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Innovate Trico: Thinking Outside the Box

This month a print article (Trico Biz First Sept 2012.pdf) in Buffalo Business First has been causing some acid reflux in preservation circles.  The article is about a growing urgency to expand BNMC’s Innovation Center (what the article refers to as “Innovation Center Two”), and it extensively quotes BNMC President Patrick Whalen.  Now who could be anything but delighted at the idea that the Innovation Center is experiencing bursting-at-the-seams growth?  That’s not the source of the dyspepsia.  Rather, that the article appears to turn the clock back on much mutual progress that — so the preservation community thought — had been quietly made this year on adaptive reuse of the Trico Building.  Seeming to fly in the face of that progress, the overwhelming theme of the article is that the Innovation Center must expand, in the very near future, to the space currently occupied by the Trico Building.  Whether into, or onto, that space is left somewhat to interpretation — yet the overwhelming sense is a call for demolition.

As you well know if you check Buffalo Rising, Artvoice, or preservation-oriented blogs on even a casual basis, in the spring the perhaps pending demolition of the Trico Building exploded onto the radar screen of the community.  This came on the heels of the breakdown of an initial Roundtable of discussions on options for the building.  The resulting firestorm of statements, articles, organizing, public meetings, and public hearings were not just community catharsis but also initiated a community conversation about a new, broader vision of how the Trico Building, where so much industrial-era innovation took place, could contribute anew to a fresh round of future-building community innovation.

SaveTricoLogo.jpgOne result was that the Trico Roundtable was reconstituted to take a fresh look at Trico adaptive reuse.  What was really possible and feasible, and to what degree?  And at what cost?

Although I am a participant in the reconstituted Roundtable, in all that participation I’m also very careful to figuratively take off my Buffalo Rising/Artvoice hat.  So, for example, I haven’t shared internal Roundtable emails with either publication, and in writing an article such as this I’m careful to make sure that what I write is not based on any confidential, internal Roundtable information.  Rather, it’s informed by what I would call “word on the street” (and if you doubt how much of that Buffalo Rising writers hear, check out these two recent articles from just this month), and publicly available information.

And both of those sources paint a picture of a reconstituted Trico Roundtable that has made great strides over the summer toward developing and evaluating feasible options that completely or maximally preserve the Trico Building — while also meeting the needs and aspirations of BNMC and its Innovation Center client-tenants.  That progress gave
the preservation community hope that the days of these ambiguous
statements hinting at, or as we saw in the spring, outright announcing
plans to demolish all or part of the building were in the past.  The community was looking forward to a report this month (the article states mid-September).  But the Business First article raises new questions — or, perhaps more accurately, re-raises old ones.

It discusses BNMC seeking $300,000 in planning funds for a “site-neutral design study” for Innovation Center Two.  But the last paragraph, especially, leaves little doubt that BNMC is still eyeing Trico demolition, in quoting BNMC President Patrick Whalen:

The study is not site-specific, but the hope is to build next door.  Demolition of the Trico Building would enable that, [Whalen] said.

“We’re not crazy demolition guys just tearing down the building for the heck of it,” Whalen said.  “We don’t need another parking lot here.  What we need is space for early-stage companies to develop.”

Yet the quotes in the article still contain enough ambiguity to leave the reader uncertain whether they represent a clear indication that BNMC is reasserting its intentions evinced earlier this year to demolish all or some of the Trico Building.  In that respect, it’s
certainly not the first news item that
has been ambiguous on this score.  Such ambiguity, in fact, seems to have been more often than not part of news stories about expansion of the Innovation
Center, when referring to the possibilities of expanding next door at the site of the Trico Building (perhaps more
properly, “Plant 1” as the Innovation Center is actually located
in a relatively more modern addition to the former Trico complex).  Just a year ago, in fact, Buffalo Rising highlighted this ambiguity in reporting on a Senator Schumer press conference announcing expansion of the Innovation Center.  And as far back as the month I moved to
Buffalo (spring, 2009), on a hardhat tour
of the Innovation Center then still under construction, I received
conflicting answers on plans for the main Trico Building next door.  The
answers were consistent only in that they set the pattern for what I would hear
over the next few years: no one would say on the record what plans were
for it, but on the QT it was always, ultimately,

Despite this alarming re-emergence of demolition talk, the article actually contains quite a bit of good news about growth and spinoff economic development based on proximity to the medical campus.  According to the article, the Innovation Center currently houses “about 40 companies” in 100,000+ square feet.  Among companies that have recently expanded or are looking to expand include, according to Business First:

OncoMed Pharmaceuticals recently added 5,000 square feet, housing pharmacists and a “mini call center.”

Mobile Healthcare Connections, Inc. leased 1,100 square feet on top of the the 7,000 square feet they have under construction on the first floor, including pharmacy operations, a call center, and meeting space.

Immco Diagnostics will move its serology labs to the Innovation Center from Amherst.  It has an option for another 3,300 square feet for pending out-of-state acquisitions.

