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First Look: Mentholatum

At the very moment the eclipse was dimming the daylight in Buffalo, I got an up-close look at a project brightening a prominent “daylight factory” on Niagara Street.

I found the Mentholatum Building swarming with workers – a hundred on site a day, I was told – transforming it from industrial to residential use on an ambitious schedule. It’s on track to be move-in ready by January 18, I was told by Andrew Schwartz, Senior Marketing Manager for the developer, Ciminelli Real Estate, who met me on site. If their other recent projects such as the Sinclair are any indication, he told me, the apartments will be fully leased by then. With the building full up long before next year’s City Living tour, if you are interested in calling the Mentholatum home, you’ll want to take a look very soon. As of this month, Ciminelli is taking appointments for prospective tenants to tour the building and see a model unit. You can inquire about that through the website.

Having taken that tour myself this week, I can tell you it’s well worthwhile.

For starters, I found this building was in the best initial condition of any adaptive reuse project I’ve seen. Likely that is because it never sat unused for a substantial length of time, and was occupied prior to being sold to Ciminelli. And except for the mid-century loading dock, it lacks the incongruous adds-on and retrofits so often found in older industrial buildings. It has a strong design integrity inside and out.

Despite the building being made almost entirely of concrete, there is some quality woodwork that will be refurbished an incorporated into the final design. That includes paneled walls in some of the former executive offices (which I couldn’t see on the tour), and principal entry ways. Paneling I did see from the main entrance on the south appeared to be walnut, including a curved vestibule that was removed until it can be restored, while the northern entrance has some panels of quarter-sawn oak.

Similar details can be found in other buildings in the corridor, such as those owned by Bill Breeser. Because the Niagara Street industrial district has been down on its luck for so many decades, many of the buildings are an industrial time capsule, with features such as wood block factory floors and wood-partitioned administrative offices with transom windows. Not all of those features are present in the Mentholatum, but Schwartz told me they have endeavored (with SHPO’s guidance, as a preservation tax credit project) to incorporate those that are, and even use them as design inspiration.

Although it was built later than most of the other facilities in the district, in 1919, the Mentholatum plant played a prominent role in the industrial history of Niagara Street, and Buffalo. This internationally known brand (now Japanese owned) still has its North American headquarters nearby, in Orchard Park. The Hyde family, which co-founded the company and has members living in the area, has been following the building project with great interest, Schwartz told me. A history of the company, from the the National Register application prepared by Preservation Studios, is here.

Most recently, the building housed Garrett Leather, which sells specialty leathers to manufacturers. According to all accounts, although a distinctive building and location, the building was something of an awkward fit for Garrett, which showcased large rolls of exotic leathers there. (A picture of that can be seen in our earlier coverage, here.) That left much of the building underutilized, with some extra space being leased out, and the fourth floor being used – believe it or not – as a floor hockey arena.

There is no such underutilization in Ciminelli’s project. In fact, a visitor to the fourth floor now finds not scattered hockey sticks but eye-popping “wow!” views. The pictures I took of the southwest corner unit, still under construction, simply can’t do justice to it. I could see from the Peace Bridge to the International Railroad Bridge, encompassing the former Breckenridge toll plaza and Unity Island.

That will bring up the inevitable question from readers: what about the sewer plant? I can say without reservation that my entire visit was an “old factory” and not an olfactory experience. I smelled nothing but construction. Schwartz told the that he hasn’t gotten a whiff of the sewer plant on any of his visits to the building, either. But Ciminelli isn’t just hoping for the best: they did their environmental homework. After acquiring the building, they did air quality monitoring over time and in a variety of conditions. The results were used to calibrate a set of scrubbers installed on the HVAC air intakes. As it happened, the air quality was more a function of the adjacent expressway than the sewer plant, Schwartz told me.

In fact, they were so encouraged by the results, that they included an outdoor area at the back of the building, so tenants have a semblance of a common patio and “back yard.” Ciminelli is also open to the idea of a walkway along the water side of the buildings on the west side of the street that has been discussed by Vision Niagara.

Inside, those tenants will find units as bright and spacious as the original plant must have seemed a century ago to workers used to dark, cramped, low-ceilinged brick industrial workplaces. Seven different types of one- and two-bedroom units are under construction, ranging from 846 to 1,525 square feet in area and running from $1,080 to $2,200 per month. You can find detailed layouts and floor plans here, and more photos of the sample unit in the photo gallery below.

As at the Crescendo a couple of blocks north, the Mentholatum will also include some unique commercial space in a former loading dock. While I was there, concrete stairs and a ramp were being installed, but I could see how it will look in the rendering displayed on site. Schwartz told me they have had nibbles and tire-kickers, but no tenant lined up so far for the 4,166 square feet. He told me they are hoping for a commercial tenant that will serve residents of the building and the district, as well as attract visitors to the district. A couple of times he mentioned the role of Roost at the Crescendo. You get the idea. If you have an interest in the space, he’d love to hear from you.

Other amenities the building will have include a dog wash station in the basement and a mix of indoor and outdoor parking. Thirty-three spaces will be in the basement, which looks a lot like a parking garage, while twenty spaces will be in front of the building (sadly, instead of green space), and thirty will occupy the former Brace Street, which runs alongside the building. Also, of course, bicycle parking, befitting a project located on a major trail corridor that is part of both the Niagara River Greenway’s Shoreline Trail, and also a link in the Erie Canal Heritage Trail system.

On my way to visit the Mentholatum, I thought back on my work on the startup of Vision Niagara, an effort to revitalize this once stagnant old industrial section of Niagara Street. Just a few years ago, I told my colleagues that when this very building went adaptive reuse, it would be a game-changer for the street. This was before there were solid reuse plans for the other former industrial buildings on the street, other than the ones owned by longtime Niagara Street anchor Bill Breeser.

As it happened, many key buildings on the street were redeveloped prior to Mentholatum. But despite other buildings having gone first, the Mentholatum project is still very much a game changer. It forms a critical bridge between the Crescendo on the north end of the district and the old “Upper Black Rock” core remnant between Breckenridge and Lafayette. This is especially so as Ciminelli has acquired the parcels immediately to the south (1336 and 1340 Niagara). They are currently used as construction parking and staging but, as Schwartz told me, infill development is certainly an option for the future.

Importantly, this project also strengthens the nearby commercial node at Lafayette and Niagara that forms a kind of mini village, anchored by businesses such as Santasiero’s, Community Beer Works, Abaca Press, and Buffalo Alternative Therapies. It will also provide countless new “eyes on the street” compared to its previous use, as these photos from our earlier coverage show:

 

Schwartz seemed genuinely enthused about Ciminelli’s involvement in the transformation of Niagara Street. He said the announcement of their project resulted in several improvements to nearby properties, including some of the auto-focused businesses with which Ciminelli seems ready to live for the time being, although they clearly anticipate the street will continue to evolve. “This is the next Hertel Avenue,” he told me.

It will take a lot of time and effort to get there, but this crucial segment of Niagara Street is already well on its way. If you are interested in being a part of it, do go take a look. And soon. Like the eclipse, the opportunity to view it will pass quickly.

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The Mentholatum

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Written by RaChaCha

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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