City inspectors toured the former AM&A's building on Main Street in March and found more than 100 violations, including crumbling asbestos, decaying walls, holes in the floor and faulty wiring.
Inspectors also found mold and water damage in a complex that occupies one of the premier sites in the central business district. They even spotted 55 gallon drums containing unknown substances in a sub-basement.
The city fired off a letter to building owner Richard Taylor, giving him 30 days to fix the problems. Failure to do so, it said, would trigger court action.
Nearly six months later, though, there is no court case. And the decision not to prosecute on these violations follows a similar inspection that found many of the same deficiencies a year earlier.
Mayor Anthony M. Masiello said he made the decision not to go to court based on a pledge Taylor made to submit a building reuse plan this fall.
Masiello should have pursued court action years ago, some critics insist. "The city has allowed this building to deteriorate for years and really let Richard Taylor off the hook," lamented Nathan C. Neuman of the New Millennium Group, a community action coalition.
But Neuman, co-chairman of the organization's Downtown Action Group, agreed that at this late date, it makes sense to hold off on court action as long as a reuse plan is submitted soon.
Back in March, it looked as if the city was setting the stage for a legal fight. Inspector Tracy Krug said he was two or three days away from finishing documents that would have been sent to Housing Court.
That's when Masiello decided to delay a courtroom showdown. He even decided to withdraw an earlier lawsuit that accused Taylor's company of failing to provide documents verifying that sprinkler systems are working in the former AM&A's building.
Masiello said the strategy makes sense and stands the best chance of producing a redevelopment plan for the long-empty complex.
> Mayor meets with owner
Rather than fight in court and risk stalling development for years, Masiello said he reached out to Taylor. The two had lunch a couple of months ago, and Masiello said he left the meeting convinced that Taylor has "good intentions."
Masiello said he's confident that a plan will be unveiled within a month that would call for a mixed-use project and spare the building from demolition.
But Masiello doesn't have much time left. He's not seeking re-election, and his term expires Dec. 31. He dismissed the possibility that the building's fate might still be in limbo when a new mayor is sworn in.
"I intend to either have a positive solution to the reuse of this building or a very aggressive court case before I leave office," he said.
Neuman said some members of the New Millennium Group recently met with one local developer to discuss a plan that would include commercial, residential and retail space in the building. Neuman said group members were "very impressed" with Rocco Termini's proposal.
Some local business leaders said a plan can't come soon enough for a building that has been empty for nine years, except for a period when Taylor ran an upscale apparel store that he closed after eight months.
"It's depressing to see the condition of this building, which is in the heart of downtown," said David Sweet, whose Main Seneca Corporation owns five nearby buildings. "Anything they can do to get it reoccupied would be a plus."
Carl P. Paladino, who also owns numerous downtown buildings, said it's time to produce a realistic reuse plan. "We've heard a lot of rhetoric in the past," he said. "We're tired of it."
Taylor was out of the country and unavailable to comment. But George Hamberger, the real estate broker who has been trying to market the complex for about six years, agreed that a site redevelopment plan will be submitted soon.
"We have three qualified, capable groups interested, in addition to Richard Taylor who is interested in developing the building himself," he said. "This proves to me that it's a viable project."
Hamberger said he might become Taylor's partner in a future venture at the site.
Couldn't it be argued that the city has been too lenient when it comes to correcting building violations, many of which were documented in an inspection dating back almost two years?
> Complex is 'sound'
"The building is closed to the public. There's no public risk there," Hamberger responded, adding that his real estate office is located next to the site in the Brisbane Building. Masiello concurred that the complex is "structurally sound." He said the owner already has made some facade repairs, fixed a drain on one of the back buildings, and is hiring someone to do an environmental assessment of the complex. Crews will also remove some contents that have raised environmental concerns, Masiello said.
For more than a year, Masiello has been criticized for his refusal to take a hard line and force Taylor to either make repairs or pay to tear down the site.
But the mayor said some people have no right to criticize, suggesting that the same critics helped derail plans earlier this year by Uniland Development to demolish the old department store, then build a 230,000-square-foot office tower.
"That plan was killed by special interests in this community -- political and development interests," said Masiello, who supported the project. "Now some of these same people are criticizing that nothing is happening over there."
Masiello and inspections officials have repeatedly red-flagged the risks of going to court. They point to some building disputes that dragged on for years, delaying development plans.
> Numerous proposals
They also note that some courts are hesitant to require repairs if there is any sign that redevelopment will occur. Numerous reuse proposals have been discussed for the AM&A's complex over the years, including the most recent plan advanced by Uniland. But the developer's request for $8 million in state subsidies to help pay for acquisition and demolition costs was opposed by some business leaders. The plan was ultimately left off a list of projects earmarked to receive state money left over from Adelphia's aborted plan to build a downtown operations center.
Taylor acquired the building from the Bon-Ton department store in 1996 when the chain paid him $425,000 to buy the empty 10-story structure and a nearby warehouse. The retailer knew it needed to entice someone to take over a complex that had hefty carrying costs and would be difficult to reuse for other purposes. Will the new redevelopment plan seek government aid?
"No matter what happens there, I think there's going to have to be some public subsidy," said Masiello, citing the high costs of retooling the old department store to make it suitable for other uses.
But Sweet said any subsidies should be confined to incentives that businesses receive when they open or expand in a state Empire Zone. "Giving handouts to building owners is unfair to the existing ones," said Sweet.