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PLANNERS OK FAST TRACK FOR RIVERFRONT MOTEL PROJECT

The Planning Board on Wednesday acceded to the request of a local motel owner that approvals for a 60-room Sleep Inn be put on a fast track.

Chawki Shalala told the City Council several months ago that he needed his purchase offer and permits approved quickly in order to avoid paying capital-gains taxes on the sale of a Town of Tonawanda motel. He said construction must start by July 1.

The board approved the site plan submitted by Shalala without Senior City Planner Thomas J. DeSantis' recommendation that parking spaces be eliminated from the Niagara River side of the motel. DeSantis said the 102 parking spaces planned were far more than are needed for a 60-room motel on the former Century Club property.

He said 60 spaces for the motel and an additional 24 that Shalala must provide for visitors to the adjacent LaSalle Waterfront Park were sufficient and would reduce the paved area on the site.

John Panza of Mesch Engineering & Architecture, which prepared the plan, said he did not object to removing the parking on the riverfront if the number of required spaces were reduced to 70 from 84, which DeSantis said were not enough.

DeSantis said all the needed parking could be accommodated on the Buffalo Avenue side of the building if the motel were moved 20 to 30 feet closer to the riverfront. Geraldine Donovan, a board member, objected, saying Shalala already had agreed to move the building after objections from neighbors that it would block their view of the river. The building was moved from its original position 30 feet from the shoreline to 100 feet from the shoreline.

Suzanne Macri, another board member, reminded the board of Shalala's time constraints.

Neighbors and other residents objected to the plan during a public hearing May 9. Speakers raised environmental and economic concerns and objected to the hotel's size and location on the lot, parking and the loss of 200 feet of public riverfront.

The City Council came under fire for approving the sale of the land without prior notification to citizens, without a public hearing and without open bidding to see whether the city could get a better price.

David Young of the Niagara Waterfront Task Force, a citizens group that works on behalf of waterfront causes, said the plan represented an irreversible loss of riverfront land and access to the shore without adequate public benefit.

Young was one of those who objected to the Council's approval of the purchase offer less than three hours after it was submitted. He also objected to the price of $200,000, of which Shalala would pay only $125,000. The other $75,000 would be used to construct and maintain the 24 parking spaces for park users. David A. Boniello, Shalala's attorney, said the project would be built with private money.

The city paid $455,000 for the property at 6611 Buffalo Ave. more than a decade ago when the plan was to develop it into a marina, restaurant and boat sales and service complex, which never materialized.

Carolyn Gregory of South 67th Street objected that new proposals were not requested and that an easement along the riverfront footage was not retained for public use as it had been in previous contracts for the site.

Boniello said that riverfront access would continue and that eventually Shalala, who owns the Holiday Motel on Niagara Falls Boulevard, hopes to build a patio restaurant, which would be open to the public. The restaurant was dropped from the first phase of construction after Council approval. But critics said the city did not guarantee perpetual public access by requiring an easement.

Charles P. Steiner, president of the Niagara Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, spoke in favor of the $1.5 million project on grounds that it would create six jobs, increase the tax base, and develop a piece of property that has been vacant for many years.

No objections were raised Wednesday, but a petition with 77 signatures was submitted Friday calling on the city to reconsider the sale or require substantial revisions to address residents' concerns. The petition was received without comment. The board also dropped DeSantis' recommendation that dumpsters not be located on the waterfront side of the property.

The board approved a negative declaration stating that the project would have no significant adverse environmental impact. The declaration will go to the Council for approval July 2.

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