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Outer harbor project hinges on Southtowns Connector $10 million more is needed for first phase of road improvements to serve waterfront

The proposed $750 million transformation of Buffalo's outer harbor into a mix of homes, public recreation, entertainment venues and green space could be under way as early as next summer.

However, the project could still be scrapped if transportation links to the 120-acre site, off Fuhrmann Boulevard, are not improved.

"We are in this project because we want it to be a success, and we believe it can be a success. However, we absolutely need to know the Southtowns Connector is going to happen," said Carl J. Montante Jr. of Amherst-based Uniland Development Corp., which is a key partner in the Buffalo Lakefront Group development team.

The first phase of the Southtowns Connector project, which would feature improvements to Route 5 and new intersections leading to outer harbor destinations, is currently $10 million short of the needed $32 million. The Lakefront Group, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and local and federal officials have been lobbying the state to come up with the remaining funds.

"In the past eight months, we've seen $22 million committed to a project people have wanted for 20 years, so I'm optimistic the state will come through," Montante said.

Despite that optimism, developers have set a March 31, 2007, deadline for the transportation project to receive final approval.

The Lakefront Group and the NFTA announced Wednesday they have reached an agreement on a memorandum of intent to govern the project. The nonbinding document, which is preliminary to a formal contract, will act as an outline for everything from construction timetables to minimum compensation to the NFTA to sell its land for the project.

The memorandum, which is expected to be approved by the NFTA board Monday, calls for the Lakefront Group to begin its phased transformation of the outer harbor, starting at the Seaway Piers, working south to the Bell Slip. The deadline for completion of the first phase of development -- which would include about 1,000 residences, a retail center, public green space, a canal system and a public marina -- is 2015.

"We're going to have a lot of nonbelievers," NFTA Chairman Luiz F. Kahl said, noting that previous waterfront proposals have rarely reached the construction stage. "But this is a major step forward. We've never come so far before, and I'm happy with where we are."

The Lakefront Group is hoping to separate the $6 million marina project, which will be located at the site of the Festival Grounds at the Pier, from the rest of the Phase One work and start construction next summer. When completed, the marina would accommodate up to 360 boats.

The developer will ask the state Department of Environmental Conservation to conduct a separate environmental review of the marina site so the project can be fast-tracked.

As currently planned, the Lakefront Group will concentrate its efforts on the north end of the outer harbor, leaving its options open for the southernmost 40 acres, extending from the Bell Slip to the terminal buildings.

The developer envisions a mix of entertainment and amateur sports facilities in that section of the site. Opus East, a national developer that is Uniland's main partner in the project, has fielded inquiries from Marriott Hotels, an indoor water park developer and a movie theater chain. It is hoped that there will be shovels in the ground for that section of the site in the next five years.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

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