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Rainbow Centre, redone; Experts recommend transforming structure into a public square

NIAGARA FALLS – The former Rainbow Centre mall would be dramatically transformed into a public square with streetside shops, a farmers' market, a bowling alley and a movie theater under a plan announced Friday by national design experts.

The plan would create a hub of downtown activity that further connects the falls to the city, provides much-needed retail and entertainment options and gives life to a long-vacant structure that once symbolized the city's development failures.

"I think it creates a completely different impression of the urban environment coming out ?[of Niagara Falls State Park]," said Christopher J. Schoepflin, president of USA Niagara Development. "What this does is break up a true ‘superblock' in a way that would create new frontages, make the ease of movement ?so much easier and therefore more enjoyable."

The recommendations came minutes before Lt. Gov. Robert J. Duffy cut the ribbon on the ?$30 million Culinary Institute Niagara Falls, which fills one-third of the mall with cooking laboratories, restaurants, a Barnes & Noble cooking store and local winery.

They also follow a renewed interest by private developers in the developing Falls market, an encouraging trend that buoys the hopes of city leaders as they grapple with a budget crisis caused by the nonpayment of revenues from the Seneca Niagara Casino.

State leaders paid the land institute $125,000 to develop a plan for the remaining 200,000 square feet of the mall in anticipation of a $60 million to $80 million project that would be completed by one or multiple developers in the next few years.

Leaders said they generally concur with the land institute's recommendations, which call for the city to extend Mayor Michael O'Laughlin Drive through the middle of the mall, creating an outdoor pedestrian walkway with storefronts and allowing foot traffic to travel more easily through the downtown core.

The first floor of the former mall would feature the type of fresh food market popular in many American cities, along with a small bowling alley and a four-screen movie theater. The movie theater would show educational films about the falls as well as commercial pictures, planners said, and the bowling alley would include a small bar or restaurant, a concept popular at the "L.A. Live" complex in Los Angeles.

The mall would be turned "inside out" to include streetside restaurants and shops that would appeal both to residents and to tourists streaming out of nearby Niagara Falls State Park.

"In the past, we thought of the residents of Niagara Falls and the tourists of Niagara Falls as separate and distinct," said Glenda E. Hood, the former Orlando mayor who led the panel. "We want to bring them back together and, to use a culinary term, mix them all in the bowl and bring them downtown."

The second floor of the mall would be used for a possible expansion of the culinary institute or for other educational uses. It would also include an exercise facility and a spa that could be used by local hotel guests and students at the culinary school.

"They can come here and eat and learn how to cook, and then go work it off after," quipped Charles Johnson, a Chicago real estate consultant who helped turn a vacant mall in Louisville into a thriving entertainment destination.

The planners also prescribed ways to "soften" the look of the mall, which emerges as a large concrete monolith when travelers cross the Rainbow Bridge from Canada into the United States. Workers would install large bay windows to allow natural light into the structure and create a pedestrian-friendly aesthetic.

"It would create yet another place where businesses could offer storefronts to the passing public," said Mayor Paul A. Dyster. "This is something you could never do with the current mall."

Tenants have yet to be determined, and substantial infrastructure work will be needed to ready the mall for developers. Specific components of the land institute's plan, such as the bowling alley and theater, have not been decided upon.

But several developers have expressed interest in the redevelopment of the former mall, Schoepflin said, adding that leaders in the coming weeks will lay out a specific process and timeline for development. They hope to begin infrastructure work on the mall early next year, as Buffalo developer Mark Hamister plans work on his adjacent boutique hotel.

"It's a once-in-a-generation opportunity," Schoepflin said. "That's why you stop and give great pause and you enlist national experts and an internationally recognized institute."

The land institute, which also aided in the reuse of Buffalo's Millard Fillmore Gates Hospital, will provide its full recommendations in November.

"The Rainbow Centre has been with us for a generation and has been lamented for the better part of that generation," Schoepflin added, "and I think now, if you have a once-in-a-40-or-50-year chance to redefine its purpose and how it functions, it's our obligation to the community to work as hard as possible to get it right."