Following tours and meetings Monday, and marathon stakeholder interviews Tuesday, today the ULI Central Terminal study team is scheduled to meet to work through what they’ve learned, and begin writing their report. That will be presented at 9AM Friday, at the Buffalo Museum of Science, and you are invited.
Since Buffalo Rising wasn’t a formal part of stakeholder interviews – although, we were flattered to learn, the team has been reading us – I’m taking this opportunity to submit a suggestion for the kind consideration of the ULI team and readers.
In the same week that ULI was charged by Mayor Byron Brown to “come up with something big” for reuse of one of the nation’s largest vacant rail station complexes, I learned that, sadly, another large rail-heritage project in another part of Buffalo are dead. But if it’s true, as the old adage goes, that when one door closes another opens, the end of that once-promising project could provide exactly the right kind of “something big” that everyone is looking for this week.
From the beginning, Buffalo Rising was a fan of the Western New York Railway Historical Society’s effort, first announced in 2010, to reuse substantial portions of the former Buffalo Color site along the Buffalo River for a major railroad museum. And while it lasted, it was an ideal proposal: bring together railroad artifacts, rolling stock, and archives from scattered sites around Western New York to a site with enough indoor and outdoor space to house and display them. A site that, by virtue of its location, would also be an ideal hub for the rail excursions that are the big moneymakers in rail heritage.
And two years later, the plans got even better. In 2012, I was invited by the UB School of Architecture and Planning to see a presentation of concepts they had developed for the museum. It was great work, including a 3-D flythrough of the main museum building in the former power house on the site. It was all feasible. It was all doable.
And best of all, their plans were scalable. There was room for the museum to grow over time from one of primarily regional interest into the state railroad museum that New York has notably lacked. A dozen or so other states, depending on how you count, have state railroad museums. In almost none of them did rail have the impact on the state as it did in New York. It’s a gap in New York’s heritage offerings that we do not have a place devoted to keeping and telling that story. Where better to tell it than in Buffalo, once the nation’s second-largest rail hub?
But as I’ve learned in the last week, and couldn’t be sadder to say, it will not be happening. Not on Lee Street, in the scope that was once envisioned.
What happened? In short, the railroad group that had planned the project couldn’t raise the necessary funds, and ran out of time. When they announced their plans, the Great Recession was still severely impacting philanthropy and municipal budgets at all levels. And then, SolarCity happened. Suddenly, the planned museum was across the river from the largest economic development project in the region. As that gigafactory rose, so did the value of nearby vacant buildings and land for mixed-use redevelopment.
Finally, the owner of those buildings and that land, Ontario Specialty Contracting (OSC), which had the contract to demolish the Buffalo Color complex, couldn’t wait any longer. As reported in the Buffalo News, OSC’s sister company, South Buffalo Development, is now moving forward with redevelopment of three of the most important portions of the site planned for museum use: the power plant, the Schoellkopf ice house, and the remnant concrete slabs (ready-made building foundations) on the other side of Lee Street.
The photo gallery (below) has pics of the complex in various stages of redevelopment.
On a recent visit to Lee Street, signs on fences and the activity of work crews provided confirmation. Inside the Heritage Discovery Center – in a building not affected by the redevelopment – plans from the UB study still hang on the walls as a poignant reminder of what might have been. Outside, behind the center’s parking lot, a few pieces of railroad rolling stock await a pending project to install display rail for them to sit atop.
Which raises an important point: the end of the 2010 vision in no way marks the end of the Heritage Discovery Center itself, currently occupying the former Buffalo Color office building, which is not affected by the redevelopment project. The HDC continues its sensible mission to house a collection of smaller heritage organizations. The largest are the Steel Plant Museum and Western New York Railway Historical Society. Others include the Erie Lackawanna Historical Society, Buffalo Irish Genealogical Society (BIGS), and the Buffalo Lighthouse Association.
And this doesn’t even necessarily mean that their plans for a rail museum are dead. There may be new plans, on a vastly smaller scale, perhaps refocusing on the south side of South Park Avenue (“Site A”), in the works. As of posting time for this article, I hadn’t received a response to a message asking someone from the rail group to contact me. I’ll be glad to post an update when I get more information.
This is where we loop back to Mayor Brown’s charge to the ULI study team to come up with “something big” for the Central Terminal. At the very end of the 2010 Buffalo Rising post about the rail museum plans was an intriguing note about the Central Terminal. That note was included because many – including myself – asked why a major rail museum was being proposed for out-of-the-way Lee Street, rather than at the Central Terminal? The answer: because the Central Terminal platforms, with track needed to display trains and rolling stock, are not owned by the Central Terminal. Most are owned by a large contractor who uses the space to store equipment.
Really – that was the answer. In light of this year’s all-hands-on-deck effort to chart a new course for the Central Terminal, this shines like a navigational beacon: the Central Terminal was the right location for the rail museum in the first place. But seven years ago, people looked elsewhere, partly because of available buildings and land, but in large part because of issues at the Central Terminal complex like site control that aren’t easily overcome by small non-profits with limited capacity and clout.
In 2017, things are very different at the Central Terminal in terms of capacity and clout. The train station debate drew all eyes there, from every corner of the city and region, and all the way to Albany. The recession is now a memory. Buffalo has a renewed sense of confidence in its ability to make big things happen. The Mayor and Empire State Development have said that one of those big things will be redevelopment of the Central Terminal. What better time to stop letting relatively little things, like the need to relocate equipment storage out of a heritage site, stand in the way of “something big” at the Central Terminal?
And what could be bigger for the Central Terminal than to reuse a portion of the site for a significant railroad museum? It would be a natural reuse for the platforms, and some of the smaller out-buildings, and still leave an enormous amount of space in the baggage building and much of the tower for mixed-use development that would help pay the bills.
The ULI study team, and those who will spend the summer building on their report, should consider locating a regional rail museum – with the potential to scale up to be one of statewide significance – at the Central Terminal. Where it belongs. Or, in planner-speak, at least recommend a followup, focused feasibility study that would give us a solid idea of whether, and how, it would work at the Central Terminal. This is the time to find out.