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Mall Reuse Outlined

An Urban Land Institute (ULI) Advisory Panel has some ideas on how to reuse a dead, full block downtown mall into a mixed-use center of activity.  Main Place Mall in Buffalo?  No, the former Rainbow Centre Shopping Mall in downtown Niagara Falls. 
One-third of the long-dead Rainbow Centre mall is back in use.  Niagara County Community College’s new $26 million Niagara Falls Culinary Institute opened in September along the southern end of the building (below).  The facility provides instructional space to accommodate up to 1,000 students in NCCC’s culinary arts, hospitality management and tourism/event management programs.  Along Old Falls Street fronting where the Wintergarden used to stand there is a student‐operated restaurant and pastry deli facilities, a Barnes and Noble bookstore, and a “Niagara Wine Trail” shop.
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hat leaves about 200,000 square feet of reuse-ready space on two levels in the building along with a 1,600-space parking structure. 
The ULI Panelists–composed of eight experts from across the nation, all highly-qualified professionals in design, real estate and government–volunteered their time for a week, staying in Niagara Falls to study the property and its context. They interviewed 70 key public and private officials and community leaders to gain their unique insights into the region, the market and the mall property itself. The ULI Panelists spent the remainder of the week developing their conclusions.
“We offered three workable design concepts for the former Rainbow Centre Mall site with recommendations for a variety of uses that meet both resident and visitor market demands,” said Panel Chair Glenda Hood, President of Hood Partners, LLC and the former mayor of Orlando, Florida. “We also suggest strategies to realize the potential for the surrounding area and to recognize that the keys to success are collaboration and partnerships.”
The panel’s conclusions included recommendations under three major themes: market-based use scenarios; design-based strategies addressing the building itself; and implementation methods. 
The panel developed possible re-use scenarios based upon what recent market assessments suggest that is in demand downtown: retail, entertainment and culture. Many of these scenarios directly complement the setting of the space next to the Culinary Institute and near Niagara Falls State Park.  
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The 74,500 sq.ft. first floor is envisioned as a retail and entertainment destination.  It would be anchored by a Farmers/Artisan Foods/Organics Marketplace.  Also proposed is a small format bowling alley with a restaurant/lounge and a four-screen Drafthouse Theater.
Educational and cultural space would occupy the second level including room to expand the Culinary Institute and add a hospitality curriculum, film and communications education, and art education programs.  There would also be a health and fitness component including a spa and health club.
The uses are envisioned to bring more tourists and residents to downtown on 24/7 basis and add critical mass to downtown education cluster.  
A series of specific design recommendations to address the building’s monolithic scale were made; turning its uses “inside-out” to create more active street-level activities; and dealing with “back-of-house” services such as waste management and deliveries.  
The property is not without its challenges that will complicate future reuse. For example, the design of the structure is somewhat unconventional; the former shopping mall space is incorporated into the structural design of the City Parking Ramp. Also, in many locations along its street faces, the ground floor elevations of the building do not match the adjoining sidewalk elevations. Additionally, the former Mall had been designed as a traditional inwardly-oriented shopping mall and its systems/services support this orientation, thus requiring refinements to facilitate uses that would activate its adjoining street faces.
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A key goal is to break up the “super block” and return the complex to a human scale.  Besides façade improvements to “soften the building”, one idea is to extend O’Laughlin Boulevard thru the block either as a street or plaza to introduce more light and improve pedestrian flow through downtown.  Pedestrian elements would be added along with public spaces and plazas.
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As a future phase the panel also suggested that the parking ramp at the north end of the block be re-skinned or replaced with a hotel (below).
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In terms of implementation, the panel offered insights on some of the former mall’s surrounding uses and areas, linkages to the State Park, and methods to procure private developers for adaptive reuse efforts.  The City and State are expected to gauge developer interest in the balance of the mall property in coming months.
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