin by September or October.
The fact that the new business park will be located within a state economic development zone should make it all the more attractive to prospective companies, Greiner said. Moving into an EDZ makes businesses eligible for tax and utility incentives.
Paul F. Ciminelli, president of Ciminelli Development, said the site is ideally located for many types of enterprises.
"South Buffalo was the industrial heartland of this region for many years. It had a port, excellent roadways and was close to the Peace Bridge," said Ciminelli. "This brownfield site has a lot of potential. The key now is to move the project to a shovel-ready state."
But a high-profile environmentalist cautioned city officials against moving too hastily. Jay Burney of the Green Watch/Buffalo Institute of Urban Ecology Inc. raised concerns that as elected leaders and developers focus on job creation, it might prompt them to "cut corners" when it comes to site remediation and dealing with certain quality-of-life issues.
While Burney credited the Masiello administration for fostering community involvement in past decision-making, he suggested that some politicians tend to work on a time line that "reflects the next election" as opposed to carefully assessing long-term issues.
"Elected officials need things done today, not tomorrow, and this is of consequence. This promotes developer-driven decision-making," Burney said.
But Greiner said there's no need to fear that planners will move forward with any brownfield initiatives in a haphazard fashion.
"We're being extremely cautious on this project and, frankly, the problems on Abby Street raise our consciousness that much higher," he said.
The Erie County Industrial Development Agency also recently established a new unit that is focusing on brownfields development, while the University at Buffalo has proposed creating a not-for-profit entity that would be dedicated to fostering such initiatives.
Another long-term brownfields project involves a 20-year plan to turn 1,150 acres of property owned by Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna into an industrial, commercial and recreational mecca. The blueprint marks the first time since operations were curtailed in the mid 1980s that Bethlehem has presented a detailed redevelopment agenda for the site.
Greiner said there have already been numerous discussions about joint marketing efforts between the brownfields in Buffalo and Lackawanna.
"We're hoping to create a single plan so that these projects are developed in a complementary fashion and don't compete with one another," Greiner said. "I think we all recognize the importance of synergy."