CENTRAL TERMINAL: THE CITY OF BUFFALO’S
FIRST BIG & PIVOTAL DECISION OF THE 21ST CENTURY
When the state announced it was providing $25 million for a new Amtrak station in Buffalo, with the likelihood that the federal government would match that figure, it created a scramble for the money by competing interests and instantly gave birth to an overabundance of unschooled transportation opinions.
The two lead horses in this race for an Amtrak location are Central Terminal and Canalside. Some of the statements coming from supporters for a Canalside station are shocking because of the complete disconnect between why they say they want the station there and the reality of what an Amtrak station can deliver.
Self-interested groups all say they want the new Amtrak station built at their front door: the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, the Buffalo Niagara Visitors Bureau, the Sabres/HarborCenter organization, Buffalo Bisons, Canalside events promoters, Sam Hoyt (board member of Erie Canal Harbor Development), private developers with properties near Canalside, Explore and More, etc.
It doesn’t seem to matter to them that a station at that site won’t solve the two primary transportation problems: inefficient service to Niagara Falls; and no access to points like Chicago, Cleveland or any other cities west. There’s $50 million dollars on the table and they want it piled onto the small downtown area where they do business. One after another these people and organizations talk about an Amtrak station bringing more people downtown, increased attendance at events and creating more economic activity and being a fabulous introduction site to those arriving in Buffalo.
Has anyone looked at the numbers? We’re not building an airport or a new metro line. The daily average of people flying in and out of Buffalo Niagara Airport is 12,840 every day. The ridership on NFTA transportation in 2015 was 71,232 passengers per day.
The ridership at the Amtrak Exchange St. station was 41,220 passengers for all of 2014, which translates to 113 people a day, but since probably half are leaving we’re looking at maybe 60 people a day arriving by Amtrak.
An Amtrak station at Canalside would have zero economic impact, period. During the 2016-2017 Sabres season, attendance was 758,705. They only play 41 home games so even to suggest Amtrak would deliver 200 new ticket sales for the entire year would be both optimistic and meaningless to the Sabres bottom line.
Sam Hoyt is a big proponent of a Canalside station at the old Aud site. Hoyt had proposed the same idea over ten years ago and despite all his rallying it went nowhere because it was a bad idea then and it’s still a bad idea. Somehow Hoyt seems to have convinced mayor Byron Brown otherwise.
“Erie Canal Harbor and the Mayor’s Office are on the same page,” said Brendan R. Mehaffy, executive director of the for the mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning. Mehaffy said Hoyt and Brown want to explore the feasibility of the old Aud site “before any other projects are finalized. If we can get it done, it’s worth the investment in the area.”
Mehaffy gushed that a station at Canalside would “boost ridership.” Boost ridership to what? 150 people? 200 people? That’s less than the number of people drinking beer at Nietzsche’s on a Friday night.
Downtown and Canalside are both a great success. But as Councilman David Franczyk pointed out, we don’t need to stuff a train station there. We need to “take the confidence used to build downtown and the waterfront to the East Side [Central Terminal].”
At a recent public hearing on where the Amtrak location should be, NY Assemblyman Sean Ryan said that public investment always asks two questions: What purpose does it serve and will the investment catalyze other things?
Ryan views Canalside as a terrible location. Ryan and Franczyk aren’t the only elected officials who feel that way. Those who view Central Terminal as the proper site include Senator Chuck Schumer, Rep. Brian Higgins, Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, State Sen. Tim Kennedy; and also include Central Terminal’s designated developer Harry Stinson, Citizens for Regional Transit, and Preservation Buffalo Niagara.
“This [the old Aud site] is a location we’ve been prepping for private development for a number of years,” said Ryan. “Canalside is touted as the hottest development area in the city and it will be even stronger if it is surrounded by a residential neighborhood and that neighborhood could be built on the Aud block site. It would allow us to restore downtown density and that should be one of our highest priorities. A train station at this site will not add to the momentum we’ve been working on for years and public money should not be spent there.
“My first choice is the Central Terminal. For far too long the Central Terminal has been a symbol of decay for the East Side of Buffalo and for the whole city of Buffalo. It’s a beacon of despair instead of a beacon of our wonderful past. Central Terminal fits primary needs for public money and it has potentially large secondary ripple effect.”
