By Larry Brooks:
Buffalo Rising's recent post
on the Erie Freight House drew a lot of attention and quite a few comments to a building and neighborhood that receives little attention. It was good to see. Judging by the comments, it begged, in the minds of many who read the article, the question of 'what's the alternative?' and 'why save the existing structure?' Read on.
Interest is not new: for several years now, a handful of Buffalo residents have been interested in preserving and restoring this structure. They struggled to get the land from the previous negligent owner who ran it into the ground and then quickly moved out of the City.
What is the vision of this group?
To those who say "Save it for what?" this group replies: A restaurant, offices, rowing club facilities, retail shops, top-floor lofts, event space, and museum space with historic exhibits among other things. The right mix of uses could make the enterprise profitable. The potential operator sees this project as a regional destination attraction with the goal of attracting customers from the southern Ontario, Central & Western New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Both a very experienced local construction company and restaurant operator with the capacity to ensure a successful public-private partnership have expressed real commitment to the project. Boaters would be able to come to this site and dock; walkers could go by and observe activity, or come in and enjoy some commerce.
The proposed apartment wharf, while public, would not offer any amenities to the public or visiting boaters; they would not want to dock there and they cannot go to the private Rod and Gun Club; walkers would observe a 520 foot long private parking area. The apartment proposal would likely function more like the housing at the Erie Basin Marina - a $300,000 per unit, high end island, where the rest of the City's less affluent residents are discouraged.
The public use proposal fits in perfectly with Buffalo's strategy of building our economy on our rich heritage. An exciting Maritime District along the Buffalo River is already underway--River Fest Park down Ohio Street, Silo City, the Swannie (which has a dock at the water's edge), and the new Canalside site--and the Erie Freight House would be a perfect fit for that. Indeed, the work of Peg Overdorf, Laura Kelly, Tim Tielman, Julie O'Neill and Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, Brian Higgins and countless others over the past two decades to keep preservation of the Buffalo River waterfront, greenspace and architecture front and center is what makes the apartment project even a possibility. We have seen isolated projects, such as the Pier, fail because they were not part of a greater movement like the Elmwood, Allentown, Theater or Chippewa districts.
To those who say "Don't obstruct development" this is development, a construction project that could equal the Savarino/FFZ plan in terms of construction dollars. There is an advantage, over the Savarino/FFZ plan, to this proposal: a mixed use public development would be more accessible to the public and enjoyed by many more people than just the 48 households of the Savarino plan, bringing more dollars from visitors which would be spent in the neighborhood. Furthermore, a mixed-use commercial development will create about 100 jobs long-term, many of the workers from the surrounding neighborhood. That is a lot more jobs than would be employed at an apartment complex. Renovation of the Erie Freight House does not mean that Savarino Companies cannot build their 48 apartments elsewhere: there is an abundance of vacant and available land in the vicinity on which Savarino and FFZ could build. The project team completely approves of developing market rate housing on and around the river, just not at the expense of this historic building. Right project, wrong site. We can have both--the Erie Freight House and the apartments.
It is not the rickety structure that it looks like from the exterior. To those who think it's a "rusty tin shack" there is this photo of a solid post-and-beam timber frame. What the public sees from the exterior is a skin of corrugated metal that was meant to protect the structure from the weather. Underneath is wood siding, some of it certainly dating back to the original construction.
Regarding the engineering report commissioned by Savarino: on October 1st, 2012, Kevin V. Connors, registered architect and professional engineer, the Principal of eco_logic STUDIO, with extensive experience working on historic structures in Buffalo wrote this to Mr. James Comerford, Jr., Commissioner of Permit and Inspection Services:
"On September 12, 2012 I participated in a walk-thru tour of the [Erie Freight House] with representatives of Savarino Companies. I have reviewed the Preliminary Structural Observation report by Tredo Engineers, dated July 6, 2012, as well as the Local Landmark Nomination documents prepared by Kerry Traynor, KTA Preservation Specialists. I agree with Tredo Engineers' general assessment of the structural condition, however I disagree with the recommended demolition. While I recognize the risk and security issues of the current facility condition, it is my professional opinion that the structure can be stabilized and protected by performing selective demolition and salvage operations; structural shoring and bracing of the remaining structure; enclosure of exposed portions of walls and roof; and securing the waterside exposure. The Erie Freight House is the last extant example of an early (c1868) transshipment facility. The significance of the building is well documented. It's heavy timber and truss structure is mostly intact. The process of repair and renovation can be one that enriches the historical interpretation of the site, while simultaneously building local capacity for specialty restoration construction. This structure has great potential as a community waterside attraction and mixed-use development, providing neighborhood employment opportunities. We are aware of a group looking at a non-profit development model that is interested in acquiring and renovating the building. We hereby recommend against the demolition of this important and salvageable heritage structure."
Think it can't be done? Search Google images for "Renovated Freight Houses" and you'll see "about 978,000" images of adaptive reuses of freight houses all around the country. It's done all the time. Consider this recent example:
Foss Waterway Seaport:
Construction is currently underway for the historic rehabilitation and adaptive re-use of Foss Waterway Seaport, Tacoma's premier maritime heritage, education and recreation center. The new 40,000 square foot public facility will feature an expanded heritage museum, compelling indoor program spaces, docks and floats for recreational and educational boating, and public open spaces for events, festivals and casual activities. The improvements will make the Seaport the largest maritime heritage and education center on the West Coast, with spaces for families, students and entire communities to discover, explore, work and play with on-the-water activities.
On January 10th, 2012 the Buffalo Common Council approved the nomination of the Erie Freight House as a designated city landmark. Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBN) would like to reinforce this informed decision that was made by the means of direct public participation. The Local Landmark status provides the highest level of protection for historically significant assets in our community, and ensures meaningful public participation in the future of said resources. The circa 1868 Erie Freight House located at 9 South Street is considered to be the only extant freight warehouse building in the city associated with the Erie Canal and historic railway companies along the Buffalo River. Freight houses are a building type that once dominated the banks of the Buffalo River, and the Erie Freight House is the last surviving example. For more information, visit www.preservationbuffaloniagara.org
It's worth saving.