What a day Thursday was. I’ve been to some long public meetings in my life, but never, ever one that took nearly six hours. It’s a testament to Buffalo’s passion for community planning and passion for trains. And, for many, a display of their passion for the Central Terminal.
This public hearing of the Buffalo Train Station Site Selection Committee was actually a reschedule from a month ago, when we had a snowstorm. You remember snow?
The action actually got started a half-hour early, with a rally in Niagara Square calling for the new train station to be located at the old train station, the Central Terminal. It was organized by advocates for Buffalo’s Polonia (Broadway-Fillmore) neighborhood, like Forgotten Buffalo and Dyngus Day co-founder, “Airborne Eddy” Dobisziewicz. I didn’t arrive in time to see the rally, but Councilman David Franczyk told me it wasn’t terribly well attended. But still: a rally in Buffalo not against tearing a building down, but in support of rehabbing a building, is something of a man-bites-dog story.
Participants in the rally interviewed by WBFO made a case for the Central Terminal based primarily on community revitalization and redevelopment, and love for the building and the neighborhood around it. There would be a lot of that on display over the next six hours.
And inside, there was yet another preliminary before the hearings got underway: a press conference where Mayor Brown said the new train station would be a “towering beacon” for Buffalo. Was that a tip of the hand in support of the Central Terminal?
Council President Darius Pridgen gaveled the meeting to order, before turning The Big Chair over to Mayor Brown. Apparently it’s very unusual for a Buffalo mayor to preside over a meeting in the Council chamber — separation of powers, and all. I suppose that’s true. I don’t recall ever seeing it.
The mayor welcomed the large crowd, and then turned the proceedings, and The Big Chair, over to the chair of the committee, Robert Shibley, Dean of the UB School of Architecture and Planning. Selecting Dean Shibley to head the effort was a solid decision by Mayor Brown, in my view. For several decades, Shibley and his faculty and students have been studying Buffalo and using the city as a learning laboratory for urban planning. Shibley and the school played a major role in the community engagement work on Green Code, the Regional Economic Development Plan, and One Region Forward. They also developed two other foundational planning documents for Buffalo: Queen City Hub and Queen City Waterfront. I believe those efforts laid essential groundwork for Buffalo’s success in Regional Economic Development Council competitions, and the Buffalo Billion. It’s a story that I think has yet to be fully told, although the Buffalo News’ arts writer Colin Dabkowski captured the essence in his piece, It’s Robert Shibley’s City; We’re Just Living in It.
Let me further editorialize by saying that in addition to his experience, Shibley brings a unique, essential outlook to this process where passions are running high in favor of one option or another, as evidenced by the rally: in my observation, he doesn’t think in either/or, but in both/and. If, in the end, the committee finds merit not just in Central Terminal vs. Canalside vs. Larkinville vs. Exchange Street, but perhaps in some approach that seeks the best of all worlds, that would be classic Shibley. Whatever ultimately comes out of this committee, it will be well-considered, articulately reasoned, and accepted.
Shibley started by introducing a consultant from WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, which the New York State Department of Transportation retained to provide technical services to the committee. “They are essentially charged with answering the questions that need data support to make a good decision,” Shibley told the Buffalo News. Parsons-Brinckerhoff has a well-established practice in intermodal station planning and design.
Shibley then introduced the committee members, most of whom, Governor Cuomo excepted, attended in person rather than through representatives. The names and backgrounds of the members are here. Some of them had to come and go (Mark Poloncarz, for example, had to duck out for a press conference on the opioid epidemic), but most stayed throughout.
That done, Shibley began to call speakers. When I arrived, I was told that 36 speakers had signed up by the deadline, and the entire hearing was expected to go three hours. That was based on an estimate of three minutes per speaker, although up to ten minutes was allowed. Three hours! It was hard to believe. But who knew it would go nearly six?
First off the bat was Councilman Franczyk, who pointed out that all of the proposed station locations are in his district. But make no mistake: he’s an unabashed Central Terminal partisan. He remarked that, at one time, the community seemed to have drawn a “cordon sanitaire” round the Broadway/Fillmore neighborhood. But he sees that changing, and a renewed interest in the Central Terminal as part of that change. Franczyk also poured some cold water on the claim that a Larkinville location could provide service for westbound trains, by pointing out that the south/west rail connection through Larkinville is a “compromise,” freight-only track.
Next up was Assemblyman Sean Ryan, who talked thoughtfully about all the options. He prefers the Central Terminal option, in part because he doesn’t like the proposed Canalside option on the Aud block. He wants the Aud block, one of the most important locations in the city, reserved for privately funded commercial development, rather than a publicly funded project. I talked with him after his remarks, opining that if the Donovan Building hadn’t been reused the way it was, it would be hands-down the single best option for an intermodal station, given its location at the crossing of MetroRail and the Belt Line. He agreed with me, saying that he was one of those suggesting that reuse at the time, and was strongly opposed to turning the building over to Benderson.
