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UB looking to scale back 2020 after state balks; New president pressured to set downtown priority

Leaders at the University at Buffalo, after meeting several roadblocks in Albany, are considering ways to scale back their UB 2020 plan and its lofty $5 billion price tag.

If UB is to succeed in getting state backing of its ambitious plan for the future of the university and the Buffalo community, UB leaders are being told that they must scale back the master plan unveiled more than two years ago.

That means new UB President Satish K. Tripathi will need to provide more specifics on what public-private partnerships the university has in mind.

Tripathi also is under pressure in Albany to better focus the plan on a downtown Buffalo development effort first and leave for another day some of the real estate plans for its campuses in Amherst and Buffalo.

While Tripathi is believed to be taking a more pragmatic approach with the state, UB officials said the situation is still in flux and declined requests for an interview.

The emerging changes to the UB 2020 plan is recognition that all sides -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the State Legislature, the State University of New York and UB leaders -- want to get a deal this year, according to various officials in Albany.

For state lawmakers from Western New York -- especially newcomers such as Buffalo Republican Sen. Mark J. Grisanti who represent politically marginal districts -- the next few weeks will be crucial in determining what compromises can be made to get a UB 2020 package.

Prodding the UB 2020 talks is a summit that Cuomo plans in Albany in early May to bring together the various stakeholders who have been butting heads for several years over the Buffalo plan. Cuomo has been in personal contact with SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher and Tripathi in hopes of pinning down a coordinated effort on the UB 2020 plan that could spread to other SUNY campuses, sources say.

While much of the UB 2020 plan centers on university-community real estate projects, the power for UB to set its own tuition -- and at different levels than other state campuses -- is a tough sell in Albany.

Assembly critics say tuition increases would hurt many families and have raised questions about the extent of the fiscal autonomy sought by UB that would weaken oversight established years ago during a fiscal scandal on a state campus on Long Island.

But Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat whose conference has backed previous UB expansion efforts in Buffalo's downtown health corridor, also has raised questions about the lack of specifics on the projects intended under UB 2020, especially the downtown Buffalo plan. Questions have been raised over who holds the private land that UB now wants to develop.

Some also want UB to develop a "priority list" for projects and address whether it wants UB 2020, at least in the early stages, to focus on downtown areas as a way to help a city that has been losing a lot of population.

John B. Simpson, Tripathi's immediate predecessor as UB president, had his differences with officials in Albany, including Zimpher. He was increasingly viewed as a lone wolf willing to break with a broader SUNY policy agenda to promote UB.

Tripathi hopes to mend those fences, officials say, and has started by privately raising questions about some of the soaring job creation predictions in the UB 2020 plan.

Tripathi has said that while he is committed to UB 2020, he wants to be more "realistic" about what UB can do during these difficult economic times.

He also wants to reassess UB's ability to attract an additional 10,000 students -- one of the main aspirations of UB 2020.

Beyond sticky issues such as increasing tuition and giving one public campus more autonomy than others in the 64-campus system, the proposed costs for UB 2020 have never made Albany officials comfortable.

The plan calls for more than 7 million square feet of construction over at least the next 20 years. The price tag: $5 billion, with $3 billion of that to be covered by the state. The other $2 billion would come from UB revenue streams through public-private partnerships and proceeds from tuition increases.

But state officials say UB has also envisioned using tuition revenues to back expensive capital borrowing -- something potentially risky that could then put the state on the hook.

"The [Assembly] speaker has made it clear that he doesn't want UB to become a real estate developer, and I agree," said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo, one of the chief supporters of UB 2020.

The lawmaker said she has heard of the plan changing to be done in a more phased-in approach rather than the state providing a green light to more than 100 construction projects over two decades. She said state officials have also asked the new Tripathi administration for specifics on exactly how the public-private partnerships will work.

Peoples-Stokes acknowledged that the tuition differential plan pushed by UB is a hurdle among some of her Democratic colleagues in the Assembly.

"That's the most difficult issue for a lot of members," she said, though she believes it will be in the final plan.

Now that the state budget is completed, the Cuomo administration has made UB 2020 one of its top priorities for the remainder of the session.

Cuomo supported the plan during his gubernatorial campaign last year, and it is a major prize both to a new governor who did not do well at the polls in many sections of Western New York and for an often-warring Western New York delegation bent on ridding itself of an image that is incapable of delivering big projects.

The Cuomo administration declined to comment on the talks. In a visit to the Buffalo area last week, Cuomo said he is going "to work as hard as I can to make [UB 2020] a reality."

Cuomo noted that there are "many legislators and many opinions, but we're going to work through it, and I'm optimistic that we'll make UB 2020 a reality at the end of the day."

People-Stokes said she is "more encouraged" than ever that some sort of UB 2020 plan will emerge this session, following the recent personal involvement by Cuomo and Silver.

"I think that the involvement of the governor is critical," said Assemblyman Robin L. Schimminger, D-Kenmore, a sponsor of the UB 2020 bill, "and his convening of a summit is pivotal to getting the matter resolved."

In the GOP-led Senate, the plan has already passed this session.

But it won't pass as it presently exists in the Assembly.

Even some Senate Republicans expressed concerns that SUNY schools in their regions -- such as Long Island and the Binghamton area -- are cut out from the UB 2020 bill that they approved.

But the GOP is desperate to hold on to its 32-30 majority in the Senate, and Grisanti -- whom Republicans are desperately trying to prop up in advance of his running for re-election in a Democratic-dominated district -- has made UB 2020 his chief catch. He has talked with Cuomo twice in the last couple of weeks and gets private briefings from UB.

Grisanti said the sides are working during the break to come up with some areas of common ground before the Legislature returns in early May. He said that everything from the process for hiring faculty members to the costs involved for moving the medical teaching operations to UB's downtown campus is being discussed.

After hearing the new UB president speak this week, Grisanti believes that Tripathi sent signals of some compromises.

"It seems like he was saying he wants to move at a more cautious pace," Grisanti said. "You could take that to mean he's looking at this plan in phases, but I've not heard that."

Grisanti said that it is "possible" his UB 2020 legislation will be changed and acknowledged that it faces major amendments if other SUNY schools are added. With the May summit at the Capitol coming up, Grisanti said, the sides are looking for common ground.

"They don't want to start the summit off on the wrong foot where everybody has a different idea of what UB 2020 is," Grisanti said. "They want to make sure everyone is on the same page."

News Staff Reporter Jay Rey contributed to this report.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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