By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — Local officials are getting some help this week in figuring out what to do with vacant space inside the old Rainbow Centre Mall building.
Representatives from the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit research organization that focuses on the reasonable use of land in communities worldwide, are conducting a week-long analysis of potential reuses for roughly 200,000-square-feet of available space remaining inside the old mall. The Niagara Falls Culinary Institute, where students began taking classes earlier this month, takes up 90,000-square-feet of the building.
The panel's five day visit — with a price tag of $125,000 — will give potential investors more confidence in building in downtown Niagara Falls, Sam Hoyt, Regional President of Empire State Development, said.
"There isn't a developer on the local level, the national level or, frankly, the international level, who isn't well familiar with the Urban Land Institute," he said.
USA Niagara Development Corp., the state agency working to improve downtown Niagara Falls, voted to contribute $65,000 for the study at its July board meeting. National Grid is contributing $40,000 and the Urban Land Institute Foundation is putting in $20,000.
"We haven't done enough with this key piece of property, but there is momentum," Hoyt said. "This will help us figure out how to best harness that momentum."
The panel will be working with officials from the city and USA Niagara Development Corp. during its stay and members have been asked to study the property and solicit input from elected officials and private business owners in and around Niagara Falls. The panel is expected to present a summary of its conclusions and recommendations at week's end. Panel members joined local and state officials to discuss their upcoming work during a welcoming reception held Monday at Conference Center Niagara Falls.
Glenda Hood, the former three-term mayor of Orlando, Fla. will act as chair of the panel.
Hood said that Niagara Falls officials will need to use the remaining space in the old mall to take advantage of the more than 8 million visitors the Falls host each year.
"It's important that you're able to leverage those numbers and get those people to stay for more than just a few hours," she said.
Hood sees the natural beauty of the Falls and the gorge as attractions that can be part of a more complete experience with great restaurants and shopping, she said.
"There's a lot of opportunities to celebrate that authenticity, that nature, and then to tie a lot of other things to it," she added.
Hood has experience with capitalizing on tourism, with the Walt Disney World Resort being just outside of Orlando. She said that the most important thing for a tourism town is have a good reputation.
"The way to get people to come back to your community is to have a high level of service," she said.
State economic development officials invited the Urban Land Institute to examine the property in hopes of finding suitable uses for the building, which is considered a key parcel in the redevelopment of downtown Niagara Falls. Officials said the ULI has provided similar assistance to other projects across the country, including, most recently, the redevelopment of the former Millard Fillmore Gates Hospital and the Richardson-Olmsted Complex, both in Buffalo.
Mayor Paul Dyster said that before the former owner of the mall, developer David Cordish, gifted the space to the city and Niagara County Community College, the city had relieved him of the obligation to operate the space in traditional retail fashion.
"It was recognition that to revitalize this thing you might have to really change the way you think about the use of the space," Dyster said.
The mayor said that the building was designed at a time when planners and developers thought about the automobile before the pedestrian. There are street-level windows shutting the building off from the street.
"Whatever it is that happens inside there, it needs to be much more visible from the outside and the outside needs to be more visible from the inside," Dyster said. "It needs to have a much more light and airy feeling and become much more a part of the city."
The Urban Land Institute's Niagara Falls panel consists of an all-volunteer group of nine professionals in design, real estate and government. Panel members are expected to release their recommendations about future uses for the Rainbow Mall property on Friday.
Dyster said that the completion of the culinary institute is proof that downtown can be revitalized.
"The day that I took office the revamping of the massive space in the Rainbow Mall seemed impossible," he said. "Now it doesn't."