But right after Ryan, the Canalside option got a big boost from Tim Tielman, who gave a presentation about his intermodal station proposal that has been in the media recently, and here. It was a high-energy presentation.
Tielman talked about how he and other preservationists formerly associated with the Preservation Coalition played key roles in the early stages of the preservation of the Central Terminal. And later, how they also played key roles in the battle for canalside. It is vital for the city, Tielman said, that both of those places be properly revitalized: the Central Terminal via adaptive reuse, and the Aud block at Canalside via mixed-use redevelopment. But he doesn’t believe either location is right for an intermodal station. Rather, he is proposing a new station on Washington Street, on the other side of the tracks from the current Exchange Street station.
Tielman’s presentation, much of which is reflected in this Buffalo Rising article tied his concept to the surrounding district, which from earliest Buffalo has been the crossroads of the city and the region. Tielman also makes the case that the decision needs to be about connecting people to places, not a building, and needs to be about intermodalism, not just rail. He noted that the location is directly adjacent to intercity rail, rail transit, bus, street grid, and even interstate highway.
I had to duck out shortly after Tielman’s presentation, but caught part of the following presentation, which also appeared to be about putting an intermodal station in the “crossroads” area (inset left).
I had a meeting in the Larkin District, throughout which, ironically, I could see a fog-enshrouded Central Terminal out the window. Or was the Central Terminal watching me? In a very real sense, the Central Terminal dominated much of the day.
And the Central Terminal certainly dominated the hearing. When I returned, it was to hear speaker after speaker hug the Central Terminal, and refuse to let go. While I was gone, I missed hearing Michael Billoni, whose remarks we recently posted.
In attendance, carefully taking it all in, was Harry Stinson, currently designated developer for the Central Terminal. Close by was Steve Fitzmaurice, former property manager for One Seneca Tower, now teaching real estate development at UB, and advising Stinson.
But despite all the Central Terminal hugging on display, Tim Tielman was far from the only voice at the hearing calling for a downtown location. As WBFO reported, Central Terminal supporters see the opening of a new train station as a catalyst for other development. However, another school of thought emerged in Thursday’s public hearing as well. It’s the thought that a train station would make more sense where destinations — and visitors — already exist. That, said other speakers, is in downtown Buffalo.
“I was very impressed with the presentations,” said Douglas Funke, President of Citizens for Regional Transit. “They were, in general, well thought out and very informative. We have a lot to chew on and a difficult decision process ahead. The committee has set out 5 location options, three near Canalside, Larkinville, and Central Terminal. I guess we could suggest more if we felt a need. The speakers made a lot of good points, both in favor and against, each of the options that we will have to weigh. As one speaker, Bruce Becker, pointed out, one key decision we will have make as part of the process is whether Buffalo should have one or two stations. I think this is a key decision we will have to make. We at CRT are looking forward to contributing to the process. We did take a short 20 minute break for a sandwich lunch that was provided.”
Among the entities backing a downtown station are the Buffalo Sabres and HarborCenter. Michael Gilbert, executive vice president for the Sabres and General Manager of HarborCenter, represented the institutions in City Hall.
“There’s a resurgence in downtown. Canalside and some of the other areas,” Gilbert said. “For people to come into downtown on a train, get on the light rail and go to some of the other destinations, we feel strongly that that’s the best location for the growth of Buffalo.”
Gilbert went on to say, “We’re actively trying to get other NCAA events here in Buffalo in years to come. We’d love to be able to say ‘hey, there’s a train station downtown to help move the people around.'”
The Buffalo News also reported that the Empire State Passenger Association told the committee that rail passengers want to be downtown.
Closing out nearly six hours of speakers was the great Eva Doyle (photo – inset), who has written a regular column on African-American history — without missing a week, she likes to point out — for the Buffalo Criterion for a very long time. Her columns are a reliably good read, and I’ve often heard her lectures and presentations. She talked about how, as a child growing up in Buffalo, she would depart from the Central Terminal to spend summers with her grandparents in the Jim Crow south.
From Cincinnati they would head south on the Humming Bird, the fast, flagship streamliner of the Louisiana & Nashville Railroad. But once in the south, African-American passengers would have to ride a creaky, older train. She would start seeing the “whites only” and “colored only” signs — a jarring introduction to segregation. She also talked about the role the Pullman Porters and the Red Caps played in helping to lay the groundwork for civil rights. She would like to see a permanent display created at the Central Terminal to tell stories like these. Whether the Central Terminal becomes “the” Buffalo train station or not, I agree with her wholeheartedly.
Because I was away for much of the hearing, I don’t know if the committee ever got a break. If not, most of them were in their seats listening and taking notes for nearly six hours straight. For that alone, we owe the committee and its chair, Dean Shibley, a hearty thank you.
If you couldn’t attend, but want to binge-watch the six-hour marathon, pop some popcorn and navigate to video of the hearing at the link below.
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