Like our stunning 1991 Super Bowl XXV loss, in choosing Canalside as the site for a new Amtrak station, the Buffalo Train Station Selection Committee, led by Mayor Byron Brown, kicked another WIDE RIGHT for Buffalo. It was a humiliating defeat for the thousands of supporters of the Central Terminal.
When the results of the committee were announced on April 20, the public comment response on social media was fast and vicious. There was a lot of sarcasm from the prolific Buffalopundit and others, as well: “Place matters, unless this place is on the east side.” “Where should we put a new airport? Zemsky, Brown and Tielman, et al., have a plan [downtown].” “Why don’t we move Niagara Falls downtown?” “Put the new signature span Peace Bridge at Canalside.” It’s good that Buffalo turned to mocking humor instead of smashing store windows, which I’m sure many felt like doing.
An important point to remember in this maelstrom of site selection is that in terms of Amtrak service nothing will change no matter where a new train station goes. Caroline Mael, Regional Director of Amtrak made it very clear before the vote at the committee’s final meeting that Amtrak will not alter it’s schedule in any way from its current schedule AND that Amtrak will NOT back out trains from a downtown location to enable travel to points west like Cleveland, Chicago, etc. In other words, you still have to go to the Depew station to travel west. As far as downtown goes we might as well just spend a few bucks fixing up the old station and find another use for that valuable downtown property.
Of course a better idea, which everybody except the committee recognized, would have been to invest the millions in Central Terminal, which would have been inspiring to the neglected residents of the east side, and would have included infrastructure improvements of new sidewalks, streets, new lighting, etc., in the area surrounding the terminal. A spur line could have run downtown just as it did for 50 years when the Central Terminal was open.
THE TRAIN GANG: Hoyt, Brown, Tielman, Zemsky
THE SHADOW BEHIND THE VOTE
But here’s the rub: Canalside still has holes in it and Governor Andrew Cuomo wants those holes filled in. That falls to Howard Zemsky, CEO of Empire State Development and Sam Hoyt regional president of ESD. They were supposed to just follow the Canalside Master Plan of 2013. I don’t believe Cuomo cared where the train station went but for Hoyt the train station directive was an opportunity.
He could fill in a Canalside hole for the governor and at the same time dust off his downtown Intermodal project he’s been peddling for 20 years, one that failed miserably when he was a NY Assembly member.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Hoyt told the Buffalo News in 2001 regarding his idea for a Buffalo intermodal Transportation Center. No one else thought it was a “no-brainer” and it went “no-where.” There’s also the sentimental fact for Hoyt that his father was instrumental in establishing the downtown Exchange St. station when Central Terminal closed in 1979.
So abandoning the Master Plan, WSP Parsons Brinkerhoff was hired as the consulting firm to prepare a report for the train selection committee with Canalside being one of the options. The lead engineer at WSP Parsons Brinkerhoff for the 2017 train location study was area manager and VP, Mark Tytka.
Back in the late 1990s when Hoyt was pushing his downtown intermodal scheme, Hoyt secured $30,000 to complete a feasibility study to relocate the train station. A draft was completed in 1997. That 1997 project was managed by the same engineer, Mark Tytka.
To reinforce his position that downtown was the best site, Hoyt told an elected official that he coordinated the “pro-downtown” speakers at the January 19, public hearing in the common council chambers. Those pro-downtown speakers included Mike Gilbert from the Sabres, Dan Leonard from the Buffalo Partnership, developer Sam Savarino and others.
And then there’s Hoyt’s personal issue with Congressman Brian Higgins, a strong advocate for Central Terminal. More than one person indicated to the Congressman’s office first hand accounts of Hoyt saying that he “wasn’t going to let Higgins have a win on this.”
A well known elected official told me “Hoyt and company seemed like they wanted to kill Higgins’ idea not because of the idea, but because they didn’t want to give Higgins another win. Higgins and NY Assemblyman Sean Ryan beat him [Hoyt] on the outer harbor and Robert Gioia and Hoyt are still mad about that, they got publicly undressed on not having any support on their vision for outer Outer Harbor condominiums.”
