The Buffalo Niagara Convention Center at Franklin and Genesee streets opened in 1978. A decade later it was deemed dated, too small, and past its prime.
“The prospect of a new downtown convention center was greeted by public officials as either a good idea or irrelevant, given the financial straits of local and state government. Local tourism officials said the new facility is necessary to keep up with competing cities.” – The Buffalo News, October 4, 1991.
“Buffalo Convention Center, built in 1978, is already inadequate to do its job well. The center will have trouble competing with Buffalo’s ‘peer’ cities for the prized larger convention business that can pour millions of outside dollars into a local economy. The reason is simple. It just isn’t large enough.” – The Buffalo News, August 18, 1996.
Studies and discussions finally produced a plan for a replacement in 1998. The so-called Mohawk site on Washington Street was favored by downtown interests and then County Executive Dennis Gorski. The location, between the Electric Tower and the downtown library, was chosen over a competing site along Scott Street, where the same ‘shovel-ready’ sites are being eyed for a convention center today, nearly two decades later.
The proposed $124.5 million convention center would have straddled Ellicott Street and included a 125,000 sq.ft. exhibit hall. It called for demolition of nearly half of the 500 block of Main Street, construction of a skybridge between the center and the Hyatt, an atrium along Washington Street, parking for 1,250 cars under the complex, and a signature entrance by Lafayette Square.
“I’m delighted we’ve got plans to build a new convention center. It’s about time,” Robert Wilmers, chairman of M&T Bank. – The Buffalo News, November 19, 1998.
Plans began to crumble after Joel Giambra replaced Gorski and costs nearly doubled to $220 million. The idea was shelved as public opposition to demolishing a large swath of downtown grew louder and more organized just as the demand for downtown living, and buildings ripe for conversion, started to pick up. Suddenly, those old buildings that many saw as useless were seen as the future.
Today a new effort is underway to replace or expand the convention center. Chicago-based HVS Convention, Sports & Entertainment Facilities Consulting studied two options in a recently released report. The first, renovation of the existing center and construction of a new exhibit hall on a full block north of Statler City connected by sky bridges at a cost of $329 million to $429 million. The other option is a new convention center on surface parking lots in the Cobblestone District with a cost estimate of $329 million to $368 million.
HVS recommended expanding convention center function space to approximately twice the size of the existing building including a 120,000 to 150,000 square foot exhibit hall, 30,000 to 40,000 square foot multipurpose ballroom, 30,000 to 45,000 square feet of meeting space, and development of additional downtown hotel rooms such that the total number of adjacent, attached rooms is at least 700.
The two options are distinct:
Site Option 2 (expansion) can accommodate the lower range of the recommended building program. Of all the sites, Site Option 2 offers the best proximity to existing lodging supply and restaurant and retail opportunities. It allows for reuse of the existing building but does not offer an obvious solution for future expansion. Meeting planners have expressed a preference for this site area.
Site Option 3 (Cobblestone) can accommodate the higher range of the building program and leaves room for expansion. Due to the larger footprint, Site Option 3 offers capacity to build a well-organized building at a lower cost per square foot than the more complex building on Site Option 2. But this site lacks proximity to existing hotel supply and its success would require more investment in adjacent hotel supply. The consulting team considers Site Options 2 and 3 to be viable locations for convention center development.
The consultant did not select a preferred alternative but concluded that “failure to expand or replace the BNCC involves significant costs and risk to the County if it intends to maintain a viable convention center operation.”
One of the biggest drawbacks of expanding north of Statler City is the high acquisition costs from multiple property owners, likely through eminent domain, and the required demolition of several historic buildings along both Franklin Street and Delaware Avenue. The cost of acquisition and demolition issues that sunk the Mohawk proposal two decades ago are even more relevant today. The option to expand north of Statler City is a political minefield.
There are so many issues and uncertainties, and early backlash, the option may not even be given serious consideration.
There is another alternative being floated for a bigger convention center, this one for adding a new level of meeting space on the existing building, connecting it to Statler City and a new parking ramp, and creating an elevated public park. A bridge over Franklin Street would provide protection from the elements, and for large events such as the auto show, an outdoor display area.
Mark Croce thinks the plan he has prepared with the help of Kideney Architects meets all of the criteria set out by the County, at less cost, and less impact to downtown.
“This plan would give Buffalo and the region a center that will be iconic, with a contemporary design aesthetic that is sympathetic to the historical structures surrounding it,” says Croce. “This builds on the established hospitality industry that exists around the convention center already, investing in our future and bringing more business, more visitors, and more jobs to the core of our city. Having a modern convention center a block from Niagara Square and near existing hotels and restaurants makes perfect sense.”
