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NIAGARA FALLS – When it comes to developing Niagara Falls’ downtown core, few buildings loom as large as the former Rainbow Centre mall.

“The building is, in a sense, a metaphor for downtown Niagara Falls – a big project intended to solve big problems that, with time and upon reflection, has been seen to be a poor solution.”

That analysis was offered recently by a group of national real estate experts who have developed a new plan to make the mall vibrant once again.

And the findings by experts from the Urban Land Institute, released earlier this month, make one point very clear: For the city to turn itself around, it has to get this project right.

“It has the potential to be and should be the bellwether in Niagara Falls,” the panelists wrote. “It should be the project against which others are measured in terms of commitment to the public interest, creative thinking, and design excellence, as well as execution discipline.”

Because of the scale of the mall project, and because of its recent attachment to the Culinary Institute Niagara Falls, the panelists believe “redefining the former mall will be the measure going forward, for better or worse.”

While the culinary institute occupies roughly one-third of the building, more than 200,000 square feet of vacant space remains.

That’s why the state’s USA Niagara Development Corp. commissioned the $175,000 study by the land experts.

The panelists were tasked with finding new uses for a building that, until recently, seemed immune to attractive development. And the group’s recent recommendations expand on the initial observations the group made to city officials and residents in September.

The first is transforming the ground level of the mall into a retail and entertainment hub that would attract both visitors streaming out of Niagara Falls State Park and residents who would come downtown year-round.

The first floor of the remaining mall space would include a fresh food market and showcase of regional products, including bulk groceries, artisan foods, fresh produce, wines and beers, flowers and other local products.

The complex could also build off the momentum of the culinary institute by attracting regional entrepreneurs as tenants in the space, the experts said.

Next to the food market would be two attractions for residents and tourists who admittedly have little to do when they stay overnight in the falls.

A small bowling alley with four to six lanes and a themed restaurant and bar area would also include a family entertainment center, an arcade and two party rooms.

A four-screen “draft house” movie theater would offer both stadium seating and a food service area. The theater would serve both the daytime tourism market with films about geology, nature and industrialization, and would serve the nighttime market with commercial pictures.

The second story of the mall, meanwhile, presents more complex challenges, because if converting a vacant mall into active retail space is hard enough on its own, doing it with an attached parking ramp is doubly difficult.

To solve this problem, the experts recommend slicing the mall in half at its center.

That would break up the “superblock” that stretches from Niagara Street to Old Falls Street and would allow for ground-level retail to open in a new pedestrian extension of Mayor Michael O’Laughlin Drive.

The panel recommends educational, health and fitness uses for the second floor.

It suggests the development of a film school to capitalize on the popularity of Niagara Falls in commercial productions, or an arts program to take advantage of the region’s natural resources and its U.S., Canadian and Native American cultural heritage.

Those developments would be supplemented by a health and wellness center, which could serve as a training lab for those who want to learn the spa business, and a fitness center for use by the area’s downtown hotels.

These solutions sounded great in September to the city and state officials who asked for the study. But the hard part, they acknowledge, is turning them into reality.

To do so, the panel makes it clear Niagara Falls will have to make a break from the mistakes of its past.

“Communities suffer economically from the stigma of corruption, governmental infighting, lack of land use enforcement, and government’s failure to effectively address the root causes of blight,” the report states. “High-quality developers and lenders do not invest in these types of communities.”

State officials plan to talk about concrete plans for the mall in the next few weeks, USA Niagara Development President Christopher J. Schoepflin said.

He added that a request for qualifications from interested developers – a step recommended by the land panel – is likely the next step.

“We feel that we’ve done our part,” he said, “and now we want to let the private sector do theirs.”

email: cspecht@buffnews.com