“Hoyt has always been against the Central Terminal,” said Fillmore District councilman Dave Franczyk. His intermodal failed at the Aud site, so he’s pushed for downtown. Hoyt has been in opposition for the terminal from the get-go. His replacement Sean Ryan on the other hand has been for the terminal.”
Hoyt told the Buffalo News in October that “Canalside has dominated discussion of any downtown facility for more than a decade, especially because of its potential connection to Metro Rail.” (Those would be his discussions, of course.) In any case, while Hoyt failed to get his downtown station as an assemblyman he was in a better position at ESD impose his will for the downtown station he wanted 20 years ago.
Nevertheless, there was still a 16 member selection committee that had to be convinced to vote his way. One of the most interesting online posts following the April 20 decision came that evening from Connie Hoyt, Sam’s wife.
A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RIGGING & MANIPULATING
Shortly after posting it, Connie Hoyt’s comment was hidden or removed but not before several people took screen shots of it. But Connie Hoyt saying “this asinine, and I might add, predetermined decision” is exactly how most of the public feel.
Asinine decisions are something we’re used to. Predetermined decisions are something we need to rage against. Why would Connie Hoyt say that? Did she hear phone conversations? Were there meetings at their home?
Empire State Development pours hundreds of millions of dollars into Buffalo every year. If you’re a recipient of ESD funds and you get a call from the regional president asking for support for a downtown station you’re probably going to give it. The Pegulas, for example, probably don’t give a fart about a train station. The tiny Amtrak ridership means absolutely nothing to the Sabres or Bills bottom line. However, if Terry Pegula decides to build a new stadium he knows he’s going to want some state funding help. Sending Mike Gilbert to a train station meeting to advocate for a downtown station is an easy favor to give.
Without ESD funding Byron Brown could kiss goodbye all the ribbon cutting photo ops because half the projects in the city would falter. Mayor Brown and everyone who works for him are going to fall in line even if it means throwing the east side and the black community under the bus.
NOT A NATIVE SON
That didn’t sit well with Brown’s black constituents on the east side and might backfire on Brown. Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant just declared she was running against Brown in this year’s mayoral election.
“The East Side has been neglected,” Grant told the Buffalo News, pointing to lack of employment and rising crime. “The East Side is the real forgotten part of Buffalo.”
“But the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said, “was when the community was shut out from the Buffalo Train Station Panel’s decision to keep the train station downtown, instead of moving it to the Central Terminal.”
Maybe Byron Brown doesn’t grasp the reality of just how bad things are on the east side.He’s never lived in anything but comfort and safety.
Byron Brown’s father was an executive in the garment industry and he grew up in Hollis, a nice middle-class neighborhood in Queens. They didn’t have vacant and burned out homes full of drug dealers, gangs and homeless people. 80-year-old Aninta Friday, a former Hollis block club president who’s been there since 1962 and lived a few blocks away from Byron Brown said “Houses in Hollis do not stay empty long, New people are always there, waiting to buy.”
Buffalo Comptroller and mayoral candidate Mark Schroeder also jumped on Brown, calling the process that resulted in a downtown site for the new train station a “sham,” and pledged to do everything in his power to reverse the decision if he is elected this fall.
The preservationist with the loudest megaphone by far is Tim Tielman.
In 2001 Tim Tielman told Spree Magazine “every neighborhood needs something that gives people the feeling that they participate in something larger than themselves. For the east side, including Cheektowaga and Sloan, the Central Terminal is it. It’s the Washington Monument of Buffalo.”
Ten years later Tielman was consistent, telling Artvoice in 2011 “With enough public support the chances of using the old Central Terminal as an actual train station are good. The grandeur of a station has cash value. A beautiful station will impress and attract riders and Central Terminal should be an important part of any downtown station [plan].”
Tielman has been touted as one of the founders of the Central Terminal Restoration group, but those involved say that although he was there in the beginning he didn’t stick around long and “he certainly had no role in actually preserving the building.”
In this fight over the new train station Tielman came out against the Central Terminal.
On April 16, the Buffalo News ran an article headlined “Tielman Makes Last-Minute Pitch for Downtown Train Station.” In the article Tielman said “the few Amtrak trains that arrive in Buffalo daily aren’t enough of a reason to build a station within the hulking former Central Terminal on the East Side.”