The plan by Kideney calls for:
- 130,000 sq.ft. of additional convention space including back of house and circulation space
- 92,000 sq.ft. of new public outdoor green space including a year-round elevated greenway and plaza between Statler City and the Walter J. Mahoney State Office Building
- A 10 level parking ramp on a Croce-owned parking lot north of Statler City accommodating 446 cars connected to the new convention center via enclosed bridges
- A direct connection toward Main Street and the nearby Metro station.
- An approximately 250 kW photovoltaic array to offset the energy load of the expansion
- A vegetated green roof providing storm water runoff mitigation as well as decreasing day time heating loads on the building
“The design of the building plays into the existing building typologies around the historic Niagara Square while creating its own sense of place,” noted the team at Kideney Architects.
Croce says the design shown is a conversation starter and can be refined including façade changes to the existing structure.
HVS did consider vertical expansion of the current center but dismissed it saying “renovation of the site would require the construction of a tall, complicated, and relatively dysfunctional vertical building.”
Croce believes such an expansion is doable and the argument against vertical centers to be unfounded as each of the options being discussed is multi-level and convention centers elsewhere functional space on multiple levels that are well suited to hosting simultaneous events.
“We don’t need a massive, one-level meeting hall,” he says. “Buffalo isn’t drawing or in the running for those types of large conventions. Buffalo’s more competitive with regional conventions and trade shows. Those events do well in vertical and multi-block convention centers that are found in multiple cities across the country.
In 1993, a University at Buffalo study also suggested a vertical expansion. Adding a third floor to the center was proposed by Bruno Freschi, dean of UB’s School of Architecture at the time.
The proposal called for doubling the facility’s exhibit area to 135,000 sq.ft., remodeling the façade, and shifting the main entrance to Court Street with a multi-story addition adjacent to the Convention Tower building.
Freschi also suggested adding meeting room space in the former L.L. Berger Department store (now a mixed-use office/residential building), constructing new meeting space on the Statler’s low-rise wing along Franklin, and a tunnel link between the center and the Fernbach Ramp on the south side of Court Street. The estimated cost then was $30 to $38 million.
The Kideney plan goes beyond what Freschi had envisioned.
The proposed structure over Franklin is necessary to provide ample floor space and connectivity. While there would be an aesthetic impact from the bridge, there isn’t much of a scenic vista down Franklin Street. And, the proposed structure is high enough not to create a tunnel effect like at the Central Library, Seneca One tower, or HarborCenter complexes that are built over public streets.
“The convention center could use more ballroom and flex space such as break-out rooms which can be provided in Statler City,” he says. “They need to be physically connected.”
Croce has spent millions of dollars in the Chippewa Street area with both restaurants and entertainment venues, has recently opened The Curtiss hotel at Franklin and West Huron streets, and has a culinary school under construction next to it.
“This protects all of those that invested in what has become a hotel and restaurant district in the heart of downtown. It benefits the community, not just me,” says Croce.
“I’m not asking for money to redevelop the Statler,” says Croce. “That will get done privately. It’s a huge building that will require me finding the right development partner to move forward. I’ve stabilized the building, brought life to the lower floors, and the upper floors will get filled when the time is right. I believe expansion of the existing center will draw interest not only in the Statler but also surrounding blocks.
As for dreams of reopening Genesee Street, Croce says he doesn’t see it happening because of the Hyatt’s kitchen, ballrooms, and atrium being located where Genesee Street once stood.
“Hyatt owner Paul Snyder is not giving that up,” predicts Croce.
The benefits of the convention center go beyond room tax and traditional economic impacts associated with it, such as additional business for hotels and restaurants. The center also serves to spotlight the Niagara region that has seen plenty of positive change and introduce newcomers to Buffalo.
Building a new convention center along Scott Street would utilize land many have said could be a location for a future football stadium.
Croce says locating the convention center in the Cobblestone District would be foolish for other reasons. With only two hotels with roughly 300 rooms at the foot of Main Street, convention planners would not find the urban density that they are looking for when selecting optimal sites.
Croce envisions his proposal as a public-private partnership and is willing to give up control of portions of the Statler to make it happen, allowing Buffalo to catch up to rival cities angling for the same business and remake its convention center.
“Everything is on the table,” says Croce. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to make it work at this location. There would be no need for any eminent domain, which would save $100 million. There would not be another big box built because of the implementation of air rights. And the connection of the Convention Center to Statler City would create a bustling central core. This plan has it all.”