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7 plans offered for Falls site; City, state to interview developers in January

The city whose reputation as a honeymoon capital is often overshadowed by its reputation for urban decay is poised to get its first major downtown development -- outside of the Seneca Niagara Casino -- in some 30 years.

City and state officials have confirmed that seven developers submitted proposals for a 38,000-square-foot site at 310 Rainbow Boulevard.

While details of the specific plans were not released, officials said they would like to see a mixed-use building rise on the site to fill the unmet downtown demand for retail, food, beverage, residential and hotel space around the falls.

"What we saw from the vast majority of the proposals are a mix of two or three or in some cases, more than three uses, which would create a really great urban building with different kinds of people in there different times of the day for different reasons, which is what all great cities have," said USA Niagara Development Corp. President Christopher J. Schoepflin.

The space could also help fill an unmet demand for downtown housing, said regional Empire State Development Corp. President Sam Hoyt.

"In other successful cities across the country, you've seen real movement toward downtown housing," Hoyt said. "We've seen great success in Buffalo with that, we're seeing nice progress toward that here in Niagara Falls."

Leaders see the 38,000-square-foot site, which formerly hosted a hot-air balloon ride, as a "gateway location" in the downtown development puzzle.

"We haven't had a site that was so free of encumbrances in terms of being available for development," said Mayor Paul A. Dyster.

Officials declined to talk specifically about any of the seven proposals, citing legal restrictions while the plans are reviewed, but said developers view the site through the same transformative lens long held by city and state officials.

City and state officials are reviewing and scoring the development proposals and will conduct interviews with developers in early January. They will announce a preferred developer by the end of January and ideally would like to see the first shovel hit the ground by the end of 2012.

"We crossed our fingers and went out to the development community, and I think the response we've got has met and in some ways has exceeded our expectations," said Mayor Paul A. Dyster. "We have seven responses, and I think we feel that several of those are strong candidates."

"One of the things we were impressed with in the proposals is the vision shown," Dyster said. "They got it. In other words, they knew what we were looking for."

Some of the developers are local and others are from outside the area, according to officials, who called some of the developers "well-credentialed."

Research suggested the area around the parcel, which sits just 300 feet from the entrance to Niagara Falls State Park, also showed demand for a "major upper-upscale hotel," Hoyt previously said.

Officials declined to say whether any of the seven proposals fit those characteristics but said most of the proposals included hotel space. They also declined to say whether the proposals included a high-rise building.

The building would fit the character of the state-built Old Falls Street district, which features period lighting and a cobblestone street. It would be easily accessible to pedestrians, officials said, and would not feature a large front parking lot.

"What you're starting to see in a lot of mixed-use, urban buildings -- and the [Giacomo Hotel] being a good example -- is the synergies found in a certain type of lodging product work quite nicely together, and then you add in a third use of ground-level retail for your visitor and your residents that that creates an energetic, urban space and place," Schoepflin said.

The state's USA Niagara Development has been steadily "place-making" the surrounding area to make the downtown core more attractive for developers.

The site will benefit from the proposed $30 million Niagara County Community College culinary institute, which will sit adjacent to the parcel, as well as cobblestone and lighting improvements along Old Falls Street, said Hoyt.

The developer would also have access to an adjacent 1,600-space parking ramp formerly used for the Rainbow Centre Mall.

"All of these various things that have been happening of late are feeding off of each other, and there's a bit of a buzz, there's a buzz going now about this area," Hoyt said. "And that buzz generates interest and may even result in some risk-taking that you might not have seen otherwise."

Hoyt added: "I view this community and this area at a great point, at a tipping point. So much positive has been done in terms of investment in this area, now we're hopefully gonna see the fruits of the labor come to reality."