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THE YEAR OF DECISION <br> AFTER YEARS OF TALK, IT'S TIME FOR LEADERS TO ACT ON REGION-SHAPING PROPOSALS

Buffalo took its lumps during the second half of the last century, so perhaps it is fitting this year is shaping up to be a critical period for major projects that will define where this community is going in the new century.

Decisions on a new bridge across the Niagara River, a new Buffalo convention center, a new Inner Harbor and a new future for the historic Buffalo Psychiatric Center complex are expected in the next 11 months.

Then again, maybe not.

All of these projects present huge financial challenges. Some proposals, particularly the new bridge and convention center, are opposed by grassroots groups skeptical about the way the city has been trying to redevelop itself in recent years.

Andrew J. Rudnick, the president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the area's biggest and most influential business organization, believes the time for talk is over regarding the bridge and convention center proposals.

"The details of the project are clear," he said. "In both cases, it's time to end the debate and decide what to do. Each is important for their sector of economic development."

Jim Allen, executive director of the Amherst Industrial Development Agency, has a similar view, although he differs with Rudnick about the priorities.

"The two biggest projects we have to deal with are the Peace Bridge and the Inner Harbor," he said. "Those two are absolutely critical to the future of the community."

Not so fast, say those who believe new thinking is required to avoid the planning mistakes of recent decades. The bitter debate over the Peace Bridge twin-span proposal has led to a more rebellious attitude among some about the wisdom of other proposals.

"It's basically civic planners with a long-range vision of how a city works vs. builders and developers with short-term profit in mind," said Beth Hoskins, a spokesperson for Citizens for Common Sense, a group opposed to the proposed location of the convention center.

There also are some important projects to be decided that haven't been as high on the public's radar but could play equally important roles in Buffalo's future.

In South Buffalo, city planners believe ground will be broken later this year on an office development near the Union Ship Canal. They hope it will be the start of a much larger plan to bring new jobs and investment to abandoned industrial sites in the area.

"Most people won't understand the significance, but with the right state policies and incentives it might be the most important economic development project," Rudnick said.

In downtown, this year also may see major strides toward the goal of creating a strong residential community. A developer plans to begin the conversion of the old Trico plant into apartments and commercial space, and the vacant L.L. Berger department store building may be converted into housing as well.

Here is the 2000 rundown for projects described by backers as the keys to the future and, in some cases, by detractors as monumental mistakes akin to the decision to build the second campus of the University at Buffalo in Amherst.

One of the biggest and most controversial is a new bridge between Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ont. The binational Peace Bridge Authority wanted to be well under way with construction of its twin span by now but that timetable was derailed by opposition on this side of the border that led to a pair of lawsuits.

The authority has agreed to follow the recommendations of a Public Consensus Review Panel. It was established by the mayor, county and two private foundations last year to sort out the arguments.

A binational team of American and Canadian engineers is looking at the twin span and studying the alternatives suggested by opponents. It will make its recommendation to the panel soon.

Even if the Review Panel, its engineers and the Peace Bridge Authority align, however, none of this guarantees a plan will move forward this year. The parties to the lawsuits -- the Buffalo Common Council, Olmsted Parks Conservancy and Episcopal Church Home -- must agree as well.

Also, should a major shift in design from the twin span be recommended such as the SuperSpan or Freschi-Lin bridge alternatives, the entire process of environmental review, engineering studies and bridge design must begin anew.

Despite those questions, Allen believes a decision will be made about the Peace Bridge this year.

"We're at the point where it's no longer debateable whether we need to do it or not," he said. "We have to."

Richard Garman, president of Buffalo Crushed Stone and an influential local business leader, is not so sure.

"I'd like to be an optimist," Garman said, "but I think there's still enough controversy that I'm not sure a bridge will be started this year."

If the future of that project sounds unclear, the convention center may even be more up in the air. Momentum for building a $120 million facility to replace the 25-year-old current convention center was strong coming out of 1998, but bogged down last year.

First, the hoped-for major financial commitment -- the county asked for $90 million -- from the state failed to come through. Then opposition began stirring to the proposed site in the central business district along Washington Street between Huron and Mohawk streets.

Citizens for Common Sense began pushing for an alternative location near the waterfront behind the HSBC Atrium Building along Perry Street. There also was skepticism from some observers that a new convention center was necessary.

Although the project and the Mohawk site still has strong support from major players in the community, notably the Convention and Vistors Bureau, Buffalo Niagara Partnership, Buffalo Place and Mayor Anthony Masiello, obtaining the necessary funding from Albany appears to remain a major challenge.

Competing for the state's financial attention this year is the proposed $150 million redevelopment of the Inner Harbor. A development team of Adelphia Communications, Cordish Company of Baltimore and Benderson Development of Buffalo has been assembled.

