If you thought you would live to see Buffalo’s grain complexes turned into residences, you are probably one of a local handful. Even the lead architect on the Silo City redevelopment project never thought he would see the transformation, let alone play a key part in the effort. That’s not to say Paul Lang never imagined it. Back in 2007, Lang’s Masters of Architecture Thesis at Penn State University focused on reuse of industrial districts and specifically, laid out a vision for reinvestment in the Old First Ward, filling the void between the Cobblestone District and neighborhoods to the south and east.
“Now ignored and left to crumble are some of the most identifiable elements of Buffalo and its history. Located strategically just south of the re-growing downtown district, along the inner harbor of Lake Erie, the First Ward district sits waiting for its renaissance.” –Lang, 2009
Lang called for embracing the industrial past by focusing on redevelopment of the unused grain elevators as neighborhood anchors saying, “due to their prominence, they should become the foundation for any new development and growth.” A mix of preservation of existing housing stock and appropriately-designed infill was recommended, plus investments in infrastructure and new recreational uses including neighborhood parks, restoration of the Ohio Basin, and linear parks along the Buffalo River and former DL&W rail corridor.
Since 2007, Lang has added an alphabet after his name: AIA LEED AP BD+C. He is Chair of the Central Terminal Restoration Corporation and is a Managing Principal at Carmina Wood Morris PC, the architectural, engineering and design firm hired to transform the iconic Silo City structures into residential and other uses. Developers Anthony Ceroy and Marvin Wilmoth of Miami-based Generation Development Group are driving the effort along with general contractor Arc Building Partners and Colby Development.
Silo City was built in the early 1900’s and is made up of six historic structures, each representing six different companies that formerly operated on the Buffalo River east of Ohio Street.
Buffalo’s position on the Great Lakes lessened after the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959. Without any need to unload grain onto canal boats or rail cars for the final leg to the east coast, Buffalo was bypassed, and these buildings were left behind. They were misused relics of Buffalo’s prosperous past.
The Silo City work is more than a renovation project on an industrial waterfront. Generation Development is taking a holistic approach to the project, envisioning a new “creative” community building upon the arts and sustainability focus that property owner Rick Smith has established there since purchasing the site in 2006.
“The overall revitalization of Silo City will have an important focus on facilitating meaningful growth by addressing the region’s need for affordable and mixed-income housing, as well as creating opportunities for economic and cultural advancement,” says Wilmoth.
It is a significant undertaking, taking a second look at old spaces. Not only are buildings being transformed, but this second life is drastically different in purpose from the first.
Phase One: American Mill & Warehouse
Residential development is a core element of the project. The first phase of the Silo City effort is the $65 million re-use of the American Mill & Warehouse building for residential and commercial use. Generation Development purchased this portion of the site for $2.8 million last year. Built in 1906, the more than century old American Warehouse once functioned as both a storage facility and research and development operation for the American Malting Company. The complex is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This first phase includes 168 residential apartments. Studio to four-bedroom plans will range from 405 to 1,910 sq. ft. of living space.
To create floor plates sized for residential use on the upper levels, an atrium is being created by removing sections of concrete flooring (above). Units facing the atrium will have balconies overlooking the space. On the ground floor of the atrium, an interior railcar loading dock (below) will be maintained and one or two restored railcars will become a permanent feature in the lobby area.
Common area amenities planned for the building include a wellness/fitness center, resident lounges and gathering spaces, conference rooms, a co-working space, 13,000 sq.ft. of office space, an event space, and arts and exhibit areas. The building will also have several exterior patio and outdoor spaces, with ornamental lighting, niche gardens, public access pathways, water recirculation and retention features, and other environmentally conscious attributes.
The project team has set an ambitious schedule with the first floor spaces due to be finished by January 1 and residential units coming on line in stages starting in March.
The Design Process
As part of the preservation of the existing building and materials, Generation Development intends to utilize salvaged materials during the adaptive reuse effort. This includes such features as exposed steel, polished concrete floors and columns, distressed brick, and original machines, carts, and railings. Many other industrial-themed furnishings, fixtures, and décor have been selected to be part of the interior and exterior design programs.
