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Ciminelli buys, plans to demolish long-neglected Central Park Plaza Opportunities seen for 27-acre site

Local real estate construction executive Louis P. Ciminelli plans to demolish the derelict and crumbling buildings at Buffalo's Central Park Plaza and clean up the 27-acre site before deciding how to redevelop it, officials said Friday morning.

Ciminelli bought the sprawling East Side property for $800,000 on Thursday.

John Ciminelli, senior vice president of construction and general contracting firm LPCiminelli and Louis' brother, said the site "presents tremendous opportunities" for Ciminelli, whose family-owned company has "a lot of history with this property."

He noted that Frank Ciminelli, the father of Louis, John and Paul Ciminelli, founded the family construction business on a nearby street in the neighborhood before moving it. More recently, LPCiminelli moved back into the neighborhood to its current headquarters at Main Street and Jewett Parkway.

The site has been accepted into the state's Brownfield Cleanup Program, under a plan submitted to the Department of Environmental Conservation by Ciminelli last year to address "low levels of contaminants" in the soil. The property also has to be completely fenced in during the cleanup, and part of Hill Street that runs through it may be closed, he said. And the debris must be removed.

"I've been in this business for over 35 years, and I've never seen conditions like this," he said.

The demolition and clean up will likely take 18 to 24 months, depending on any contaminants found in the soil. Besides dry-cleaners and other types of businesses that were in the shopping plaza over the last 50 years, the property was a working quarry more than a century ago.

"As you know, quarries get filled with things," Ciminelli said.

Once the cleanup is complete, it will probably be another six months or so to finish the mass demolition of all the buildings, he said.

Even so, city officials and local residents are thrilled that the neglected site is no longer owned by a distant, absentee landlord who has been vilified for not taking responsibility.

"This is a great day for the Central Park neighborhood. This is a great day for the people who live in this neighborhood. This is a great day for the city," Mayor Byron W. Brown said at a Friday press conference at the site. "Thank you for purchasing this place and putting it in the hands of a responsible local owner."

"We're thrilled," said Dawnette Leftwich, secretary of the Help Revitalize Central Park Plaza community group. "We can't wait to see what's going to happen, what's going to come of it."

During the press conference, Brown also announced the formation of the Buffalo Neighborhood Enhancement Team, consisting of a group of building inspectors who will focus specifically on absentee landlords with neglected properties. The team will start work June 4 in the Central Park neighborhood, with concentrated inspections and code enforcement.

"The city is not going to lose focus on what has to be done in the Central Park community," Brown said, noting that 116 vacant and unsalvageable properties in the neighborhood have already been demolished by the city at a cost of $2.1 million.

Louis Ciminelli, acting through Strickler Development Group LLC, bought 129 Holden St. in Buffalo from Central Park Plaza Associates and New York City investor Samuel Kurz. The purchase price was a far cry from the $2 million that Kurz sought.

The blighted plaza is currently vacant and deteriorating, with a pockmarked parking lot and boarded-up buildings filled with debris, broken light fixtures and missing ceiling tiles, and even collapsed sections of roof.

But its fate has become an issue of central interest, since it's a big piece of property in the heart of the city that advocates believe could be developed in many ways to benefit the surrounding community, including housing, retail, office, light industrial or medical space.

"You could do a whole new community with this amount of real estate," said James R. Militello of J.R. Militello Realty, who represented Kurz. "How often do you see that amount of land change hands in the city of Buffalo? There hasn't been anything of this scale in years. I'm hopeful that it will turn out to be good for the community."

Built in 1958, Central Park Plaza was a once-thriving former shopping center in the city's Masten District, at one time housing two major supermarkets and a big department and hardware store. It's surrounded by residential neighborhoods, with five schools nearby.

But it fell into disarray in the 1980s and its condition deteriorated, despite efforts to revive it as recently as 2002. It has been vacant since last summer, and has become a site for criminal activity, dogfighting and drug-dealing.

In response to rising pressure from local residents and the nearby Elim Christian Church, city inspectors and Buffalo Housing Court have cracked down in recent years. But their actions and multiple citations yielded little or no response from Kurz, even when he was hauled into Housing Court after an arrest warrant was issued.

"For many, many years, Central Park Plaza was allowed to deteriorate under the ownership of an investment company out of Brooklyn," Brown said. "The owner didn't take any action, and the owner didn't seem to care about the people."

So the city turned over its record of violations to state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who brought a case and forced Kurz last November to invest money to correct the problems and put the derelict property up for sale. That's when Ciminelli stepped up.

"We have tremendous faith in this company and tremendous faith that they will lead the revitalization of this neighborhood," Brown said.