Niagara Gazette

October 15, 2012

HIGGS: Wait! There's more to cheer about

By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Last week I told about my experience with the Urban Land institute Foundation and their week-long visit to Niagara Falls to tour, meet some interested stakeholders and offer some suggestions. It was all about some possible reuse for the inside of the former Rainbow Centre.

They talked about a flexible structure with smaller tenant spaces, safe parking, breaking up the building and returning it to human scale. They state malls nationwide are shutting down, reimagining themselves and removing the concrete block look. Of course this would involve opening up the upper levels with the use of glass enclosures to let daylight inside and allow people outside to see the inside and what there is to offer. That last one is long overdue.

The panel did not stop with just the building reuse. The architects in the group displayed easy to understand diagrams of new street extensions, pedestrian elements, improved public spaces and plazas where there would be something on or around every corner and positive signage was also discussed.

My interest peaked when they mentioned extending Mayor Michael O’Laughlin Street all the way to Rainbow Boulevard, passing through the Rainbow Centre creating a covered pedestrian walkway to lure visitors from the state park into the city via another path and the reverse. Along this walkway would be entrances to the centre itself, plus small shops and eating establishments with outdoor capabilities. parking would remain as it is and perhaps be extended to the roof. How about solar panels up there?

One panel member stated the first view the visitor from Canada has of the U.S. is not inspiring or encouragement for a longer stay.

Traffic needs to flow better, directing visitors out of the state park into the city via Old Falls Street or the proposed extended O’Laughlin Street. This would encourage development of the former Teletech building and create circulation of visitors throughout the area.

Other ideas were to remodel the commercial space at the Comfort Inn that is for sale to face the downtown area and perhaps an alternate street entry to Old Falls Street at the wax museum. This would also serve current and future downtown residents offering food, personal services and recreational opportunities. Consistent streetscapes would have to include matching trash receptacles, signage, benches, etc.

As all of this unraveled as future development, I admit it was a bit mind boggling but I noticed that some of the ideas I gathered from my friends and some of Roger’s ideas and my own were included. All of this would encourage longer stays and educate visitors on area attractions with the use of historical exhibits in appropriate spaces in the redesigned mall or in other underutilized buildings or even hotel lobbies. It was stressed that there be a clear connection between Old Falls Street and the state park. Future focus would be on Upper Falls Street including Falls Street Station, additional space along the Conference Center frontage and along Rainbow Boulevard.

What about implementation of these ideas? A major suggestion was many community meetings, which I liked. We need to establish a unified vision and gather as many cheerleaders as possible to stop the naysayer, which means a clear picture to present to residents and business owners alike. One of the suggestions was the absolute enforcement of all codes and ordinances and the use of Requests for Qualifications (RFQ’s) when it comes time to seek developers. Some things to look for were: Evidence of Experience, Successful Public Private Partnerships, Experience with desired project elements, Financial capability and Endure Phasing.

I am no novice to grand ideas to help Niagara Falls revitalize itself. I watched our community college disappear to the suburbs. I was present at Mr. Cogan’s plans for Niagara Falls Redevelopment back in the days of Mayor Jim Galie. I lived through the disastrous ups and downs of the Splash Park and the change from a parking ramp to include a mall which could not be recognized from the outside. I saw the demise of the Turtle, and the sudden reuse of the former convention center. But I also saw the revitalization of the United Office Building and the interest in created in upgraded hotels and fine dining.

Some may not appreciate the demolition of the Wintergarden but frankly, it was time to open the street to tourism and activities for locals as well.

Now we need to admit that we need to provide for the youth of today who will be the strength of tomorrow. We can start again to educate them downtown with the new Culinary Institute and we can add to that with hospitality and other programs.

Perhaps these visitors from the Urban Land Institute who have provided responsible use of land in other areas can do the same for us. They do it through research, sharing of best practices, organizing and conducting meetings and they publish books and magazines on the subject. They review background material, conduct stakeholder interviews and consider data to frame issues and write recommendations. They have been doing this since 1947 and conduct 15-20 panels a year on land use subjects. They are candid and provide independent advice on this and other real estate issues. They are volunteers from various professional backgrounds and have no personal gains in the outcome. A final report will be available sometime in November.

Cheerleading is more than a sport — it’s an attitude. Rah! Rah!

Norma Higgs serves with the Niagara Beautification Commission and Niagara Falls Block Club Council.