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Central Terminal Changes Tracks

Buffalo didn’t have to ask Canadian Developer Harry Stinson how he really felt about the Central Terminal Restoration Corporation’s sudden jump to another development track, announced Friday afternoon in a press release. While some have said openly — and to me privately — that they saw this coming months ago, clearly the Stinson team didn’t. As recently as last month, Stinson told The Buffalo News that he expected not only his preferred developer status to be renewed, but an outright purchase of the complex was in the offing.

What a difference a day makes.

TWC/Spectrum characterized Stinson’s reaction as  “disappointed, disillusioned, blindsided.” Stinson told their reporter, “There was a purchase agreement that we had discussed and negotiated for the last several weeks. We had no response to our question, ‘is there anything that we need to do? Are there any problems?’ No, no, no. And then…wham!” Also, “We had a builder on board. I’d been raising funds among my own investor group here. We were ready to go. Very much ready to go.”

To WBEN, Stinson said, “As recently as a few weeks ago as part of the train station process, CTRC issued a letter that said we had an agreement in principle,” Stinson said. “It was just a matter of finalizing the actual legal documents and the purchase. That was, to our knowledge, the status of it.”

WKBW’s Ashley Rowe tweeted (@AshleyRoweWKBW), “Stinson says his team spoke w/ Central Terminal BoD hours ago. No mention that they wouldnt be renewing developer agreement #CentralTerminal” and “Stinson says Central Terminal Restoration Corp’s decision to kill development plan is “completely contrary to the discussions we have had.”

But he saved his most heated remarks for the Buffalo News, which reported that Stinson told them,

As recently as this morning, there were phone conversations with CTRC without even an inkling that this was going to happen.” And, “I heard about this from a press release. I was responding to media calls before I even knew what had happened. It was a questionable way of doing business.” And, “I think it’s political. I think our proposal was viewed as disposable for other reasons. And now their solution is a study.

The News elaborated, ‘Stinson said he thought all of the attention on the Central Terminal during the train station debate may have influenced the board’s decision.’

However, there may have been a clue Friday morning. As an insider pointed out to me, Channel 2 aired an extensive and exclusive Daybreak story featuring reporter Melissa Holmes taking an insider’s tour of the Central Terminal. The tour included an interview with Congressman Brian Higgins in the concourse. Notably missing from the story, especially in retrospect, is any mention of the Stinson redevelopment proposal. Or, for that matter any hint of the news to come just hours later.

And the very same Buffalo News article from exactly two weeks before contains all the tea leaves necessary to have a good idea what was coming, if one cared to put them together into a complete picture. It was all there: concerns about Stinson’s track record as a developer; a cautionary note about placing what is now, essentially, a community resource into private hands; and praise for Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) role in helping Buffalo get on the right track on other major redevelopment efforts. It seems the train’s whistle blew a warning two weeks before the collision.

Steve Fitzmaurice (foreground) sits with Stinson at City Hall at the January train station hearing

Interestingly, none of the media stories to date have included quotes from local members of Harry Stinson’s team, which includes Steve Fitzmaurice, the well-respected, longtime property manager for the HSBC Tower who now teaches in the new Real Estate Development program at the UB School of Architecture and Planning; and Developer Doug Swift, who joined the team earlier this year. 

But Fitzmaurice told me:

We assembled quite a team for this effort. In addition to Harry and myself, Doug Swift joined us as a partner. Carmina Wood Morris was our architect and heritage consultant. Adam Walters of Phillips Lytle and Steve Weiss of Cannon Heyman Weiss were our legal team. LiRo Engineers was our environmental consultant. Waterbourne Construction Advisors was responsible for construction management and cost projections. Freed Maxick was our accounting firm. Bolton St. Johns was our strategic consultant. That’s a pretty impressive local team. Lastly, Cohn Reznick out of Boston was our Historic Tax Credit consultant. They put together the overwhelming majority of Historic Tax Credit Syndications nationally. We were confident that with this team we could take on this daunting task and succeed.

In the end, even that impressive lineup simply may not have been enough to overcome concerns about Stinson and his ability to perform that were a kind of open secret. Speaking strictly for myself, I’ve been hearing about some of those concerns for months, from credible sources. Yet statements that have been made so far, for example by the CTRC, Congressman Brian Higgins, and Howard Zemsky, have carefully avoided directly criticizing Stinson or his team.

In CTRC’s statement to the media, on which they have said little to elaborate in live interviews, board chair Jim Hycner said,

We would like to thank Harry Stinson and his team for the work they put in over the last 12 months and the passion they have for the Central Terminal. We feel at this time that it’s in the best interest of the building, our members and volunteers and our East Side neighbors to pursue a different direction for the ultimate redevelopment of the Central Terminal.

