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Area residents shortchanged by flawed process

In the world of economic development, the "request for proposals" (RFP) process is designed to give all qualified organizations the opportunity to present their ideas on how a project can benefit the owner and the community. As developers, sometimes you win and sometimes you don't, but the process is open and fair.

Unfortunately, this was not the case with a project for Buffalo's waterfront. Residents are the ones who lost out.

The Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency issued an RFP in 2007 for a mixed-use project near the Erie Basin Marina. With momentum building for development on and around the waterfront, this project was indeed going to be an important one. It needed to create the right presence for the last waterfront parcel in the marina area.

An agency subcommittee, composed of neighborhood residents and city officials, was established to review the submitted proposals and a clear scoring system was used in order to judge the proposals fairly.

In the end, the two proposals submitted could not have been more different. Our project called for a $37 million, 10-story project that would combine a signature hotel, office and retail space, while offering the city $1.2 million for the project site. The other called for a four-story suburban-looking hotel with no other components, and offered the city significantly less for the land.

Our project was the overwhelming choice of the subcommittee, based on the scoring system established at the outset of the RFP process. It wasn't until a December 2008 Urban Renewal Agency board meeting that it was announced our project could not be considered because it did not meet what are generally agreed to be the city's archaic height restrictions. The other project was pushed forward by the city administration. Case closed.

What is troubling is that we inquired about height restrictions while developing our proposal. We were told by city officials the restrictions could be altered and that we should be creative.

We took the officials at their word. After all, several buildings in that neighborhood have been granted exceptions to the restrictions. It seemed plausible that a new project, if it provided the best benefits to the city, could certainly be considered for the same exception.

As residents and elected officials voiced their outrage over the apparent ignoring of the stated process, a strange development occurred. The chosen developer was asked to revise his plan.

The revisions have consisted of aesthetic components, a common step in the development process. However, in one scenario the project has been significantly redesigned, changing aspects such as scope, parking and, yes, height.

As we said, fairness is the only thing a developer can ask for in submitting a proposal. Unfortunately, the city has shunned fairness, to the detriment of its waterfront and, worse, its residents.

Mark E. Hamister is chairman and CEO of the Hamister Group. Paul F. Ciminelli is president of Ciminelli Development.

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