The push for a Seneca Nation casino has expanded into an ambitious plan to revitalize downtown Buffalo by building a convention center, converting buildings into hotels, and restoring blocks as the appealing pedestrian places the city's founders intended.
And that is only part of an emerging plan from Mayor Anthony M. Masiello that he said could dramatically change the streetscape from the Niagara Mohawk Building on Washington Street through Niagara Square to the waterfront.
Masiello envisions a casino next to the Statler Towers, a convention center several blocks away on Washington Street and the Statler and the Niagara Mohawk Building converted into hotels.
If successful, the mayor said, the new casino, convention center and hotels would spin off additional development, create jobs, expand the tax base and attract tourists.
The linchpin for the grand plan, though, is the casino, because the money to pay for a new convention center and other parts of the plan would come from the state government's take from gambling revenues.
The entire proposal could cost $800 million to complete -- and that doesn't include the private-sector costs of building a casino and converting the buildings into hotels.
"Casino revenues can give us the kind of financial support to create that kind of help for ourselves," Masiello said.
But the price tag is just one of the obstacles the mayor faces. Counting on a casino to pay for much of the plan looks like an iffy proposition at best.
The Seneca Nation casino pact languishes in the State Legislature. Seneca leaders won't even talk about a location for a casino until a compact is reached.
And Masiello must persuade Gov. George E. Pataki and the State Legislature to give up as much as half the state's revenues from the casino.
"In order to justify getting a lion's share of those monies, we have to have a plan, a strategy," Masiello said. "We have to specifically identify where we can invest those dollars. We have to find a compatibility between casino, convention center, cultural and entertainment venues and maximize the combined impact to make Buffalo the great, great city we know it can be."
More than a casino
Those pitching the plan on behalf of the mayor say the proposal is about more than just a casino.
"This is not just another plan," said Mark Hamister, chairman of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. "This is a plan whose vision is insightful and achievable."
Andrew J. Rudnick, president and chief executive officer of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, called the proposal an "urban transformation" project -- not a public works project.
"This proposal is designed to take a city and cast it as it was intended to be, the Queen City on the Lake," Rudnick said.
The plan calls for:
Building a casino with parking and retail shops on a nearly four-acre block bounded by Delaware Avenue, Mohawk, Huron and Franklin streets.
Using casino revenues to pay for a convention center near the previously proposed Mohawk site, but on the other side of Genesee Street and the Niagara Mohawk Building, on a site bounded by Washington and Oak streets.
Converting the Statler and the Niagara Mohawk Building from office buildings to hotels.
Demolishing the existing convention center and the atrium at the Hyatt Regency.
Restoring Genesee Street as a radial street connecting to Niagara Square.
Burying a stretch of the Niagara Thruway to remove it as a barrier between downtown and the waterfront.
Building thousands of new housing units on the waterfront and near Lafayette Square.
If they are successful, the mayor and the business leaders said, their plan would revitalize downtown and the waterfront like no other redevelopment seen in decades.
The plan, they said, would reconnect downtown to the waterfront through a Chicago-style lakefront boulevard. They suggest this can be done by removing the physical barrier of the Niagara Thruway and the railroad lines that now run parallel to the shoreline.
Planners call for the highway and railroad tracks to "go underground" from the Peace Bridge to Erie Street. With the road and the rail lines some 16 feet underground, a new, tree-lined parkway, tentatively called Lakeshore Boulevard, would be constructed along the surface, creating a more welcoming gateway to the city.
There's even a notion to create a giant fountain -- with water shooting up 1,500 feet, or twice the height of One HSBC Center -- in Lake Erie near the Erie Basin Marina.
The proposal -- which is still in the conceptual stages -- has been floated in recent weeks to political and civic leaders by Lawrence Quinn, former Buffalo Sabres president and a former city development official now in the private building industry; Carl P. Paladino, a major property owner and developer in downtown Buffalo; Mark R. Mendell, president of the Cannon Design architectural firm in Grand Island; Rudnick; and Hamister.
Experts say big-city casinos do not necessarily provide the windfall proponents claim -- which Masiello counts on to pay for all of this. And there has not been the same kind of massive redevelopment that Masiello envisions at the country's two best examples of big cities with casinos -- Detroit and New Orleans.
What's more, the plan figures to compete for hundreds of millions of federal and state dollars with other projects, most lately the expected rebuilding of lower Manhattan following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"I think it's important for this city to stay focused on some of the priorities and projects that are already announced and on the table," said Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, a casino gambling opponent.
"In my opinion, there is no project more important to the future of this community than identifying the local source of funding for the billion-dollar investment into our Buffalo Public Schools. That ought to be the No. 1 priority. Secondly, there are projects already announced that require funding, such as the Memorial Auditorium reuse and waterfront efforts."
The mayor's proposal was hatched without a public process, Hoyt added, and while meritorious in part, could push aside the many other important projects already on the table and already enjoying public support.
"Focus is especially important in these difficult economic times when state and federal support is less likely to be available," he said.
The plan's supporters said it would not take away from the city's other identified priorities, such as the Erie Canal Harbor, medical corridor and downtown housing.
It's compatible with everything that currently is in motion, Paladino said.
"This is not a case of 'Let's do this instead,' " Paladino said. "It doesn't usurp anything else that's on the table."
"It's a relatively significant project, and a relatively expensive project, but as long as this city's business leaders, political leaders and the community at large all come together to make it one of the top three local priorities, we believe it's achievable and deliverable in the next 10 to 15 years," Hamister said.
