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Bass Pro deal likely to end up in court Critics charge concept doesn't fit historic theme

Here we go again.

The battle over how to develop Erie Canal Harbor has returned with a tentative agreement to locate a Bass Pro Outdoor World on the Central Wharf.

The result, critics predict, will now be what Buffalonians dread -- more lawsuits and delays.

They say the tackle and hunting store -- and four multitiered parking ramps to be built within one block of the site -- will irrevocably alter the historic site's authenticity and pedestrian-friendly ambience.

"There's nothing wrong with putting Bass Pro on the water, but it is essentially a large suburban store being plopped down on the most historic urban site in the city," said Richard Lippes, board member of the Preservation Coalition of Erie County.

But Larry Quinn of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Board, who negotiated the nonbinding, predevelopment agreement with business leader Mindy Rich, said critics are overreacting and misinformed.

He said the retail giant will be in a building that has "an authentic look and scale" and will generate the desired pedestrian activity for the inner harbor.

The critics -- including five business leaders who requested anonymity fearing political repercussions -- also complain that closed-door negotiations upended a state-approved consensus plan in place after a painstaking, years-long public process.

Lippes, who is general counsel to three organizations -- Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, Sierra Club and the Preservation Coalition -- that went to court to stop an earlier waterfront plan, said a new lawsuit is all but a certainty.

"It is my expectation that those organizations will uniformly want to assure the [existing] plan continues, including litigation if necessary," Lippes said.

One business executive said planned parking spaces -- a 300-car ramp at Erie Canal Harbor, 500-car parking ramps on the nearby Webster and Donovan blocks, and a 1,000-car ramp on the site of Memorial Auditorium -- were too close to the site.

"Parking structures are death to an urban landscape," he said. "There is no vibrancy, no street activity, no visual appeal. It is like driving a stake through the heart of downtown."

Quinn countered that argument by saying development at the inner harbor requires substantial proximity parking to be successful.

>Departure from plan

The biggest departure from the state-approved plan, Quinn claimed, is jettisoning the open-air public and festival space along the Central Wharf.

"I think the whole notion that you build a plaza that is the site for a couple of open-air concerts a year is a very limited vision of what the waterfront can be. We're proposing a bigger vision," Quinn said.

He and other supporters say bringing a Bass Pro store to the newly named Canal Side district is the tourism magnet needed to jump-start development. They say shops and restaurants are sure to trail behind the anchor store, and with an added emphasis on fishing and boating, produce a thriving destination point.

"This is the best project that will happen in my lifetime in Buffalo," declared Anthony Gioia, chairman of Erie Canal Development Board. "We've got the money. We've got the client. We've got the developer. This thing is ready to go."

Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, who visited Buffalo on Wednesday, applauded the tentative agreement with Bass Pro. The governor was unaware of criticism over the deal.

"It's the first that I've heard that there are significant concerns about the way that decision was made. The more important thing is that the project is moving forward," Spitzer said. "We will take a look at it to see what the concerns are, but again it's important that the project move forward."
The historic 12-acre canal site, centered around the recently excavated Commercial Slip, has a stormy history. Gov. George E. Pataki halted a generic plan in 2000, following public opposition and court challenges after buried slip walls were discovered.

The governor's call for a more heritage-based plan was finalized in 2004 after a lengthy public process. The plan celebrates the site's history and incorporates public space, recreation, and small-scale, mixed-use development that includes shops and restaurants.

Guidelines prohibit parking ramps and "large-scale big box retail spaces that discourage street level activity and interaction."

Quinn, however, questions whether the three-story Bass Pro, which is to be a minimum of 100,000 square feet, fits that description, and said the store would generate enormous street traffic.

>A long courtship

Pitfalls also have followed attempts to lure Bass Pro to Buffalo. A long courting begun in 2001 led to a November 2004 announcement that the retailer would be part of a 250,000-square-foot development in a retrofitted Aud. The company backed out last year, concluding it would not be economical. It then turned its attention to the smaller, nearby Central Wharf.

Critics complain the negotiators did not solicit more input from the community.

Scot Fisher, president of Righteous Babe Records and one of the activists who successfully fought for a history-based plan, expressed anger that the agreement already in place was being usurped.

"Who appointed Larry Quinn and Mindy Rich to represent the community? Where are our elected officials?" Fisher said. "What's happened is profoundly insulting to the people of Buffalo and Western New York, and we will fight this."

A business leader also expressed disapproval.

"It wasn't an inclusive process," he said. "There was no involvement of organizations like the [Buffalo Niagara] Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Buffalo Place."

But Quinn pointed out that he consulted with political leaders and others, including Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, Mayor Byron Brown and County Executive Joel A. Giambra.

"I involved everybody that I think had a place at the table," said Quinn, who noted that business negotiations are typically conducted in private with a small number of people.

The process of negotiating the Bass Pro deal isn't the only objection. Some business leaders question the result.

"I don't like the economics of the deal, and I don't like it from an urban planning perspective," one business executive said. "It's a big building, it's too close to the water, and there is way too much parking around it."

A downtown business leader said he is concerned it's a suburban plan for an urban setting.

"People don't want Disneyland, they want authentic history, and that is where we were headed with this site before Bass Pro landed there," said the downtown business leader who requested anonymity.

Mark Goldman, author of the newly published "City on the Edge: Buffalo, New York," also expressed dissatisfaction with what he considers a doomed "silver bullet" solution.

"I don't think we should sell off our waterfront to big-box retailers. It doesn't make any sense. Plus, from my perspective it's too highly leveraged with [$25 million] of public money."

But Quinn said he has studied successful waterfronts in Chicago, Boston and elsewhere, and believes the proposal -- which he said needs "refinement" -- can make Canal Side a premiere destination attraction.

The agreement calls for Bass Pro to receive $25 million for construction costs, along with free rent and no real estate taxes. In return it must pay $300,000 to support activities and cleanup for the entire site.

Quinn defended the amount, saying it would cost Bass Pro "a fortune" to develop the company's most challenging and unusual building.

He also expects some to fiercely oppose it.

Tim Tielman of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo said he'll be among those doing so.

"This is an absolutely red-meat issue for us," Tielman said, "and I can't believe they have the temerity to impose something like this on that site."

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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