The day before that Sam Hoyt posted Tim Tielman’s pro-downtown train station video on his Facebook page.
“Tim Teilman’s imperative I think is a paycheck from Howard Zemsky,” said Fillmore councilmember Dave Franczyk. “Tim’s gotta eat. He’s been so good on so many preservation issues so it’s like being stabbed in the back because he’s been so active on that downtown concept. I guess everybody’s gotta eat, but I wish it wasn’t on a preservation issue. That was a big disappointment. He hurts Central Terminal by doing this. People like Mark Sommer at the Buffalo News think very highly of him. So did I. I put him on the preservation board when I was council president. You want a preservationist to be a radical son of a bitch.”
This isn’t anything new. In 2012 Alan Bedenko posted on his former Artvoice blog
“Earlier this year, Donn Esmonde applauded the fact that Howard Zemsky and Larkin Development had retained the services of preservationist Tim Tielman, and that the whole project served as a model for how development could work hand-in-hand with preservation. My takeaway, however, was that Tielman’s involvement in that project amounted to Zemsky and Larkin paying Tielman off; essentially, paying protection money.”
Artvoice sports writer Andy Kulyk commented on Bedenko’s post: “Howard Zemsky is one shrewd businessman. He saw a vision for Larkin Square, and had he not hired Tim Tielman and bought him a plane ticket to Europe to check out the quaint public squares over there, for sure the Campaign for Greater Good or whatever it is that club calls themselves these days would have filed lawsuit after lawsuit, declaring the corner of Seneca and Emslie “sacrosanct”… [paid people] “become partners instead of obstructionists.”
The public is outraged that they’re opinion didn’t seem to count at all even though the public overwhelmingly supported the Central Terminal. One of many polls was the Artvoice poll which showed 85% for Central Terminal and 15% for downtown. That was an average just about everywhere. This didn’t seem to matter.
“Look at how they’re afraid of the public,” said Dave Franczyk. “I showed up on Perry St. for the committee meeting at 10am and people were cleared out of the building, there were cops all over the place, barriers set up and cop cars all over the Cobblestone district. I just thought it was ridiculous that kind of treatment of the public.”
When the police cleared the building they told everyone they had two minutes to get out or they would be arrested. The Buffalo News was denied entrance and so was Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant.
Congressman Brian Higgins was on the train selection committee so, of course, he was allowed into the building. “When we arrived at the meeting the day the decision was made,” said Higgins, “all kinds of materials were there for the committee members who vote on this, right? And there was a bound copy, which simply said on the front ‘public comment.’ If you opened it up it was copies of emails, letters, all communications to the selection committee. It was about the size of a phone book. But there was no cover page, no tally of opinions, no narrative, no summary of what public comments represented, nothing. So my office obtained a copy of this at on 3pm Wednesday. And we crunched the numbers. And the numbers were 87.9% of the public preferred the Central Terminal.
“If it was 87.9% for downtown, you know that would have been quantified and qualified and bandied about as important testimony from the public. Since it was in favor of Central Terminal they didn’t want to talk about it.”
“Look, Jamie, this is why I say the process was flawed from the beginning. It was defective. It was defective because downtown and Central Terminal is not an apples to apples comparison. You can’t compare the Central Terminal to a vacant piece of land in downtown Buffalo, near Canalside. Obviously the Central Terminal is more challenging. But the point is we do the more challenging historic preservation projects in the more affluent neighborhoods like The Darwin Martin House. Why aren’t we restoring an equally historic structure in an area where there has been very little public investment?”
THE BIG PICTURE
“EDS viewed this project very narrowly through the prism of the rider only,” said NY Assemblyman Sean Ryan, “and they didn’t view it as a larger economic development project. So for them either the impact of the downtown neighborhood or the central terminal neighborhood was not a factor considered.
“I did a lot of work on the West Side with Push Buffalo. The state would’ve been happy if we just built municipal housing. They didn’t care if it was rehabilitation that would make the neighborhood better. All they wanted 15 units of affordable housing; you can build what you want. If you look at your economic development money too narrowly, you miss picture of how this train station will effect the broader community its situated in.
