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NIAGARA FALLS - With help from the public, Niagara County Community College appears to have transformed part of a vacant downtown monolith into a vibrant culinary mecca.
The new Culinary Institute Niagara Falls at the former Rainbow Centre mall's southern end opened this month to rave reviews from the students who will staff its restaurants and bring some much-needed traffic to the Old Falls Street tourism corridor.
But as young chefs stream into the $30 million culinary school and workers finish construction on the public restaurants, the question becomes: What about the rest of the Rainbow Centre mall?
For all its shiny new cooking laboratories, walk-up restaurants and Barnes & Noble cooking store, the culinary school actually takes up less than a third of the former mall on Rainbow Boulevard.
The other 200,000 square feet of the mall remains vacant, and with a Buffalo developer making plans to build a boutique hotel adjacent to the site, the state is looking to overcome a series of hurdles to fill it with retailers.
"We have very serious momentum on Falls Street with the culinary institute and [adjacent hotel]," said Christopher J. Schoepflin, president of the state's USA Niagara Development Corp.
"We think those two things are strong enough to leverage what is a lot of square footage at the balance of the mall."
The first step is a weeklong visit this month by members of the Urban Land Institute, which the state and National Grid will pay $125,000 to evaluate the structure, identify its prime uses and recommend a plan of action.
The land institute has undertaken similar studies at the Richardson-Olmsted Complex and the former Millard Fillmore Hospital in Buffalo.
The nonprofit organization's advisory panel will be staffed with industry experts who will perform the work at lower costs than other consulting firms, officials said, while garnering wider exposure for the redevelopment of the mall.
"These are unique, complicated scenarios, and I think getting a pool of experts from around the country, not just to solve problems but [use it] as a major national marketing opportunity ... that's the credibility that the Urban Land Institute brings to the equation," Schoepflin said.
The land institute is expected to supply the state with its recommendations by November, and the state would issue requests for development proposals in early 2013, Schoepflin said, with a developer selected later that year.
Significant challenges exist to developing the northern portion of the mall, most notably its recent development history.
Despite initial popularity, the mall failed to turn a profit for seven years after it opened in 1983, and Baltimore developer David Cordish once called it "the worst deal I made in 30 years in business."
The mall sat largely vacant in recent years as it dominated the landscape in a prime downtown stretch.
The building was designed as a suburban-style, "inward-oriented" shopping mall that state officials say needs to be turned "inside-out" to meet current urban design standards.
But the ground floor of the mall sits below the adjoining sidewalk outside, posing challenges to streetside retail. Then comes the actual condition of the mall, the interior of which was demolished during the culinary school construction, and the lack of shipping or waste management facilities.
The square footage of the remaining mall space poses another challenge, and officials have said multiple developers could potentially team to develop the space. A $60 million to $80 million price tag is expected, they said.
Officials will wait for the land institute to make their recommendations, but a mix of retail, entertainment, food and beverage, and commercial office space would be preferred, they said.
Without naming specifics, they also suggested the mall could, because of its location just one block from Niagara Falls State Park, host a wider variety of uses than other vacant malls.
"Being so close to this epicenter of tourism at the state park suggests some of the more creative ideas are going to come out of this experience," said Mayor Paul A. Dyster. "I think we're going to be really interested to see what some of the best minds in the country see as the highest or best uses for this property."
Anticipating developers might propose multiple uses for the mall, officials ordered demolition and environmental work for the mall's interior without specifying future usage, Dyster said.
"This is maybe an acute problem for us, but it's not a unique one," he said, adding that other malls have been repurposed creatively. "I'd rather have the problem we have, frankly, than have large big-box retail [stores] empty in a suburb. ... I'm starting to envision a blank canvas upon which something really creative can happen."
Filling such a large, empty space close to the falls will set the stage for more development farther from the city's core, Dyster said.
"I think it's difficult to bring about redevelopment further up Old Falls Street and further up downtown when you've got large, vacant spaces so close to the state park," the mayor said. "It's a challenge for us that we continue to program that space, not only because of all the wonderful things that are going to happen there, but because filling spaces up from the park opens up new opportunities downtown."
Officials say the opening of the culinary institute and parking ramp, and the adjacent $22 million hotel planned by Buffalo developer Mark Hamister, have set the stage for the rest of the Rainbow mall to be opened to developers.
"I think the time is right now to go out to the market and see what the market thinks of the remainder of the Rainbow Mall," Dyster said.
Or, as Schoepflin put it, "We have momentum and have created a good field for investors in downtown Niagara Falls and a good track record in finishing what we start."

email: cspecht@buffnews.com