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Big shots listening to community

I am not sure what will happen with the massive, now-vacant Millard Fillmore Hospital. But I like the way that Kaleida Health big shots are making their decision.

The times, they are a-changin'. The Millard Fillmore story is further evidence. The days when power brokers decided what was best behind closed boardroom doors, then tried to shove it down the community's throat, are mercifully ending. Break out the champagne.

The fallout from years of stalled projects and misfired magic bullets, and the emergence of more-enlightened power brokers, has adjusted boardroom attitudes. The altered mindset is -- from the waterfront, to a reviving downtown, to whatever happens with Millard Fillmore Hospital -- paving a path to happier endings, with less drama and fewer hard feelings. I think we could get used to this.

Faced with the eventuality of a massive, empty hospital bordering a prime neighborhood, Kaleida scheduled public forums and called in the cavalry of the renowned Urban Land Institute. What once was unthinkable in corporate boardrooms now is becoming reflexive.

"We learned from other examples that had not gone well that we needed to involve the community, be transparent and collaborate," said Kaleida's Ted Walsh. "All of that will help us to reach a better decision."

We have time and again seen what happens when the business types on our corporate and public authority boards try to force-feed a project: The failed pursuit of Bass Pro at Erie Canal Harbor, which wasted years and dollars. The Peace Bridge Authority's long-running fiasco with a new bridge/plaza. The NFTA's ridiculous 2005 Opus megaproject plan for the outer harbor. Kaleida's failed effort a decade ago to move Women & Children's Hospital off Bryant Street. The push, around the same time, for a new convention center that would have flattened a downtown neighborhood. And on and on.

We have come a long way. The notion that grand but empty downtown buildings are not eyesores but assets morphed from a preservationist-only sensibility to the current conventional wisdom. On the heels of the spectacular Hotel @ the Lafayette restoration, state legislators last week codified preservation-as-policy. By raising the historic tax credit ceiling, lawmakers make possible more Lafayette-style projects.

The list goes on.

The city enlisted progressives to help shape its new zoning/permits code (whether City Hall actually adopts the thing, of course, is another story).

The offshoot of the same state agency that a decade ago fought against unearthing canal history on the downtown waterfront -- and then tried to plop Bass Pro on the now-glorious Central Wharf -- is centering redevelopment around our legacy. As I type this, bulldozers are unearthing the Erie Canal on the old Aud site. The re-watered trench sets the table for shops and restaurants. The replica 19th century bowstring bridge that preservationists pushed for years ago is now Canalside's official logo.

A new breed of enlightened power brokers has its hands on the wheel. Howard Zemsky, the new NFTA chairman and the force behind the blossoming Larkinville neighborhood, intertwines business smarts with a progressive mindset. Developer Rocco Termini meshes economic sense with a preservationist sensibility. Whom did Zemsky, whose family owned Russer Foods, hire to shape the public plaza for Larkinville? The urban design consultant and preservation street fighter long vilified in corporate boardrooms as an "obstructionist" -- Tim Tielman.

The times, they are a-changin'.