Plans call for the redevelopment of the old Memorial Auditorium into an adult entertainment and retail center, and construction of new shops and restaurants under the Skyway. The anchor of the project would be an operations center that would be built by Adelphia for one of its fast-growing subsidiaries.

With the promise of 1,000 new, well-paying telecommunications jobs and the promise of more, many believe the proposed Adelphia investment represents one of the best economic development opportunities in a long time for the city.

"The waterfront is Buffalo's signature for the 21st Century," Allen said. "It's all about what kind of community we want to be."

There are some obstacles that must be overcome fairly soon however, if the ambitious project is to move forward. Adelphia and its owners, the Rigas family, is linking its participation in the project to renegotiating a lease at the Marine Midland Arena.

The Rigas family, which controls the Buffalo Sabres and has an agreement to purchase the team, says the current lease is losing the hockey club millions of dollars annually. It wants a new deal that will substantially reduce its costs at the facility.

Complicating matters further, the Sabres are in default on $32 million in construction loans used to build the arena which opened in 1996. The Rigas family also has not completed its purchase of the hockey club from the old ownership group.

In the meantime, the city and Empire State Development Corp., the state's redevelopment arm, must reach an agreement with the private participants on a deal for redeveloping the area.

"The first step is to wrap up all the internal issues so the community can understand the cost and decide what to do," Rudnick said.

All of these matters must be agreed upon, and relatively soon, before the project can proceed.

"We want to make it happen in early 2000," said Alan DeLisle, executive director of the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp., the city's redevelopment agency.

Further inland at the historic Buffalo Psychiatric Center, the state also is being called upon to provide substantial funding for a $67 million plan to convert the old buildings into a new Olmsted School and office space for Buffalo State College.

The H.H. Richardson Advisory Board conducted seven months of hearings on the future of the eight buildings designed by the prominent 19th Century architect along Forest Avenue at Richmond Avenue and 50 acres declared surplus by the State Office of Mental Health.

The group endorsed a plan calling for the gradual renovation of the structures into a new Olmsted School starting with third- through fifth graders in the fall of 2001. To achieve that goal, the city and Buffalo School District must find out whether the State Department of Education will agree to reimburse much of the construction cost.

The mayor is expected to ask Gov. George Pataki to make a commitment to the Richardson project this year.

"There now needs to be a community discussion on what is being proposed and what the priority for it should be," Rudnick said.

In South Buffalo, work is expected to begin on the first phase of a redevelopment plan that city officials hope will eventually lead to almost a thousand acres of new industrial parks, office development and recreational space on land now occupied by abandoned industrial sites and landfills.

DeLisle said the city wants to have a developer selected and construction underway on a 40-acre office park near the Union Ship Canal by late summer.

Back downtown, several projects that could represent a substantial break from the past are expected to be decided this year. One that would have a broad impact is a plan that would create an entirely new traffic circulation pattern for the central business district.

The concept, which had been endorsed by the mayor last year but delayed after some grumbling from property owners, calls for creating a loop system around Main Street by making Franklin, Washington and Ellicott streets two-way, and creating more crosstown routes by reopening Mohawk and part of West Eagle Street.

City Public Works Commissioner Joe Giambra said a decision is expected soon about moving forward with the traffic circulation changes.

An even bigger downtown traffic project is the proposed reopening of Main Street to vehicles. The Greater Buffalo-Niagara Regional Transportation Council completed a $100,000 study last fall that listed a range of options for reopening the street.

Main has been off limits to cars for almost 20 years and Giambra said the city is committed to reopening it. He cautioned however, that while the city is in charge, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, Buffalo Place and Regional Transportation Council also will be involved in the decision and public hearings will be held before any choice is made.

Finally, urban experts have been saying in recent years that downtown's future well-being lies not in the old role as the region's business and retail hub, but in it becoming the entertainment and cultural center for the region and a place where people want to live.

While there have been some limited successes with residential development downtown, the number of apartments and condominiums available remains limited. Developer Steve McGarvey of Erie, Pa. plans to substantially expand that inventory with the redevelopment of the old Trico complex at Goodell and Ellicott streets.

McGarvey plans to begin construction in March at the Trico with the latest layout calling for 170 apartments in the top two floors ranging in rent from $500 to $800 a month. The lower levels will be commercial space and the third floor will reserved for future apartments should the demand be there.

The developer also plans to be redevelopment soon of the former M. Wile & Co. plant at 77 Goodell St. He intends to convert the five-story structure into an office building.

A few blocks away, more upscale downtown housing may be in store for 2000. Local developer Carl Paladino has obtained the rights from the city to redevelop the old Berger building at 500-518 Main into 30 apartments renting at about $1,000 per month and 28,000 square feet of commercial space.

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