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.
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!