I don’t want to talk about a Canalside train station too much because 1. It doesn’t solve any transportation problem. 2. There’s absolutely no economic benefit 3. As Sean Ryan pointed out a train station at Canalside wouldn’t create any spin off development.
RIP IT OUT!
Rip out the Exchange St. tracks going north altogether and have a small spur stop in the downtown area that leaves from Central Terminal. Why would we do that? I always thought it was the thruway that cut Buffalo off from our waterfront. It’s not. It’s a single railroad track running north from Exchange St. The thruway is ugly, but it is also elevated and you could easily access the waterfront by going under it if the railroad bed was gone. Instead of having access to the water at many locations, we have only a few overpasses that cross the rail line to get us west to the waterfront. Removing that single rail line might also create an opportunity to make more access points north other than the Michigan St. overpass, which only exists to hop the railroad track.
Furthermore, tracks from Central Terminal go to the same place as the obtrusive Exchange St. line–in fact, the two lines meet up less than five miles from downtown at Hertel Ave. There are also two, three and sometimes four tracks coming from the Central Terminal going north instead of the one track from Exchange St. This might offer an opportunity for a dedicated Niagara Falls to Buffalo train shuttle, which could be scheduled to run more frequently and at more convenient hours. Currently you can’t board a train to Niagara Falls until after 3pm, which means arriving around 4:30 and by then you’ve pretty much lost most of the day. To his credit, Sam Hoyt recently reached out to Ron Dukarm from the Railroad History Museum–whose group owns 15 retired Amtrak cars–about starting a Niagara Falls route and that possibility is being explored. Dukarm also told me that with regards to the Amtrak station “The train to downtown Buffalo is just spur line from Central Terminal, but Central Terminal was the main station. That’s the way it should be.”
Mothballing the track going north from Exchange St. to Hertel Ave. presents an incredible opportunity to mimic NYC’s High Line.
The High Line is a Public Park built on a 1.45 mile-long, elevated rail line on Manhattan’s West Side. It was started in 2009 and completed in 2014 with walkways, landscaped grass, perennials, trees and bushes. Nine food vendors were given permits to sell everything from tacos, baked goods, coffee, gelatos and more. By July of 2014 over 20 million people has visited the High Line to look out over the city and across the Hudson River, exercise, listen to a lecture, enjoy lunch or have a drink in one of the two beer gardens there.
There is a stretch of waterfront track that runs from the foot of the Peace Bridge to Forest Avenue that would make a perfect Buffalo Highline. It’s 1.5 miles long and offers a beautiful view of the Buffalo River, the Canadian shore and the Peace Bridge.
CENTRAL TERMINAL IS THE RIGHT PLACE
Why Central Terminal? First of all it’s cost effective because although it needs some repairs and cosmetic work, nothing has to be added to make it a station. It has a beautiful marble concourse. The tracks are there, which Amtrak already owns. The passenger platforms are there. Even the ticket counter is there. Just as important, Central Terminal already has access to rail routes going in any direction, unlike a proposed station at Canalside, which would never be able to obtain access westward due to physical obstructions.
I’ve heard many people say the reason Canalside should be the location for the new Amtrak station is so when passengers exit the train, the first thing they’ll see is Canalside and that will impress them. I wonder if any of those people have ever exited a train and walked into Grand Central Terminal in New York. I have, many times, and the breathtaking beauty of that station never fails to impress me and even though I’ve been in it often there’s always some new detail to discover that makes me respect the building and the people who built it. No one has to worry that entering Buffalo through a restored Central Terminal won’t give a good impression to a visitor, and no matter how crappy the weather may be outside, that good impression will be consistent year round. And guess what? They can still go to Canalside and be further impressed. Anyone who looks should notice Grand Central Terminal bears a striking resemblance to Buffalo’s Central Terminal. The reason is that the same architect, Alfred T. Fellheimer, designed them both.