Generation Development understands that preserving as much as possible is required by preservation guidelines but is also good business. Rethinking and repurposing existing structures to meet new needs is an opportunity to reanimate unique spaces, building off the site’s legacy, and creating a development with special character.
Like nearly all of the adaptive reuse projects in the city in recent years, the Silo City project is utilizing historic preservation tax credits. Therefore, finding a functional balance between preservation guidelines and project feasibility is necessary.
“In some cases those decisions are made for you based upon condition. Can it be saved or not? In others, historic fabric has already been removed with bad interventions which makes their removal easy,” says Lang. “Then once again, it’s a balancing act. At Silo City, we really want to celebrate the industrial heritage so we are highlighting the malting process and the people who performed the work. We’re retaining the kilns, drying racks, germination tanks, and man lifts. Rick [Smith] has been an outstanding steward ensuring these items were retained and in a state that could be repurposed.”
For the Carmina Wood Morris design team, the key is to keep a mix of aged and new elements that form a link to the building’s past. It starts with knowing the existing structural systems: floors, walls, and roofs of a building; but also to the building’s form and characteristics.
“Personally, especially with historic projects, I start with understanding the building,” says Lang. “What’s unique, special, different that SHPO / NPS [State Historic Preservation Office / National Park Service] would define it as Character Defining Elements. With that in mind, we then try to marry the client’s desire and programming with space. Some things inherently go together and some don’t, so it’s a constant balancing act. Clients with vision and creativity are always the best, then you can do something really special.”
The State Historic Preservation Office and the National Park Service review the rehabilitation work to ensure that it complies with the Standards for Rehabilitation. The Secretary of the Interior provides the guidelines for the protection of historic structures, falling into four treatment categories: preservation rehabilitation, restoration and reconstruction. The Standards are applied to projects in a reasonable manner, taking into consideration economic and technical feasibility. Working with nearly windowless buildings, significant coordination with preservation officials is required during the design phase.
“The design guidelines established by NPS is always a solid departure point, paired with our previous experiences with SHPO, I’m typically pretty confident in approach prior to their engagement,” says Lang. “It’s all a negotiation. Specifically for Silo City, we engaged SHPO very early as they are so unique and once in a lifetime type of opportunities we wanted to ensure we got it right. Daniel McKay and Julian Adams took the time to come to town for two days of site visits and conceptual design. They went back and did research and realized this hasn’t been done before. Therefore, there has been lots and lots of conversations floating ideas, treatments, etc.”
The architectural team plays a critical role in a preservation project. According to Lang, the architect’s job really changes throughout the process and doesn’t necessarily represent a design aspect only. Architects lay out the vision, but are oftentimes the mediator between competing interests: preservation requirements, the developer’s budget and goals, the engineers making sure the design works, and the construction team bringing the vision to life, on schedule, while dealing with old buildings and its hidden surprises.
“We constantly have to be changing hats from finance, compliance, life safety, preservationist, and public relations,” says Lang. “Carmina Wood Morris really prides ourselves on being true partners in the project with our client. If your project doesn’t get built, we haven’t done our job, so we bring a lot of intangibles to the table to just help things move along.”
Future Silo City Work
“The long-term vision for the site is to continue the arts, cultural and ecological renaissance well underway, while infusing 24/7 activation with residential, commercial and entertainment programming,” says Lang. “When completed, there will be a dynamic neighborhood grounded by heritage. What more could you ask for?”
Generation Development recently received City-approvals to convert a second structure at Silo City. Ninety-two residential units and 20,000 square feet of commercial space are planned for the Perot Malthouse. This phase of the Silo City project will include additional site green space and waterfront accessibility improvements.
Carmina Wood Morris is in the early-stages of creating the construction drawings. The design will incorporate the spaces, equipment and tanks of the malting process inherent to the facility to create internal light wells, allowing for efficient utilization of the large floor plates for residential use with ample natural light and ventilation.
Where feasible, machinery, tanks and equipment will be left in place and highlighted, where infeasible or already missing, the design will incorporate interpretive details to remind residents and visitors of the industrial lineage of the site.
