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Developer sought for Donovan building; Canal agency hopes progress on waterfront plan could encourage HSBC Bank to stay

The agency overseeing waterfront development is seeking a developer for the former Donovan State Office Building.

On Friday, the waterfront agency's board of directors approved a request for proposals to begin Monday, with submissions due by June 30.

Jordan Levy, chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., said the agency wants developers to focus on four areas: commercial office space, retail, residential and hospitality.

The empty building sits next to the former site of Memorial Auditorium, where a portion of the Erie Canal is to be reconstructed. The waterfront agency spent $7 million to remediate the building, which a few years ago was marked for demolition.

Levy said applicants will have to include application fees, and whoever gets the winning bid will be required to make a deposit of $1 million that would be refunded if construction begins by Dec. 15. .

"The idea of false promises in this community is not one that we are enthusiastic about. It's time we do not have people tie up parcels in this community that live on for years while they try to find tenants or uses," Levy said.

Levy said redeveloping the former Donovan Building would be another expression of progress on the waterfront, and possibly be an added incentive to encourage HSBC Bank to stay in downtown Buffalo. The bank, the region's largest private employer, has indicated it may move out of HSBC Center, with the so-called Webster Block, one block south of the Donovan Building, under possible consideration.

"People need to be aware that outside of the folks in Buffalo, we don't have the relationship with that bank that we had and enjoyed for 100 years. We need to do anything and everything we can to make sure HSBC knows it is welcome in Western New York," Levy said.

"Every day that they don't announce what they are doing long term is a day I'm concerned about," he said. "Everything we do that gets the project moving forward -- the Donovan Building, the canals, the summer programming, the 'lighter, quicker, cheaper' stuff, the outer harbor, the grain elevators -- makes Buffalo [and the region] look like it's a city on the move. That's the stuff that when people have to make decisions gets them enthusiastic."

Meanwhile, the architect for Canal Side encouraged Common Council members Friday to reimagine the waterfront as a people-packed destination that offers a variety of activities.

The presentation in City Hall was the first time most lawmakers reviewed preliminary designs. In their meeting with architect Stanton Eckstut, Council members were briefed on both short-term and long-term plans for Buffalo's inner harbor.

The Council still must approve some land transfers that are tied to the development plan.

Levy told Council members that more than 300 events will be staged along the waterfront this season. He said tens of thousands of people are expected to attend a Buffalo Place Rocks the Harbor concert series. Performers will include the Tragically Hip, Elvis Costello and Alice Cooper.

Water will be the main focus on Canal Side in both warm and cold weather, Eckstut told lawmakers. For example, he said ice skating will be a major feature in an attraction that will be four times the size of the world-famous Rockefeller Center rink in New York City.

"This is a real skaters' paradise that we're talking about providing here," the architect said.

Other plans include building bridges and barges to capture the feel of Buffalo's historic Canal District. A water taxi would carry pedestrians and bicyclists to various destinations.

There would be a number of restaurants and small shops on the site. Eckstut said planners also are reviewing other possible retail operations.

He stressed that planners are merely exploring different options for some type of market -- either an indoor or outdoor facility.

Council members gave favorable reviews to the presentation. Waterfront Committee Chairman Michael P. Kearns of South said he's pleased that some "achievable" development steps are being taken.

"You have to start somewhere, and this is a good beginning," Kearns said.

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

and bmeyer@buffnews.com

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