However, you can’t talk about Central Terminal without recognizing that it’s in a neighborhood whose time has come to get some attention. Elmwood Village, Canalside, the downtown Central Business District, the Main St. Theater District, the West Side – all of these places have been showered with blessings. During all this exciting development and billions spent in every part of the city, the East Side has been like the homeless hobo standing in the snow and looking in the window at people enjoying a bounteous Christmas dinner with colorfully wrapped presents stacked under the Christmas tree. And now there’s a possible $50 million project that could happen on the East Side and people want to pull it away and put it where an obscene amount of money has already been spent. Is this the City of Good Neighbors or the City of Selfishness?
Another criticism of the Central Terminal is that it’s too big for the needs of Amtrak. That’s certainly true. Beyond the platforms and tracks Amtrak only needs a small portion of the building. However, several months ago the Central Terminal Restoration Corp., the nonprofit who owns the building, selected Canadian developer Harry Stinson as designated developer to restore the building and bring it back to use.
At the public hearing last week Stinson said “I don’t think we’ve revealed this publicly before but what we’re planning for that whole station is a complete new village. There would be over 400 residences, and several hundred thousand square feet of office space, tens of thousands of feet of retail and commercial, and a 200 suite hotel.”
Stinson has a history of working with enormous dilapidated buildings in rundown neighborhoods in Toronto and Hamilton. His Candy Factory building renovation to condo lofts transformed Queen St. West from a ghost town to a thriving Toronto neighborhood. He also built a 51-story skyscraper and coupled it to an old Dominion Bank building he renovated in a project called One King West. There are several other projects I could name but the point is he has done big projects and he’s not afraid to take them on.
Stinson had planned to renovate the Niagara Falls hotel, which he bought for a little over $1million but when the State offered him $4.4 million to buy it he took the money and walked away, partly because of the instant profit, partly because he discovered how difficult it is to do any development project in Niagara Falls and partly because he discovered the opportunity to take on the Central Terminal project, which he found far more exciting.
As with any project, there are skeptics and Stinson is not immune to doubters. I spoke to Stinson and he told me he’d already spent a half-million dollars just on the consultant and design people; and he estimates the project will cost well over $100 million. I asked how Amtrak would fit into his plans. “This is a giant building,” said Stinson, “600,000 sq. ft. All you need is a platform and a place for people to buy tickets. Look at the current station they have downtown. It’s tiny.”
Stinson had an answer regarding Central Terminal being an inter-modal hub, as well.
“We already designed it in,” he said. “We already met with the bus people, we’ve already been doing a lot of work on this for some time. The transportation people know about it. We’ve already shown them where the bus platforms could be, we’ve already allocated platforms where the trains could stop. This is not something that suddenly hit us when the State announced Amtrak funding and we said let’s run down and spout off at the council meeting. All this had already been planned for a long time. We’d already met with Higgins and Schumer and all the various people. We already met with the bus company. We already outlined the plans, showed them how they could integrate, so when suddenly there was a swell of interest in Central Terminal being a new train location, we had already discussed this at great length with people so they knew it was viable.
“We are not against a station downtown. The station downtown is a spur line. To run the trains downtown now, you have to go off the main train line, go off on to a spur line down town, then go back to the main line, and carry on. That’s why Central Terminal was built where it is – it is on the main train lines that criss cross the country.
“So what would be different if trains went from Central Terminal to downtown?
–They already do. They go right past Central Terminal and go downtown. We’ve been saying it all along. We believe that there should be a station downtown. But the Central Terminal is the better place for a regional transportation hub.”
I mentioned the Candy Land project and the Liberty Village Project, where another desolate neighborhood turned into a vibrant one by a different developer and asked if he believed that could happen on Buffalo’s East Side.
“It’s going to happen,” said Stinson. “This is what I’ve done for 35 years. We don’t go somewhere until we think it’s about to turn and we can help make it turn and the planets are lining up for the East Side. It’s going to take some time, a number of years, but it’s going to happen.”
Locating the Amtrak station at Central Terminal could be the first step in the journey to revitalize that neighborhood. A good deal of that money would be spent on infrastructure to provide new streets and sidewalks surrounding the area, new lighting, signals that things are changing.
WHERE HAVE WE BEEN SPENDING OUR MONEY?