CTRC board member John Jiloty gave a similar statement to WBFO, thanking Stinson and his team, adding, “The passion they have for the project and the work they put in over the past 12 months is truly appreciated. It was one of those things that, after ongoing discussions, we weren’t really on the same page, in terms of direction and where we wanted to head.”

However, some statements reported by the media have referred to local control and ownership of the Central Terminal, indicating that local leaders may have had a concern about turning over the complex to an out-of-town developer — especially without having a foundational land use study incorporating community vision, which is exactly what ULI has provided for other major redevelopment efforts in Buffalo. For example, Congressman Brian Higgins told Buffalo Business First (subscriber content),

CTRC’s decision to maintain full ownership rights to the Central Terminal and pursue a relationship with the Urban Land Institute is fantastic news that will keep this landmark in responsible, local hands and provide this community with good information about future use of the site that is in the best interests of the Central Terminal and the surrounding neighborhood,” said Higgins. “The Urban Land Institute has a great record of accomplishment here in Western New York and around the world.

About the upcoming ULI study, so far there are not many details. CTRC’s John Jiloty told Spectrum/TWC, “We’ll be looking at the land, the property here, they’re really going to be able to analyze both sides of that from the land to the property to the history to the neighborhood, and really everything going on around here. Figuring out what is the best use of the space is.”

Buffalo Developer Howard Zemsky, head of Empire State Development, told the Buffalo News,

I take my hat off to the Central Terminal Board for changing gears and beginning a planning process with the Urban Land Institute,” Zemsky said. “It’s an important step in the journey ahead toward adaptive reuse of the terminal. We have obviously seen this work successfully at Richardson. Having a broad-based community planning process which results in a consensus going forward plan is an important step to raising funds from individuals, foundations and government.

Dave Stebbins of BUDC knows more than a thing or two about how ULI works, given his involvement in ULI’s WNY satellite organization. He told me the study “will be conducted by the national Advisory Service Panel team.  This is something that has been worked out between CTRC and ULI, with support from ESD and the City.”

We also know the cost of the study, pegged at $135,000. That’s right in the middle of the range of other ULI studies I’m familiar with, that have cost between $100,000 and $150,000. According to the Buffalo News, $100,000 of the cost will be split between the City of Buffalo and Empire State Development. The remaining $35,000, the News reports, will come from a “grant in the institute’s possession.” But Spectrum/TWC reported that the $35,000 would come from “the corporation,” presumably meaning funds raised by the CTRC. Perhaps the CTRC secured a grant for that amount. If so, the source of that grant hasn’t yet been reported.

About that joint City and State funding package, coming shortly after the joint City and State process declined to select the Central Terminal as the location for a new train station in Buffalo, a former CTRC board member characterized it to me, in his opinion, as a “consolation prize.”

Since Friday, speculation has run rampant about how this decision came about and why. Perhaps the underwriters of the ULI study made their funding contingent on the designated developer status not being renewed. Perhaps the CTRC board had long harbored concerns about Stinson’s ability to perform, but had been reluctant to unplug what had been their only lifeline, when the renewed show of community support made them feel safe in cutting the cord.

There has also been speculation about whether Friday’s news really marks the end of Stinson’s involvement with the Central Terminal. Perhaps not. He told WBEN that “he will continue to pursue development in Western New York,” although what happened on Friday “put a cloud over the experience.” Spectrum/TWC’s report concluded, “Stinson may be down for the count, but he’s not giving up. Stinson told us he remains fascinated by the historic structure, and may revisit plans after the [ULI] study.” And this morning Stinson team member Steve Fitzmaurice told me, “Our team is assembling information to be able to respond to this about-face.”

When asked to comment, Stinson simply said:

Well, our position is:

1) It’s not over yet

2) we are not giving up

3) the plot thickens!

Stay tuned.

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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  • Flyguy2pt0

    Richardson is a success from a preservation standpoint yes but I would say its way too early to determine whether anything ULI plans for is a success unless it can financially support itself, maintain itself, ideally contribute positively to the tax base. All that preservation needs to be maintained, heated, grounds kept, etc. At the end of the day the Central Terminal needs a boatload of upfront money to reinvent itself and overcome its rough surroundings. I don’t think ULI offers that. The government ought not be in the developer business either. Govt role should focus on critical infrastructure such as roads, utilities, streetscape. Cutting the station off from rail further damages its chances. At some point a developer must be brought into this process unless WNY wants to subsidize another project with an already stressed tax base.

    • JKR

      What? The Terminal is infrastructure however my definition of “infrastructure” is much greater than just the roads.

