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PROTECTION SOUGHT FROM RAZE-AND-RUN DEVELOPERS

Three years ago, Cheektowaga thought it was getting a new Rite Aid drugstore when it approved the demolition of some old business buildings at Harlem Road and Cleveland Drive.

Instead, the town wound up with an unsightly corner lot that has had to be cleaned up the past two summers and a lot of complaints from neighbors. Council Member Thomas M. Johnson Jr., the Town Board's development watchdog, says he has learned his lesson.

Town building officials have been asked to come up with an ordinance amendment that would prevent developers from walking away from projects that fall through, leaving behind demolition rubble and For Sale signs.

If a project goes belly up after wrecking balls and bulldozers have done their work, there's no way to put everything back the way it was.

But Johnson says the alternative shouldn't be a building site covered with debris, rocks, stones, gravel and weeds, either.

"I believe we need an ordinance revision that requires an owner to restore a site to cleared, graded, top-soiled and grassed conditions" if a redevelopment project doesn't begin within 12 to 18 months of demolition work, Johnson wrote in a recent memo to building officials.

"We want this fast-tracked," he remarked last week. "I don't want any more demolition permits issued to developers who can walk away, leaving their rubble."

It's not as though the Rite Aid project was the first in Cheektowaga to be abandoned after demolition or site work occurred.

"Sure it's happened before, but we were usually able to get them to come back and do some basic cleanup and maybe plant some grass. Plus they didn't have this high a profile," Johnson said.

The towns of Cheektowaga and Amherst happen to be working together to revitalize the once-thriving Harlem-Kensington Avenue commercial district on their borders, and the Harlem-Cleveland corner is part of it.

The Harlem-Kensington-Cleveland Business Association, headed by Shelly D. Schratz, has been particularly watchful of events in the area. In an angry letter to Johnson about the empty lot at Harlem and Cleveland on Jan. 17, Schratz wrote that many residents of the area "take great pride in the appearance of their neighborhood.

"When people enter Cheektowaga by way of the (Kensington) expressway or Cleveland Drive, what do they think? If you allow this area to look this way, what will happen next? I'm so concerned because my whole life is invested in this community, as well as 400 other businesses (and) over 1,500 employees in this little area."

Johnson and other town officials said the town wants to help Rite Aid find a buyer for the corner parcel, which the company has said no longer fits into its plans.

"We're starting to schedule meetings with developers who the town would want to develop the site and who have exhibited interest previously in corner commercial lots," Johnson said.

Meanwhile, Council Member Jeff Swiatek and Johnson said they hope to improve the marketability of the lot by planting grass and perhaps trees along the borders this spring -- using town or federal block grant resources that can be repaid by the commercial developer who eventually acquires the property.

The two officials said they also are determined to stop the parcel from being used as a makeshift parking lot by putting up fence or barricades at the two former driveway entrances to the property.

Rite Aid dropped the Harlem-Cleveland project in favor of building a few blocks north at Harlem and Kensington in Amherst. Amherst officials, however, turned down the plan.

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