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ESD 'pivoting' from Wonder Falls; announces plans for high-density, mixed-use development project in downtown Niagara Falls

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Fri, Dec 6th 2019 05:00 pm
Conceptual art courtesy of Empire State Development
Conceptual art courtesy of Empire State Development

Project will instead focus on civic improvements to former Rainbow Centre

See design concepts here

Empire State Development today announced plans for a civic improvement project at the Rainbow Centre in downtown Niagara Falls that will establish greater public access and walkability, create commercial opportunity, and also improve parking to support new and existing businesses at and near the site.

Uniland Development Co. and USA Niagara Development Corp., an ESD subsidiary, will not move forward with plans for development of a resort on the site.

A request for proposals will be issued on Monday, Dec. 9, seeking architectural design and engineering services to repurpose the remaining space in the former Rainbow Centre into a high-density, mixed-use development with restored pedestrian access through the center of the building and active ground-level uses.

“Reimagining the former Rainbow Centre mall through adaptive reuse will reconnect the downtown street grid, creating a more pedestrian-friendly area that will attract shoppers and visitors and also support local businesses,” said ESD Acting Commissioner and President and CEO-designate Eric Gertler.

“The former Rainbow Centre mall presents a challenge for development, but it also has tremendous opportunities that we intend to take advantage of,” City of Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster said. “The city, in partnership with USA Niagara, will use what we learned from the ULI study to move forward and focus on urban design, accommodations, attractions and the modernization of parking resources in downtown Niagara Falls, which will result in a project that will be attractive for both residents and visitors. We look forward to the implementation of the first phase of the alternative as outlined in the term sheet.”

USAN and the city have signed a project term sheet that will allow USAN to procure and retain, at its expense, consultants necessary to develop plans and specifications necessary to allow construction of the project. USAN will contribute all project costs, up to a maximum amount to be agreed to between USAN and the Falls, based upon the approval of a final project budget and program. Funds for construction of the project will be provided to the city via a standard ESD grant disbursement agreement.

ESD said, “For more than five years, Uniland and USAN worked diligently toward a development agreement for the Wonder Falls resort, featuring a 300-room hotel that would include a large indoor water park for hotel guests. However, the project is no longer economically feasible due, in part, to the changes in the federal tax code, which is why the civic improvement project will move forward.”

“We are disappointed that the project as planned is not financially feasible,” Uniland Vice President Michael Montante said. “But we believe in the potential of Niagara Falls, New York, with the continued investment by the public and private sector. Our goal as a community is to make Niagara Falls a world-class destination. We thank the project’s supporters, and the state for its willingness to work with our team during the development process.”

The successful respondent to the new RFP will consider various “civic improvement” items, including, but not limited to, recommendations from the 2012 Urban Land Institute (ULI) advisory services panel report:

•Breaking up the scale of the facility by establishing a pedestrian “street” that passes through the lower two levels of the structure;

•Cladding of the parking ramp to incorporate architectural features that would lessen its monolithic appearance;

•Undertaking additional concrete and elevator rehabilitation efforts, as well as waterproofing measures, on hold since 2014 due to development of the Wonder Falls project;

•Adding additional elevators in strategic locations to better facilitate use of the parking ramp by surrounding properties; and

•Undertaking circulation improvements and incorporating state-of-the-art parking revenue control systems (PARCS) into the parking ramp.

These modifications will create up to 200,000 square-feet of available space that could be repurposed for uses that would benefit downtown Niagara Falls, including attractions or other entertainment venues or partnerships with the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute, such as an expansion of programing.

Niagara County Community College President Dr. William J. Murabito said, “We located our Niagara Falls Culinary Institute in part of the former Rainbow Centre mall where it has thrived. We are excited by the governor’s plan to repurpose the remaining mall space and create more opportunity for NCCC, our students, residents and visitors to Niagara Falls. We look forward to partnering with USAN as they move forward to create innovative space for new business in this globally-recognized destination.”

Development in downtown Niagara Falls has changed considerably since 2014, when the Uniland project was awarded. Under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, five new hotels have been completed, adding 600 rooms to the downtown market, and other hotels have undergone extensive renovations, including improved retail and restaurants. Along with the anticipated restoration of the Hotel Niagara, the quality of accommodations in the market has dramatically improved. Properties recently purchased under \ Cuomo’s strategic land acquisition program have given added reason to pivot from the Wonder Falls concept to a more incremental approach that retains a maximum amount of parking to support adjacent developments.

City of Niagara Falls Mayor-Elect Robert Restaino said, “The former Rainbow Centre mall is a critical piece of property, and its remaining 200,000 square-feet provide a tremendous opportunity to transform downtown Niagara Falls. As a city-owned property, I will work with USAN to ensure that we improve the site to include high-density, mixed-used redevelopment with an active ground level that will foster future development on adjoining parcels.”

Assemblyman Angelo Morinello said, “Although the Rainbow Centre mall project is moving in a different direction than we anticipated, this is the right decision. This incremental approach will allow USAN and the city to redevelop the property in a way that benefits NCCC and the surrounding businesses and furthers the positive work Gov. Cuomo and I are doing to keep visitors in Niagara Falls.”

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