Ceno Technologies, Inc. will be moving into 2,000 square feet long-term, from smaller, rented space in the building.

While not mentioned by Business First, earlier this year, Buffalo Rising covered the move of Wynn Creative Group to 1,650 square feet in the Innovation Center, noting that, “While not in the fields of medicine or science, Wynne Creative Group leaders believe their design firm fits perfectly within the culture of the campus.”

In addition to “the culture of the campus,” other reasons cited by the companies for wanting to locate and grow at BNMC, according to Business First, include proximity to Roswell Park and UB.  Specifically, the article quotes OncoMed CEO Burt Zweigenhaft.  A UB graduate, he is shifting back-office operations to Buffalo.  He is also discussing a residency track for students of UB School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.  He told Business First that he “hopes to find 70,000 square feet in the region.”

This is all good, right?  These kinds of academic/business synergies and partnerships have led universities, communities, and even states around the nation to establish facilities and programs like BNMC’s Innovation Center.  Translating these synergies into economic development and growth is pure gold in an economically challenged region that otherwise doesn’t rise to the top in the largely metrics-based business site selection criteria.  And never more than right now: over the weekend the Buffalo News reported that the Buffalo-Niagara Enterprise is looking at a notably weak year in terms of business recruitment.

At last year’s Accelerate Upstate conference in Buffalo, which I covered for Artvoice, several panelists reinforced the idea that nurturing and growing existing businesses is just as important to regional business growth as traditional business recruitment that involves coming out on top in the site selection game.  And at the Innovation Center we have businesses that want to be here and want to grow here.  That certainly reinforces the idea of regional clustering being widely promoted by the Brookings Institution, which is advising our regional economic development council.  So this is what we want, right?

But all that portrayal of bursting-at-the-seams growth casts in a disturbing light quotes from OncoMed’s Zweigenhaft and BNMC’s Whalen that imply, if not state outright, that preservation of the Trico Building is an impediment to this growth:

“We really hope the Trico Building will be a long-term solution, but it’s still up in the air right now,” [Zweigenhaft] said.  “As we grow, we’re trying to anchor the company and headquarters in Buffalo.  It’s a great place to grow and create jobs.” [Although his statement is ambiguous as to how the Trico Building represents a “solution,” context seems to make clear the implication: demolition.]

And that’s the problem, Whalen said.  Companies are growing but there’s no definite answer on whether they’ll be able to grow in place.  BNMC’s preferred plan is to build on the site of the adjacent Trico Building. [Again: demolition.]

Unfortunately, these quotes represent a recrudescence of the false dichotomy that was portrayed to the community in the spring, when the issue of preservation of the Trico Building flared up: the notion for the Innovation Center to expand, all or part of the Trico Building needs to be demolished.  In the spring, various reasons — and variations on reasons — were cited at several community meetings that were held.  The building would cost too much to reuse, interior configuration of floors and columns wouldn’t accommodate laboratory modules, certain laboratory space could simply not be located in a building that had once been environmentally contaminated, no matter how extensive the remediation — all were averred by BNMC.

Termini.jpgImage credit: Queenseyes

But the Buffalo preservation community, including a number of professional developers who have extensive experience with adaptive reuse projects, made an extremely good showing, I thought, in addressing these concerns point-by-point.  Personally, I was especially impressed with the presentations at the community meeting hosted by the Campaign for Greater Buffalo, which went overboard to lay out a vision for how reuse of the Trico Building could greatly enhance the medical campus, the Innovation Center, and the neighborhood.  Such constructive input, backed up by widespread concern for preserving Buffalo’s heritage, led to the important outcome that the Trico Roundtable was reconstituted and went back to the drawing board.

Yet the Business First article suggests a going backward on that progress, like being set back a step after taking two forward.  They also raise the possibility that BNMC, after at least appearing to cooperate with the reconstituted Trico Roundtable and the adaptive reuse study, may now be signaling to community opinion leaders that it is backing away from its commitment to support adaptive reuse and let the study process play out.  And moreover, the appearance of these quotes in Business First  suggest a signal to the business community that may be understandably concerned about the previously mentioned slowdown in recruitment and eager to take hold of anything that smells like potential growth.

The article could also be taken as an indicator that BNMC may be playing the economic development card in its private discussions with community leaders — again, based on the false dichotomy that the Innovation Center can only be expanded where the Trico Building sits, and that adaptive reuse simply won’t meet the needs of some of its clients.  Such a position would be essentially equivalent to stating that the Trico Building is a barrier to progress and growth, and raising the spectre, so often raised in preservation debates, of a loss of economic opportunity if we don’t quickly give a particular entity exactly what it wants when it wants it.  In fact, the article openly states:

“It’s really important to this community that we get going on Innovation Center Two or the next company that grows here is going to go somewhere else,” [Whalen] said.  “We’re trying to compete with free
space elsewhere and we’ve been doing it pretty well, but if we don’t have it to offer, these companies are going to leave.”