The third phase of the project, reuse of the Lake and Rail Mill buildings, will include another 90 units.
Sensitive integration of new programmatic elements to the complex extends to the site planning. A sustainable landscape is planned with both active and passive recreation spaces for residents and the public. Parking will be on the fringes of the site, to allow for regenerative landscape elements and to support flow through the campus.
Former rail beds located between the American Silos and Perot Malthouse will be purposefully programmed as a natural greenspace designed to accommodate the artistic, musical and recreation activities ongoing and planned for the campus. Additionally, vegetation proposed for the property continues the pollinator-heavy plant materials existing on the site and planned in the first phase. Following green infrastructure practices, the surface of the parking lot is proposed to be permeable asphalt. The proposed plan is intended to feel as though the natural landscape is succeeding in the midst of this industrial ruin, reinforcing that the historic structures are the focal point.
Future site design will look to integrate alternative modes of transportation through engagement with the river, bike lanes, and vehicle charging stations. The site will be Fitwel-certified, an increasingly popular healthy building and environment certification system.
Public access will be a key element.
“River frontage use will change by phase essentially,” says Lang. “Phase one, because of historic use, is a hardscape that will be programmed as a recreation patio for residents, tenants and the public. Phase two, again because of historic use, or lack thereof, is more greenscape with passive recreational activities.”
Adds Lang, “Later phases where the site naturally interacts with the river will include water engagement with a kayak launch and other activities. All spaces, and the site in general, will be linked by interpretive walking and biking paths similar to a rail-to-trails approach, blending back to the interpretive and artistic ventures already on the site that are curated by Rick Smith.”
The iconic grain elevators are a stubborn target for adaptive reuse, because it is difficult to use them for anything but storing grain. The buildings are tall, windowless, and the storage bins making up the bulk of the structure do not have floors. Curved concrete walls are an added design challenge. Repurposing them in ways that make economic sense will be complicated.
At Silo City, Generation Development and Rick Smith want to avoid changing the structures in such a way that they become unrecognizable due to additions, façade alterations, and any new use. There will need to be a balance of celebrating the building’s heritage without destroying the history.
Any new use will need to be creative, innovative and will be expensive. Generation Development and Rick Smith are looking at a number of alternatives including residential reuse, commercial or cultural use, or even stabilizing and leaving as-is.
The more a historical site undergoes renovation, the more it loses its character and aesthetic. There are also the preservation Standards that must be followed. If sweeping changes are made to the exterior of the structures, it may make them ineligible for listing on the National Register. Without that listing, a project is not eligible for lucrative tax credits. A realistic approach by the State preservation officials should help renovation and reuse of the silos move forward.
In the end, the structures may just be stabilized and remain the cultural landmarks that they are. The silo buildings are part of Buffalo’s industrial identity and can cater to heritage tourism.
While Lang’s thesis called for repairing the First Ward’s urban fabric including preservation and reuse of the area’s grain mills, he scoffs at the visionary label.
“Ha! It’s common sense,” says Lang. “Historic fabric, available land unfortunately as a result of demo, waterfront access, adjacency to downtown core and a growing entertainment district is easy to see. I’m sure others saw potential. Thankfully others with access to financing are able to create these opportunities, such as Generation Development. And it wouldn’t be possible without the foresight of Rick Smith to save these opportunities until the right opportunity arose.”
Count Lang among the people who never thought he would see the buildings reused let alone work on the plans to help make it happen.
“I hoped to see the structures repurposed,” says Lang. “Then by dumb luck Carmina Wood Morris was picked to bring them to life.”
“To be honest, seeing Buffalo come back to life, largely through rediscovering and celebrating our heritage and taking pride in being Buffalo again, not embarrassed for it, is the best feeling,” adds Lang. “It is why I turned down other offers from bigger cities. Did I think I’d personally get to champion efforts or play such a large role? No. But it is amazing to do so at such an early point relatively speaking in my career.”
Adds Lang, “Right time, right place and making most of opportunities.”
That’s Buffalo today.