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URA weighs expanded jurisdiction

The city's Urban Renewal Agency in July could take the next step to expand its boundaries to include large tracts of blighted downtown land that are not currently under the economic development agency's jurisdiction.

Senior Planner Thomas DeSantis told the Planning Board on Wednesday that the agency will likely recommend at its next meeting that the City Council accept a study done by a private consultant, PB Americas Inc., to expand the city's urban renewal boundaries.

The agency last year received $3.6 million of the city's slot machine revenue, and city leaders are hoping to use the agency for economic development projects that could include a housing initiative to build market-rate homes near the Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel.

The renewal agency has the power to hold and spend money, to issue bonds for projects and to use eminent domain to acquire property within its boundaries. DeSantis told the Planning Board that the city's three existing urban renewal plans do not match a vision laid out for the Falls in a proposed comprehensive plan currently being reviewed by the Council.

"The plans no longer reflect reality," DeSantis said.

The new urban renewal boundary, if approved, would extend from the city's North End near Main Street to downtown areas near the casino, including the neighborhood near East Falls Street. Land controlled by the state or the Seneca Nation of Indians would be excluded.

"The No. 1 goal is really to establish a clear development framework for this area of the city," said Mark Tytka, a senior supervisory planner for PB Americas. "How do we want our city to look five years, 10 years, 20 years down the road? This is the blueprint."

The neighborhood near Highland Avenue that is in one of the renewal agency's existing plans would be removed from the new boundaries because the industrial area is fully developed, DeSantis said.

Planning Board member Geraldine Donovan questioned the need for expanding the boundaries when developers are not building within existing renewal areas.

"What I'm concerned about is when urban renewal in the '50s and '60s tore down a lot of buildings. We've still got vacant lots from that exercise," Donovan said.

Tytka, who did not discuss the city's specific plans for the expanded boundaries, said urban renewal agencies have moved away from just clearing land and now use a variety of tools, including reconstruction and rehabilitation.

"We're going to clear all these old plans so there's no confusion about what the city expects and wants," DeSantis said.

If the City Council accepts the expanded boundaries, DeSantis said, the renewal agency then would write a new plan for the expanded areas.

e-mail: djewell@buffnews.com

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