I have no doubt that some will cry foul over this article.  Some will wag their fingers at BNMC saying that they’re just paying lip service to adaptive reuse of Trico at the Roundtable, all the while paving the way for demolition away from the Roundtable.  Others will say “I told you so.”  I can sympathize with all that.

But to my mind, more than anything the article betrays BNMC as guilty a far larger and far more serious sin: a lack of vision so severe that it not only can’t see the big picture, but apparently can’t see past the single big tree it’s obsessed with chopping down to realize that it’s in a forest.  It’s right here in this quote from BNMC President Whalen:

We are finding many of the life science companies do business with each other,” he said.  “Those entrepreneurs have a built-in support system in the building.  The building is designed so that they run into each other.”

The implication that the Innovation Center can only accommodate the needs of its clients if it expands all under one roof is not only an unhelpful element to inject at this point, but in my view entirely misses the opportunity to see a far-bigger picture — and far-better opportunity — that is staring us in the face.  It’s the height of irony that the very folks who brought us the Innovation Center are hidebound by the idea that everything must be within four walls — especially considering that everyone’s favorite innovation metaphor is “thinking outside the box.”  To borrow the term President Obama coined (apparently) in his DNC acceptance speech, they seem to be stuck in a demolition “mindwarp.”

TricoReconfigured.jpgImage credit: Nicholas Tyler Miller

Yes, there may be some client needs that can only be met through new-build construction.  But even much of that could actually be new-build construction within the shell of an extensively reconfigured Trico Building (note the reconfiguration proposals by Nicholas Tyler Miller shown on Buffalo Rising this year — options that have been successfully used elsewhere).  But entirely new construction can be accommodated right across Ellicott Street from Trico, for example, on a quintessential  “shovel-ready” site.  Such new construction can even be linked across (or under) Ellicott — just like the Hauptman-Woodward Research Institute is linked to Roswell Park labs with a skybridge so that materials can be transferred under controlled conditions.  New construction across Ellicott Street from Trico would displace existing surface parking, yes, but that can be accommodated through structured options that may be required anyway as BNMC grows.

BNMCSkywalk.jpgImage credit: Queenseyes

Other communities that are expanding facilities like our Innovation Center into “innovation campuses” are using a mix of adaptive reuse of existing (and in many cases, large, former industrial) buildings and new builds.  In at least one example the existing buildings and new-builds are connected.  And right here in Buffalo the Larkin District provides a great example of a vibrant, urban, mixed-use and mixed-construction environment that is already successfully incubating and growing businesses both within Larkin Development Corporation facilities and also those of other developers and businesses that have chosen to locate and invest nearby.  People connect and interact in the Larkin District not because they’re all contained in one building, but because they are all in the same district and share some campus-like, high-quality common facilities and amenities.  And folks in the Larkin District are very conscious of being part of a whole that’s greater than the sum of its great parts.

LarkinSquareRendering.jpgImage credit: Larkin Development Group

In a short series of articles of which this is the first, I’m going to explore these ideas a bit more.  I appreciate your willingness to check out some writing that may be a bit longer and perhaps more opinionated than the norm.  I look forward to checking out your views — perhaps also long and opinionated — in the comments.

Next up: Nebraska’s nascent Innovation Campus will have a facilities mix of new builds and adaptive reuse of large, historic buildings.

PLEASE NOTE: the opinionated opinions I opine are strictly my own, and do not represent the views of the Trico Roundtable.

Written by RaChaCha


RaChaCha is a Garbage Plate™ kid making his way in a Chicken Wing world. Since 2008, he's put over a hundred articles on here, and he asked us to be sure to thank you for reading. So, thank you for reading. You may also have seen his freelance byline in Artvoice, where he writes under the name his daddy gave him [Ed: Send me a check, and I might reveal what that is]. When he's not writing, RaChaCha is an urban planner, a rehabber of houses, and a community builder. He co-founded the Buffalo Mass Mob, and would love to see you at the next one. He represents Buffalo Young Preservationists on the Trico roundtable. If you try to demolish a historic building, he might have something to say about that. He is a proud AmeriCorps alum.

Things you may not know about RaChaCha (unless you read this before): "Ra Cha Cha" is a nickname of his hometown. (Didn't you know that? Do you live under a rock?) He's a political junkie (he once worked for the president of the Monroe County Legislature), but we don't really let him write about politics on here. He helped create a major greenway in the Genesee Valley, and worked on early planning for the Canalway Trail. He hopes you enjoy biking and hiking on those because that's what he put in all that work for. He was a ringleader of the legendary "Chill the Fill" campaign to save Rochester's old downtown subway tunnel. In fact, he comes from a long line of troublemakers. An ancestor fought at Bunker Hill, and a relative led the Bear Flag Revolt in California. We advise you to remember this before messing with him in the comments. He worked on planning the Rochester ARTWalk, and thinks Buffalo should have one of those, too (write your congressman).

You can also find RaChaCha (all too often, we frequently nag him) on the Twitters at @HeyRaChaCha. Which is what some people here yell when they see him on the street. You know who you are.

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