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Higgins blames NFTA for lack of interest in project to revive DL&W terminal

When the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority sought development proposals for the upper floor of its cavernous Delaware Lackawanna and Western Railroad terminal last spring, it anticipated all kinds of interest given the authority's $46 million project to transform the DL&W into a major waterfront attraction and transit hub.

But the stampede of developers never materialized.

Only one – Savarino Cos. – answered the authority’s request for proposals. Now the waterfront’s most vocal champion – Rep. Brian Higgins – says the lack of developer interest stems from the NFTA’s failure to make the project attractive. State officials also raise questions about the best use of state funds already allocated for the project.

Higgins now fears the DL&W could face the same fate as the Outer Harbor, which he says remained neglected and abandoned under authority control for almost 60 years.

“They don’t take ownership of it,” Higgins said a few days ago. “They put out an RFP to shut up people like me.

“They put it out there while not making a commitment to make the building commercially viable,” he added. “Unless and until the NFTA takes responsibility for stuff they own, nothing will get done – just like the Outer Harbor.”

As part of its request, the authority offered 80,000 square feet of second-floor space, 60,000 more square feet of outdoor terrace, a skybridge to parking, escalators and elevators from a new Metro Rail station planned below, and a prime location on the Buffalo River amid working grain mills and lake freighters.

For the past several years, the NFTA has aimed to develop the DL&W’s second floor above Metro Rail’s yard and shops, at one point envisioning construction in 2018. The authority remains more than enthusiastic about the landmark’s future, noting that New York State has committed $26 million in Buffalo Billion II funds. But two attempts by Higgins and Sen. Charles E. Schumer to obtain federal grants for the remaining costs never made the cut in Washington, though the lawmakers continue to apply for new rounds of funding.

“We share his frustration,” NFTA Executive Director Kimberley A. Minkel said of Higgins. “We wish we could have moved more quickly, but the funding has to be in place. We’re hopeful because we think we have a good project.”

The plan calls for a new Metro Rail station on the river side of the 102-year-old complex, from which the last Erie-Lackawanna (successor to DL&W) passenger train departed in 1962. It also calls for escalators and elevators to the second floor and adjacent terrace. Build the infrastructure, the NFTA said, and developers will come.

But problems have plagued the original plan. Earlier this year, Higgins criticized the NFTA when it shelved a skywalk connecting the terminal and KeyBank Center because of unanticipated costs. Then federal funding efforts went nowhere. And Higgins questions NFTA plans for a Metro Rail extension to Amherst instead of upgrading the existing system and concentrating on the DL&W project.

Higgins urges NFTA to reconsider arena-DL&W skywalk

Higgins says the $10 million in new state funds budgeted annually by the state for Metro Rail should include the DL&W project. The NFTA counters that it already is applying those funds.

Indeed, a just approved $20.5 million track work project to prepare the terminal’s rail infrastructure for the new Metro Rail station includes the original Buffalo Billion grant plus the new annual funds, according to the authorizing resolution.

Still, Higgins says if the NFTA worked harder to make the DL&W more attractive to developers, more would have responded.

“They’re going to use a piece to make the DL&W viable, but it’s not their priority,” he said. “These authorities only do things when they are forced into it. That’s why persistence is important.”

As late as a few days ago, the NFTA refused to discuss any responses to its request for proposals, and denied a Freedom of Information Law request from The Buffalo News. Minkel still will not discuss “proprietary” specifics, but she said Friday that the authority is wisely spending its limited resources, hopes to obtain more from Washington, and remains committed to the project as a high priority.

“For the first time since the 1960s, we look to bring the public back to the DL&W,” said Minkel, whose great-grandfather worked as a DL&W fireman.

She said the NFTA will “in short order share with the public a very exciting proposal” that will seek input from citizens and stakeholders.

Minkel acknowledged that had the NFTA won the federal grants it sought, more infrastructure preparations could have been implemented and more developers might have responded.

“That’s a fair comment,” she said, noting the previous applications for federal funds – though well received – failed because of stiff competition. She also called it a “challenging project.”

Should the authority have waited to request proposals until it could adequately fund enticements for developers?

“No,” she said. “It’s important to keep the project moving.”

For more than a decade, she noted, the authority advertised the complex and escorted scores of people through it ‑ without success.

“At any time, anyone with real interest could have approached us; that in and of itself is telling,” she said. “What is exciting is that we have had a response because of all the investment in Canalside and the Cobblestone District.”

Nevertheless, Albany also questions the pace of the project, noting more funds have not yet been secured for several remaining aspects.

“The NFTA has the motivation to fix the tracks and very basic infrastructure in that facility, that ESD sees as a larger economic development component," said a state source familiar with the project who asked not to be identified. "ESD does not want to spend money in hopes of someday getting to the economic development piece."

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Minkel points out the authority received $20 million from ESD on Sept. 26 and one week later authorized the $20 million project needed to extend Metro Rail into the terminal. That phase is slated for completion in late 2021.

State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, the Buffalo Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, calls the DL&W project “generational” and “transformational.” He expects the NFTA will use the new annual infusion of $10 million for the track and catenary work needed to prepare for the new station.

“I’m committed,” he said. “And I get every indication from the NFTA that this is a project they will see through to completion.”

Meanwhile, other developers say the dearth of proposals stems more from uncertainty over the location and future of retail than anything else. Rocco R. Termini, expressed DL&W interest back in 2013, but has since backed off.

“What are you going to put there? Who is going to go there?” he said. “That’s the big problem.”

Termini said the space is too big, the infrastructure needs are daunting, and uncertainty about wintertime customers present too many question marks for developers. Otherwise, he said, more would have responded.

“Nobody wants to spend the next 10 years of their lives dealing with the NFTA,” he said. “It’s a very difficult project. There’s nothing easy about it.”

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