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MAYOR'S PLAN FOR DOWNTOWN MAY BE TOO AMBITIOUS

Mayor Anthony M. Masiello recently unveiled a dazzling plan to alter the downtown landscape in the next 10 to 15 years. It's comprehensive and very ambitious, and it has a projected price tag that's just as dazzling.

It would take at least $800 million to become reality, and when you couple that with other projects under consideration and current budgetary shortfalls, you come up with a need for the astronomical sum of about $2 billion. Needless to say, there's not much hope that will be easy to come by.

There's nothing wrong with dreaming and planning. We don't fault the mayor for that. In fact, for years many business leaders and community organizations criticized Jimmy Griffin, who definitely didn't believe in city planning. However, too many planners tend to stray too far from pragmatics, and their dreams go down the drain as financial considerations have to be faced. The mayor's plan is the work of architects and planners from four fine firms, and many elements of it make eminent good sense. The key to initial implementation would be a downtown casino that would pay for, among other things, a much-needed new convention center at a projected cost of $180 million. The state's share of the total costs involved would come from its share of casino revenues.

One of the most intriguing elements of the plan would be to bury a two-mile stretch of the Niagara Thruway, removing the barrier between downtown and the waterfront. It is estimated that rectifying that terrible planning mistake of the past would cost $200 million.

With the road underground, a new landscaped parkway would be built along the surface. The plan would enhance the downtown area and could be a major economic generator. But it will be competing for state and federal dollars with other projects that have been on the drawing boards.

The City of Buffalo gives very high priority to its $1 billion plan for renovating 64 school buildings and erecting six new ones. The state, prior to its commitment to aid New York City following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, agreed to reimburse Buffalo 94 percent of renovation costs and half the cost of new construction. Given its significant pledge to New York City, will the state honor its pledge to Buffalo? And assuming the cutback of state funding to Buffalo, will the city be able to fund its share of the costs?

Buffalo's cash-starved school system has another -- and more immediate -- monetary problem. The district faces a $23 million shortfall that it hoped would be made up in a state supplemental budget. But now there's major concern that the terrorist attacks will prevent the state from funding that shortfall. Budget cuts would result in further disruptions in the city's educational agenda.

The city itself faces a significant budgetary crisis that it had hoped would be alleviated in the state's supplementary budget. Now city officials and members of the Buffalo area State Legislature delegation are concerned that a hoped-for additional $31 million for the city may not be forthcoming.

On a long-range basis, one cannot overlook the problems of the Buffalo Zoo. Faced with a loss of endorsement by the American Zoological Association, its consultants have come up with a plan that over a period of years assures its accreditation. The estimated cost for implementation of its new water theme plan is between $60 million and $80 million. The Zoological Society to date has made no determination from whom the needed dollars would be sought.

Another capital expenditure that looms in the near future involves the light rail rapid transit system. City Hall has commissioned a $200,000 study to determine how to bring back autos on Main Street from Church to Tupper streets. The mayor appears dedicated to a go-ahead on that project at a projected price tag of up to $30 million.

Finally, it now appears that the Peace Bridge Authority will be seeking federal funds for its new bridge project. For years the authority said all costs would come from toll revenues. But now the word is that hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funds will be needed.

How many of the needed dollars will ultimately become available to the Buffalo area to fund these projects? What priorities will be allocated to each project? Will the community be able to reach consensus? The answers will directly affect the future of the Buffalo Niagara region.

MURRAY B. LIGHT is the former editor of The Buffalo News.