Senecas informed of plan
The Senecas, who figure to have the most to say about how and where to build a Buffalo casino, were briefed Friday on Masiello's proposal.
"It was a nice presentation," said Seneca President Cyrus M. Schindler, "and I am sure it would help Buffalo. As a matter of fact, a plan like that could probably help any casino any place you put it."
The Senecas are key to the plan because their sovereignty as a nation is the element that makes a casino possible in Buffalo. Casinos are illegal in New York, but because the Senecas are a nation, they are allowed to put up a casino on land they own in their aboriginal territory. But to do so, they must reach a compact, or agreement, with New York, win a referendum on the compact among members of Seneca Nation and then get approval from the federal government.
While the State Senate has approved the agreement, the Assembly has not. So while the Legislature wrestles with an agreement that the Seneca leaders and the governor negotiated, the Senecas are getting proposals from communities and developers for casinos in Buffalo and Niagara Falls.
And this is not the first time Schindler has looked over a plan that ties the Statler to a proposed casino.
A proposal by a group called Northstar Development relies heavily on the Statler. The group has suggested a go-slow plan to convert the Statler into a Buffalo casino before deciding whether to introduce slot machines in convention centers in Buffalo and Niagara Falls.
The Seneca Nation has not picked a Buffalo location yet, Schindler said.
"And as I keep saying, without a compact, there is no need to decide anything," Schindler said. "We have received proposals that include specific sites, but we are keeping our options open. And it is possible that we could decide on a site other than those designated in the proposals that we have received."
He said he "doesn't want to talk about the casinos until we have a compact signed with Pataki and it is approved by our nation and by the (federal) Bureau of Indian Affairs."
Gerald A. Buchheit, the Statler owner and part of the Northstar group, said he likes what he has heard of Masiello's plan.
The proposal could enhance Buffalo as a tourist draw and increase profits at a casino, Buchheit said.
"I expressed to the committee developing the plan that we would be willing to modify our development to conform with this renaissance proposal," Buchheit said. "I thought it was fantastic. If we could really come together, it is something that Buffalo needs for a change."
Convention center proposal
The prospects for a new convention center are as uncertain as for a casino.
County Executive Joel A. Giambra, concerned about the price tag of a new convention center previously proposed for the four-block Mohawk site, north of the Central Library, said he is not ready to comment on whether to build the facility or where.
Masiello will have to convince a hesitant Giambra that building a convention center across the street from the Mohawk location is a good idea.
Giambra suspended planning for the Mohawk proposal -- favored by downtown business interests and Masiello -- shortly after taking office in January 2000 and called for a full environmental review. That review could be finished in a month.
Buffalo businessman Paul Snyder, whose Hyatt Regency would lose an atrium to accommodate the reopening of Genesee Street, said he likes most of what is contained in the plan.
"I'm certainly supportive of having a new vision, and it makes sense to bring both a casino and convention center into the planning," said Snyder, who also is a partner in the casino in Niagara Falls, Ont. "But I don't like where they want to put the convention center. It's too far removed. It should be in the middle of downtown."
Snyder noted the study of the Mohawk site is about to be released, and he expects a favorable outcome.
"If we've got a perfectly good site, it doesn't make any sense to delay things another five years by picking another site," he said. "We need to get that moving regardless of what happens with the casino."
What Giambra does find appealing is the prospect of using the government's casino revenue to cover the local share of convention center construction costs.
"Today, there is no plan for financing a new convention center," Giambra added. "There wasn't a plan two years ago. There was never a plan. Any plan that shows revenues to build a convention center other than general property taxes makes it more attractive."
Money for the project
But will the state turn over a significant portion of gambling revenues?
Assembly Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz said he found a lot to like in the proposal, but he cautioned the city would need to rely on more than casino revenues to pay for it.
"The overall concept is wonderful, but there are many details to be worked out," the Cheektowaga Democrat said.
The proposal calls for setting up an authority to carry out the overall plan. The government's share of casino gambling revenues would go to this authority, and those funds could be capitalized over a 14-year period to pay for the project, along with federal transportation funds for some of the infrastructure.
The mayor's plan is the product of architects and planners from four firms -- Cannon Design, Parsons Engineering, Gordon Architects and Hamilton, Houston and Lownie -- that agreed to work together.
Now that they have come up with a plan, there are three significant components that are necessary to deliver it, Hamister said.
Foremost, the Legislature must approve the memorandum of understanding between the Seneca Nation and Pataki. Then the state must set up an authority, modeled after the one for Battery Park in New York City, with the charge, responsibility and power to carry out the plan.
And the state must designate a material portion of the government's share of casino gambling to this authority.
Though the planning group has yet to present the plan directly to Pataki, because responding to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has derailed the governor's regular schedule, Hamister said the governor's staff has had positive reaction to the concepts.
"There is some very significant initial interest, which makes us optimistic," said Hamister, who is also a key Giambra supporter. "We plan to restart our effort at the state level in the next two weeks when the governor is able to divert some of his attention away from what's happened in New York City."
State Sen. Dale M. Volker, R-Depew, said Albany negotiations over the Seneca casinos in Buffalo and Niagara Falls could wrap up by early October, if the Assembly's top Democrats get agreement from Albany's other leaders on a casino pact for the Catskills.
"Right now, everything is focused with New York City," Volker said.
In the meantime, local leaders want their redevelopment plan on Albany leaders' minds when Albany returns to the casino issue.
"We hear the clock ticking in Albany," Rudnick said. "What we're trying to do by advancing this now is, by having enough people see it and get excited about it, have that excitement be in the minds of Albany decision-makers and those who will influence those decision-makers."