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A QUESTION OF PRIORITIES

An ambitious plan to put badly needed middle-class housing in downtown Buffalo has hit a stumbling block.

Burke Bros. Construction of Hamburg had been working for six months on a plan to create loft apartments near Oak and Genesee streets when suddenly this month appeared the ancient apparition of a new convention center, a phoenixlike proposal more resilient than Rasputin.

Both projects, it turns out, are interested in the same location. Both cannot have it. The convention center should lose.

Whatever value a new convention center may have, the city's priority needs to be making Buffalo a better place to live. And as the March "Rudat" conference made clear, downtown housing is the cornerstone. By exploiting pent-up demand among young people and "empty-nesters" who would like to live in the city center, the city can create a core of downtown residents in whose wake will follow retail outlets to serve them.

It's a strategy that has helped turn around other struggling urban centers, including Cleveland's, and while Buffalo has been late in employing it, city leaders have expressed renewed enthusiasm since the March conference. But now, just as a solidly conceived, $11 million project is coming together, up rises the inescapable specter of a new convention center.

The plan is to create 90 loft apartments in eight buildings near Oak and Genesee streets. Each would have two bedrooms and two bathrooms and would rent for an average price of $875 a month. The project would be financed through a combination of Empire Zone tax incentives, a gift of city land, private funding and $300,000 from the Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp.

Little is more important to Buffalo's future than the need to create a lively downtown, and that's not going to happen without new rental housing in the city's core. Such housing is clearly a higher priority than a convention center. That's especially true now, when the state aid that would make a convention center a reality seems farther out of reach than ever. Burke Bros. has proposed a smart, doable project that will help improve the city immediately and for years to come.

Mayor Anthony Masiello, commenting on the conflict, counseled patience but agreed that the mirage of a convention center cannot be allowed to stand in the way of this housing project, assuming all of its pieces fall into place. That's the right approach. Buffalo may be able to make good use of a convention center, but it is at best secondary to the need to bring residents back to the city center.

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