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City help favored to stabilize Statler; Repairs would allow reviving two floors

The city should help pay for emergency repairs to the Statler Towers so developers can begin reviving the first two floors, most Common Council members said Tuesday.

While no one implied that the city should absorb most of the$5.3 million tab to stabilize the shuttered landmark, a majority of lawmakers said they think Buffalo should play at least a supporting role.

"This needs to be a priority project, and we need to recognize the sense of urgency," Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera said. "It's important for the future of downtown, and it's important to public safety."

Some lawmakers say the state should provide the largest sum to help save a "regional asset." Others suggested that the federal government should help, noting that the boarded-up complex is across the street from a $137 million U.S. Courthouse under construction.

The issue surfaced Tuesday as developer Mark D. Croce met with the Council to discuss his efforts to save the Statler. He stressed that revitalizing the 18-story complex in phases is the only economically viable approach.

Croce said that before he can invest $2 million to $3 million to revive the first floor and mezzanine, public entities must step forward to help finance emergency repairs that would include dealing with falling terra cotta and roof problems. Croce said the public funds would be plowed directly into building repairs -- not retained by his Statler City LLC.

Developers projected that the first phases of rehabilitation would create 67 construction jobs and 85 permanent jobs. Potential tenants would include a banquet facility, a bakery or coffee shop and other small retailers.

"It's some of the most important, valuable real estate in New York State," Croce said of the Statler, on Niagara Square at Delaware Avenue.

Demolishing the 800,000-square-foot complex, which is filled with asbestos, would cost far more than it would to stabilize the structure, Croce argued.

"Demolition is a totally stupid idea," said Council President David A. Franczyk, who represents the Fillmore District.

Ellicott Council Member Darius G. Pridgen, whose district includes the Statler site, said tearing down the historic building, which could play a role in expanding the convention and tourism trade, would be a "sin." Pridgen said Croce has a "proven track record" in the local development arena.

Other Council members who said they would support the city playing some financial role in stabilizing the Statler are Majority Leader Richard A. Fontana, who represents the Lovejoy District; University Council Member Bonnie E. Russell; Masten Council Member Demone A. Smith; and Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto, chairman of the Community Development Committee.

"It's too important of a building for us to lose," LoCurto said.

Mayor Byron W. Brown is still waiting to see a "comprehensive" redevelopment plan that includes detailed financial arrangements before he supports any city aid, spokesman Peter K. Cutler said Tuesday.

"He needs to see a solid plan that gives absolute assurance that city taxpayers will be protected," Cutler said.

Developers concede no plans have been made at this point to revitalize the upper floors of the Statler.

"We're being brutally honest with you on this. We don't know," Robert Knoer, an attorney for Statler City, said in discussing the fate of the upper floors.

He said the towers one day might be used for a hotel or residential units.

Knoer and Croce said the two lower floors could be revived and generate enough revenue to meet all operating costs.

The complex has been closed for the past year.

"There's an image cost to the City of Buffalo that we're bearing every day that this building sits boarded and vacant," Croce said.

Croce will return to bankruptcy court Thursday when he is expected to request more time to finalize a proposal. One plan under discussion calls for the city to take title to the Statler and Croce's Statler City be named designated developer. If the bid falls through, some are worried the court might declare the building abandoned, leaving a decaying eyesore across Niagara Square from City Hall.

"It's not too late for this building. We can save it," Croce said at the end of Tuesday's presentation to the Community Development Committee. "We can bring it back to life."

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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