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City must keep pushing No time to relieve pressure on owner of vacant AM&A's department store

Buffalo will benefit if the current owner of the long-vacant AM&A's department store complex on Main Street downtown delivers on renewed promises to rehabilitate and reuse the buildings, but the latest lapse of communication or judgment deepens the need for focused City Hall attention on this vital piece of property.

With the promise of redevelopment again made by New Horizons Acquisitions, after the complex briefly was on the market, City Hall might have what it needs: a developer willing to push ahead and end a deplorable vacancy in the heart of a downtown seeking renewed vitality.

Skepticism is warranted by two factors. One is the offer to sell, which the Long Island developer says never should have happened and may be attributable to a communications mix-up between the owners and their broker. The other is the deteriorating state of the buildings, which now has forced the city to close off part of East Eagle Street because of concerns about cracked exterior surfaces.

The complex, fronting on 377 Main St. but also including warehouses on Washington Street, has been empty since 1999. The previous city administration allowed the situation to fester, refusing to enforce municipal code laws. It took the election of Mayor Byron W. Brown to get anything done, but it now seems City Hall must push even harder.

That push should include not only pressure to begin redevelopment, but more aggressive enforcement of building codes and the use of Housing Court to gain access to the building's interior should these owners -- like Richard Taylor before them, who blocked access -- not invite regular inspections. The safety of other key downtown buildings demands no less.

In general, officials cannot enter any property without the permission of the owner, except by court order. Housing Court is a type of criminal court and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that even for housing inspections as part of comprehensive code enforcement, a warrant is needed if there is no entry permission from the owner. But the standard of evidence needed for such a warrant is far less than for a criminal search warrant, and exterior deterioration can be evidence of the need for inspection.

That's exactly what city officials did last year for the AM&A's main building. The city did not seek, at that time, a warrant to enter the warehouse that now has forced a street closing. At the time, inspectors did not have a concern about the structure, and there has to be a reason to gain entry. Now, New Horizons has been notified and is dealing with the exterior. The city also sought permission to enter the interior, which New Horizons should grant in addition to handing over two existing prepurchase and recent engineering reports.

City Hall says the new owners, who bought the complex last August for $2.05 million, have been cooperative. They also want to discuss with the city potential development options. But the $3.99 million sale listing, which understandably prompted other local developers to call for a city take-over of the site and demolition to spur new-build redevelopment, also triggered interest from other potential purchasers. There is growing interest in the development potential of Buffalo and its downtown core, and if New Horizons can't deliver, the city should seek ways to make sure someone else will.

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