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Millard Fillmore Hospital site focus of meeting with experts

A team of experts arrived here Monday to produce a potential blueprint for the future of Millard Fillmore Hospital in Buffalo.

The facility is scheduled to close in 2012 after its services -- mainly heart surgery and stroke care -- are moved to a new building under construction next to Buffalo General Hospital on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

That leaves a major question about what to do with Millard Fillmore's 800,000 square feet of buildings sitting on 10 acres on the city's historic Gates Circle.

Kaleida Health, which operates Millard Fillmore, brought in the Urban Land Institute to offer recommendations.

The Institute's experts introduced themselves and took suggestions at a public gathering organized by the hospital system in the Embassy Suites at the Avant Building.

"We're trying to be open and transparent about the process," said Edward F. Walsh Jr., former board chairman at Kaleida Health and head of a hospital committee organized to explore the site's future.

Other members of the committee include Howard Zemsky, developer of the Larkin at Exchange Building; Holly Donaldson, a Buffalo real estate agent; the Rev. Matthew Brown, pastor of Pentecostal Temple; and Brendan Mehaffey, director of the city's Office of Strategic Planning.

The nonprofit Institute, based in Washington, D.C., and its panel of architects, land developers, financing specialists and other volunteer experts have a successful track record of building consensus around development projects. In Buffalo, it was the group hired to produce the blueprint for reusing the historic H.H. Richardson Complex.

"There are a lot of challenges here, but we won't let them drive the conclusions. We believe there are practical solutions, meaning things that can happen in the short term and not 20 years from now," said Michael Beyard, senior resident fellow at the Institute.

The Institute panel plans to conduct about 70 interviews this week before presenting a draft report at 8 a.m. Friday in Millard Fillmore's Webster Hall.

Walsh characterized the Institute's role as the start of a process to determine the site's future.

Kaleida Health wants the organization to provide advice on how to best position the hospital land and building for a sale. The hospital has occupied the site, which abuts a city parking facility, since 1911.

Among other things, hospital officials expressed hope they can find agreement on such issues as design, transportation and historic preservation that works for Kaleida Health, the city and the neighborhood.

Kaleida Health prefers to sell the building and land but is prepared to consider alternatives, Walsh said. He said no one is actively interested in the site so far, but the hospital system has received many questions about it.

"You have a wonderful, historic neighborhood and a desirable location. But there will be challenges," Walsh said.

Unanswered questions include what sort of development is acceptable to the community, whether mixed use with residential and business will work, and how to finance the cost of razing the multiple structures, if needed, and redeveloping the site.

Beyard stressed that the Institute experts volunteer their time, bring no preconceived notions about what to do and come with no financial connections to the project.

They include Robert Mills, a Richmond, Va., architect with experience rehabilitating hospitals.

One of the difficulties that hospital reuse projects present is that often, as is the case here, the institutions consist of multiple structures built at different times, he said.

"I've had a chance to see Millard Fillmore, and it's a little imposing as far as its scale," he said.

But Mills and other members of the panel said the site's historic importance and prime city location offer interesting opportunities.

More than 100 people attended the event, which was conducted more like a cocktail party than a formal public forum. While participants milled about, they were asked to share their ideas on paper or e-mail responses to mhughes@kaleidahealth.org by 9 a.m. Wednesday.

"It's a wonderful site, the gateway to the Olmsted parks and to downtown, and on our city's most prestigious street," said Arthur Judelsohn, senior executive director of Pyramid Brokerage Co. and a neighbor of the hospital.

"We've got an opportunity to do something significant for the future," he said. "I hope there's no rush to make a decision."

e-mail: hdavis@buffnews.com

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