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Public seeks to guide future development around Metro Rail stations

Metro Rail stations can be engines for growth in Buffalo, Amherst and the Town of Tonawanda — but it's important to guide that development, so that it meets the needs of the community.

That was a key message from the small group of residents, nonprofit employees and small business owners who came out to a forum Tuesday that sought public input on development along the existing Metro Rail line in Buffalo — and along the proposed expansion into the Northtowns.

It's a final round of three sets of workshops meant to refine plans for transit-oriented development around the existing LaSalle, Utica and Summer-Best Metro stations in Buffalo, as well as proposed stations at the DL&W Terminal downtown and in Amherst at Audubon, near Sylvan Parkway, and the Boulevard Mall.

"Earlier parts of this study have looked at growth opportunities and saw that this corridor is the strongest growth opportunity in the region," said Hal Morse, executive director of the Greater Buffalo Niagara Regional Transportation Council.

The council hosted the forum with the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority at the University at Buffalo Educational Opportunity Center on Ellicott Street.

The 15 or so attendees, matched by an equal number of consultants, split up into working groups to discuss what they'd like to see happen on and around the six sites, and the pros and cons of each location.

"I'm a big believer that there's a paradigm shift in transportation in the future," said David Stinner, president of USitek, an information-technology company located on Niagara Falls Boulevard in the Town of Tonawanda.

He believes some of his employees will prefer to commute by Metro Rail — and kids in middle school today may never own cars.

Stinner sat in on the session that tackled how to bring dense, compact development to the area around the Boulevard Mall. The NFTA proposes building a station along the boulevard, just south of Maple Road.

Peter Liebowitz, a vice president with WSP, the NFTA's consultant on the project, led the discussion. Other WSP employees took notes and drew on a map of the mall and surrounding area.

Peter Liebowitz, a vice president with WSP, leads the working group discussing how to develop the area around the Boulevard Mall. (Stephen T. Watson/Buffalo News)

Liebowitz asked whether the station should be built on what is now a mall parking lot.

Mark Boyd, chief of staff to Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, said a concern is the mall ownership could change.

Mike Schultz, a Kenmore resident who telecommutes to his job with the City University of New York, pointed to area malls that have reimagined themselves, such as Cheektowaga's AppleTree Mall, or that have struggled to do so, such as the Summit Park Mall in Wheatfield.

"They're being reinvented," said Robert Dimmig, a sales associate with CBRE.

One of the other groups discussed how to make the area around the Summer-Best station more accessible to bicyclists and pedestrians.

"We can't just keep adding parking," said LaLuce Mitchell, an architect and Allentown resident.

NFTA officials about seven years ago revived talk of expanding the Metro Rail system into Amherst. A related project would extend the system to the DL&W Terminal.

The authority is competing against other transit systems around the country for federal aid to double the Metro Rail’s existing 6.2-mile system. NFTA officials say the agency has made a strong case for the $1.2 billion Amherst project because linking UB’s North and South campuses with the downtown Medical Campus is projected to boost ridership.

Will Amherst embrace Metro rail extension this time?

A study supporting the NFTA’s application to the Federal Transit Administration’s “New Starts” program predicted $1.7 billion in development along the route, an increase in current daily ridership from 20,000 to about 45,000 trips, and a $310 million increase in value for existing properties that would raise tax revenues 32 percent for Buffalo and Amherst.

The NFTA on Aug. 21 issued a request for proposals from firms interested in conducting the $5 million, state-funded study of the extension's environmental effect. The proposals are due back on Oct. 13.

The transportation council and the NFTA hosted two previous rounds of public forums in March and June.

The earliest, wide-open sessions asked the question whether Metro Rail should be used as a tool for economic development, said Fred Frank, a lead planner with WSP. The second round of forums asked which stations people thought presented the best opportunities for development.

The same organizations are hosting a second forum from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Educational Opportunity Center, at 555 Ellicott St. A final session will be 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday in the Meadows Apartments on the Weinberg Campus, 2650 North Forest Road, Amherst.

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