      • Flyguy2pt0

        The tax base ought not keep subsidizing these projects. Too much money falls from trees view on saving and building everything. There is a difference between public infrastructure and infrastructure that ought to be built, revitalized, and supported via private means. There simply isnt enough money to go around. CT needs a private developer with a bunch of money. The public sector could help support that developer by establishing clear plans complementing the terminal within a larger network whether it be land use connections or public transit. The only public investment that would have made sense was a light rail and amtrak connection into the building provided it sat in line between downtown, larkinville, buffalo airport, and more aggressively up through the tonawandas, niagara falls airport and niagara falls downtown. I doubt CT can stand on its own to make its way financially unless it fits within a larger connected plan between downtown, larkinville, the airport. Time to start building a tax base instead of spending tax dollars to artificially support these projects.

        • JKR

          Let’s just build more roads.

  • Matthew Ricchiazzi

    Really dodged a bullet with Stinson. Big congratulations to the CTRC for having the foresight.

    • Johnny Pizza

      Yeah because you seem to have a great internal compass to determine good from bad.

  • eagercolin

    I think key stakeholders finally saw that picture of his ill-fitting pants and came to their senses.

  • jonny99


  • Johnny Pizza

    Every time we pay these “expert consultants” they come back and propose exactly what everyone knew would be proposed (see HSBC tower where they said “its going to have to be mixed use” – no shit Sherlock)

    • 300miles

      Unfortunately you’re right. Their boilerplate conclusions will probably also mention a public subsidy along with private development will be required, which is another no-brainer.

      • OldFirstWard

        In a nutshell, Stinson got Zemskyed.

        The road to redemption is paved with a new non-profit and hand picked figure head. After the consultant reports come in, the public “fact finding” meetings will begin with the “what do you want to see” at the Central Terminal with Robert Shibley moderating while colorful placards of a new hotel space surround the crowd as a suggestive hint. Then more meetings and comments destined for the micro shredder then…you know the drill by now.

        • Chris Schmidt

          Don’t forget the sticky notes and facilitated small group breakout session then reporting back to the larger group on the table’s priorities/ideas! Nice gig Shibley has spun.

    • Ra Cha Cha

      I’d love to see Buffalo do these things with our own resources and expertise. And personally, I’d love to be part of doing it.

      • Johnny Pizza

        Right? UB has a new Real Estate Development program full of students who could probably put together this type of case study with far less resources.

  • Vandra

    If this guy couldn’t redevelop the Hotel Niagara for all those years, I don’t think he had a real shot at making this work. I think there would be too much to lose if he failed. Better to wait and do it right than try to force something that’s not ready.

    • JKR

      You try and develop NF and see how far you get. Yes, there are those powers that be whom like NF just the way it is complete with sea of shabby hotels and motels. This is what happens when the region lets “neighborhood developers” handle big time development. They will keep conditions mediocre. Too many ‘outsiders’ try classing up NF our local keep WNY miserable lobby will come out the woodwork and hamper any efforts to boss up the region.

  • foreverbflo

    Tough decision. I regret that they blind sided the Stinson team, absolutely. But pursuing a different direction and the ULI flavor…. is the right move and a tough decision was made for the better.

  • FreedomCM

    (I want to parenthetically praise RaChaCha’s quality writing, a nice addition!)

    • OldFirstWard

      Unfortunately, brevity was on vacation.

    • Ra Cha Cha

      Thank you! (I want to parenthetically remind Queenseyes that I’m overdue for a raise.)

  • Andy Wulf

    Good riddance. No more Bashar Issas.

  • Michael DiPasquale

    I’ve spend many days cleaning up the CT site. I think this is a great move. If Stinson had the capacity to save this building, he would have done something by now. Better to cut our losses and move on. There are plenty of other properties that Stinson can develop if he wants to.

  • JKR

    If people just want the Terminal to be just another great place to hold events and have weddings then who really needs an Amtrak stop? Last thing the CT needs to become is just another beer garden. I question what do people really want out of the Terminal beyond walking amongst the ruin porn. Someday I feel as if I’m living in one huge national park complete with tourist attractions and various wildlife. Gawd forbid somebody proposes using the Central Terminal for what it was designed to do, move commercial activity from beyond downtown. I guess only the Medical Campus can do that, everywhere else prepare for another beer garden.

    • BuffaloGals

      Damn those breweries reviving beautiful old buildings.

  • Christopher Caughell
  • Aaron

    Questions: 1) How long has Stinson had the rights to CT? 2) Didn’t Stinson have the Hotel Niagara for years and never did anything with it? 3) What projects has ULI been involved in as far as WNY? i would like to know more.