According to Maria Lehman, former Erie County commissioner of public works and retired New York Thruway Authority executive director who spoke at the public hearing on train station location, over $400 million has been spent on Canalside in the past ten years. The cost of building the arena was $127 million and HarborCenter cost another $200 million to build. Delaware North’s new headquarters at 250 Delaware was a $110 million project. At least $130 million was spent on the Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino. No one knows the total spent at the Statler but at least $5.3 million in public money was given to Marc Croce for start up costs. $128 million was spent to complete opening Main St. to cars, much of that came from the federal government and that produced millions in added private development.
Downtown Buffalo is also home 97 restaurants; and 1,200 new downtown residential units have been created in the past ten years and Mayor Brown has set a goal to add another 2,000 units by 2018. The list for downtown economic development activity is long and totals well over $5 billion.
THE MEDICAL CAMPUS
From 2005 to 2015 the Medical Campus was funded with an investment of nearly $750 million in private, public, and philanthropic dollars. Furthermore, a Buffalo News real estate analysis found 30 different investors committed an additional $400 million in buying and renovating vacant and rundown buildings surrounding the campus, $250 million of that by only three families, Ciminelli, Montante, and Paladino. That’s over a billion dollars already invested in the few blocks that make up the Medical Campus, and new investment is still flooding into the area.
$750 million in state funding was committed to Solar City out of the Buffalo Billionw. New York State will retain ownership and lease it to SolarCity.
LARKIN /HYDRAULIC DISTRICT
The former Hydraulics District sat empty and derelict until Howard Zemsky had the vision to see its potential and he turned the Hydraulic District into a huge urban success story. But it took more than Zemsky’s imagination to make that happen. It took imagination combined with patience, time, and lots of dollars.
$50 million for Zemsky’s building, Larkinville/726 Exchange St., $50 million for the Larkin Center of Commerce, $70 million spent creating apartments at 500 and 550 Seneca St. and at 545 Swan St. and more money scattered here and there. Today Larkinville is crowded with people coming for concerts, events, Food Truck Tuesdays and just to hang out and have a drink.
HISTORY IS IMPORTANT
In 1975, New York’s iconic Grand Central Terminal had fallen into severe disrepair due to neglect. The owners, Pennsylvania Railroad, got a court to waive its landmark status and it was to be replaced with a boxy office tower. Jacqueline Kennedy took the lead in saving the station and she roused the public to vigorously cry out against the proposed project.
Kennedy also penned a handwritten letter to New York’s mayor Abe Beame, which I include here as a forward to Buffalo mayor Byron Brown.
“Dear Mayor Beame…is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud moments, until there is nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children? … Americans care about their past, but for short term gain they often ignore it and tear down everything that matters…”
The demolition of Grand Central Terminal was halted and it was quickly restored to its former glory. It now serves an average of 750,000 passengers a day and over a million passengers on holidays.
Buffalo’s Central Terminal is a perfectly fine location for a new Amtrak station, and having the vision to see beyond simply finding a convenient spot for a few hundred travelers and seeing its transformative possibility for the East Side should fuel favoring Central Terminal over Canalside. It requires dreaming of a revitalized neighborhood and understanding this could be the first step in making that dream a reality. A transformed East Side won’t happen overnight, maybe not even in our lifetime. So what? Committing to the vision is the important thing. Make this one commitment to the Amtrak station at Central Terminal, and more commitments to the East Side will come.
There’s a song early on in the Broadway musical Hamilton titled “The Story of Tonight” which portrays the night that four dreamers, Alexander Hamilton, Lafayette, abolitionist John Laurens and American spy Hercules Mulligan, committed themselves to creating an independent America.
“I may not live to see our glory
But I will gladly join the fight
And when our children tell our story
They’ll tell the story of tonight
Raise a glass the four of us
Tomorrow there’ll be more of us
Telling the story of tonight
They’ll tell the story of tonight”
We are facing a pivotal decision with the relatively modest investment for a new Amtrak station.
If we go for what sounds exciting at the moment and we shove a station underground at Canalside it will have no impact in terms of transportation, it will be small and lost among all the activity surrounding it, and ultimately no one will care. If we use it as an opportunity to light the candle that ignites the East Side “they’ll tell the story of tonight.”