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Council expected to approve HARBORCenter project

The Buffalo Sabres’ $123 million plan for two hockey rinks, a hotel, restaurant and parking deck on the waterfront is now in the hands of the Common Council, which is expected to vote in two weeks to approve the project, making way for a March groundbreaking.

As part of an agreement sent to the Council on Tuesday, the Sabres’ development company has agreed to pay the city nearly $200,000 more for a prime piece of downtown land than a maximum amount set by the parties last year.

HARBORCenter LLC will pay $2.2 million for the Webster Block, or the full appraisal amount.

The land the company will acquire is slightly larger than the 1.7-acre parcel originally discussed, which increased the appraised value.

“This project will continue the development boom downtown on Buffalo’s waterfront,” said Mayor Byron W. Brown. “This will be a significant draw for other investment. I believe this is the kind of transformational project that comes along maybe once in a lifetime.”

The Sabres, led by owner Terry Pegula, proposed a two-rink facility with a 200-room hotel and a parking deck, restaurants and retail space during a bidding competition last summer against Ellicott Development.

Since Brown selected the ice rink complex in August, the Sabres and the city have negotiated the sale of the city-owned parcel, which is known to Sabres fans and waterfront visitors as a surface parking lot just north of the First Niagara Center.

“This is the next step in the process,” said Michael M. Gilbert, vice president of public and community relations with the Sabres. “There are several steps in the coming weeks we need to go through ... so we can start construction in early March.”

Brown said he was “very pleased” with the agreement. He noted that it sets hiring goals for minorities and women, that local labor will be used during construction and that employees would be paid a living wage.

The agreement will be used as a template for others the city does on major developments, he said.

The agreement calls for the development to create 1,498 direct and indirect construction jobs.

Reasonable efforts also will be made to ensure that at least 15 percent of the ice time is reserved for the public or community use, such as youth hockey, and strategies will be developed “to encourage diversity among ice rink users,” according to the agreement.

The Council scheduled a public hearing on the land sale for Feb. 19, and a vote is likely that day.

“I don’t anticipate any issues,” said Ellicott Council Member Darius G. Pridgen. “It seems like the community is rather excited about it. The amount of private funding that’s coming to this area is astronomical, so I would be hard-pressed to see someone having a problem with a project that is really going to benefit downtown Buffalo.”

Council President Richard A. Fontana said he has been anxious to get the agreement before the Council for a vote and called the higher sale price “great for taxpayers.”

HARBORCenter will link to the First Niagara Center with a walkway above Perry Street, making the entire complex the only three-rink facility in the National Hockey League.

“I envisioned something unique,” Brown said of the plan for the Webster block. “This has met and exceeded all my expectations.”

The project includes two indoor ice rinks, one with seating for 1,800 and another with seating for 150; a “premium brand” hotel; a parking deck with approximately 845 spaces; and ground-level restaurant and retail space.

The parking deck, ice rinks and restaurant and retail space are scheduled to be open by the end of September 2014, and the hotel is scheduled to be open by the end of May 2015.

The larger footprint the Sabres are acquiring will expand slightly into Scott Street but won’t affect the actual street or right of way there, said Corporation Counsel Timothy A. Ball.

A final site plan for HARBORCenter will be presented to the Planning Board next Tuesday, and approval that day is possible.

In December, Populous, a nationally known architecture firm, presented preliminary plans for the development to the Planning Board.