The $2 million plan to revitalize the Village of Lancaster’s downtown district by extending West Main Street looks as if it may be heading back to the drawing boards.
After decades of planning, arrangements for grant money and the demolition last fall of part of a hulking complex to make way for the road extension, sentiment has grown within the village that the project might not be the right one for Lancaster.
“I want to put the brakes on this project,” Trustee William C. Schroeder said during a meeting last week with representatives of the Citizens Advisory Committee and Community Development Corp. “To have the village in control does make sense.”
It its current state, West Main Street is a short road with a handful of businesses that abuts the remaining portion of the complex. There, the street level is about 14 feet higher than the foundation of the razed portion of the complex and an accompanying parking area. Retaining walls would be required for the elevated roadway to run straight through to North Aurora Street.
Many involved in the debate say that it might be better to take a closer look at options for extending the road, out of concern that the same mistakes that led to the street’s current state could be repeated. The complex that was torn down last fall had been built during the 1970s as part of the urban renewal era and has often been blamed for the village’s stagnation.
But others privately say that it could prove a tough sell to some residents who have been waiting for years for something to materialize in the West Main corridor.
The issue is likely to come to a head when the Village Board meets at 6 p.m. today in a special session to further consider what would be best to revitalize the core business district and whether to delay the West Main Street project, in favor of first seeking more definitive input from prospective developers this summer.
The more that Schroeder and Trustee Dawn M. Robinson talked with members of Community Development Corp. and a citizens panel talked at last week’s meeting, support seemed to erode for the original plan to extend West Main, which could cost more than the $2 million in bonding.
Instead, the focus is shifting to paying off the outstanding mortgage on the CDC-owned land and complex and then figuring out what would work best to transform the area into a thriving mix of retail, residential and commercial development along West Main – with or without an extended road going through it.
“We have some very tough decisions to make,” Robinson said, noting that she is excited to go back to the drawing boards and reassess a “great opportunity.”
What emerged this week was a new idea, put forth by Craigg McRae, acting president of the CDC, recommending that the village consider fronting the cost of paying off the outstanding $559,000 mortgage on the 5-acre site and what remains of the Lancaster Village Partnership Complex at the end of West Main. The corporation would expect to pay back the village in full within about 18 months, McRae said last week. That would allow the CDC to solidify a relationship with a developer to buy the land from the corporation. The land was independently appraised at $1.1 million.
“I don’t think there’s any possibility of a loss to the village, but it would free us to negotiate and have an open palette with the developer,” McRae said.
Letters of interest to prospective developers are to be sent later this month, followed by a 30-day window for them to respond to the CDC, which would then craft a request for proposals to those developers. By late July, the CDC would hope to lock in one or two developers for the site.
Other officials said they hoped the downtown business district could be more quaint, support a food cooperative, and offer shops and restaurants that would be a magnet for people to gather and enjoy, as in walkable communities such as East Aurora.
“Make it a place where people want to gather. We don’t have that now,” said Liz Reilly Meegan, a member of the citizens panel.
“A lot of people come down here, but we can’t keep ’em here,” said CDC member Matt Walters.
McRae noted that the plan would buy more time for village and community officials to better conceptualize what would be best to revitalize the downtown core.
If it is legal to do that and village government embraces the idea, the village would essentially be forgoing $323,000 in federal grant money earmarked for aesthetic improvements for the project such as pavers, streetlights and other items that otherwise would likely have to be modified as a future developer worked on the site.
“You’re not losing $323,000. You stand to lose it if you build the road and have to make adjustments to it in a few years, if it doesn’t mesh with what a developer wants,” said Jim Everett, of the citizens panel. “… I don’t think anyone has a solid idea of that and how a road would affect the development and surrounding businesses down here.”
Attorney Mark S. Aquino, who also is a town councilman, said a new road may not be necessary. “Putting a road in there, you’re chewing up a lot of the development,” he said.
“We need to come up with a plan that fits the community,” said Richard E. Young, a member of the citizens panel and founder of Performance Advantage Co., which is located at the end of West Main. “We have this wonderful opportunity to have a chance to rebuild. What we’re going to do will be for the next 100 years.”