Its very similar to the large public conversation we had about the outer harbor. The bulk of people that responded to it wanted a natural outer harbor with recreation and activities and the consultant with Erie Harbor Development Corporation came back and said, ‘Yes we heard you – now here’s condos.’”
You mean yes we heard you and we’re going to ignore you?
“Yes. Also, you know, they never even did a rider survey to ascertain how current train riders use public transportation. We don’t know the answer to that. What percentage of riders park their cars? What percentage gets picked up? What percentage transfer from a bus? What percentage are looking for a hotel or just going home. The consultants report wasn’t much of a report . They were asked to do a very broad process review, some questions, it was very broad, it wasn’t what you’d call a traditional recommendation report.”
AFTER THE VOTE
Once the voting was done the committee members were allowed a few minutes to express whatever they wanted. Not everyone took the opportunity. Erie County Executive Mark Polencarz, who voted against downtown, did. In fact, pretty much the only ones who made significant comments were those who voted against downtown.
Polencarz said “This decision is based on a premature and arbitrary timeline and does not take into account all the issues. The NFTA has no intention of leaving the bus station and we’ve heard Amtrak say their trains are not going to back up and I think that’s very important if we’re going to spend tens of millions of dollars… Economic development community goals need to be taken into account.
“I and my department of environmental planning certainly want to see a tremendous investment in the Broadway Fillmore area, but we do not believe that the restoration of the Central Terminal will cause an immediate turnaround of the Broadway-Fillmore area. There needs to be a comprehensive plan of what needs to be done in that region. Another question which I don’t believe has been asked is how many riders make it feasible to warrant this type of investment?
“I question the decision making by the consultants WSP Parsons Brinkerhoff. Our department of environmental planning sat down with them. We don’t think it was rigged. We think they did rely on accurate information, however, we do question the analysis they came up with because we think there are flaws since not all the information needed has been taken into account. … I believe more information is needed before a decision is rendered.
NY State Senator Tim Kennedy said “my vote speaks for itself. I’m in favor of the Central Terminal. This is an opportunity for our community to put a focus on the future for generations to come. The most refreshing part of this process for me is the fact that there has been such a focus on the Central Terminal and the need to make that transformative investment. From the state, federal, the governor to the mayor and everyone in between, there has been more attention paid to the Central Terminal than there has been in at least the last 50 years. That gives me hope we can continue the conversation and continue to work toward making a strong investment despite the fact the decision was to move Amtrak downtown.
Higgins said “Governor Cuomo has spent a lot of time in Buffalo and I think what he wants for Buffalo is economic independence. He as asked earlier in the week if he had a preference and he just wanted our community to decide. I think that’s fundamental to this process because this should be a decision by Buffalo and for Buffalo. We have a public comment document that prepared by the committee but I want to give you the results. 87.9% of the public favored the Central Terminal. This is public money, it’s a public facility, it’s a public process, but the public was not allowed in here. But they should be represented and I think it’s very important to point out that in every survey, every petition, every public meeting, the overwhelming choice of this community is the Central Terminal. It should also be noted that at a downtown station 65% of America would not be accessible to Buffalo Amtrak riders.”
THE FUTURE OF CENTRAL TERMINAL
Central Terminal proponents needn’t fall into complete despair. Designated developer for Central Terminal Harry Stinson is moving steadily along with his plans for the building, which includes over 400 residences, several hundred thousand square feet of office space, tens of thousands of feet of retail and commercial, and a 200 suite hotel.
I reached Stinson on the phone while he was giving a tour of the building. He wasn’t surprised at the train committee’s decision. “It’s pretty clear what the script was,” said Stinson. He also wasn’t dismayed about the decision.
“It’s been a lot of free publicity for us. We’re benefitting from this and we’re rather relieved that we’re able to move along with our project without multiple public partners. I think there was a perception that we were campaigning hard to have the train station here. That new Amtrak station thing came out of left field. We didn’t anticipate it; we did not plan it; we have not advocated it. Now that there’s a decision and all the committees and meetings and people have shuffled off in another direction we’re relieved and get on with the show here.”
Asked about Central Terminal’s use as a train station Stinson said “The trains are going by already. When we actually prove that we’re doing what said we were going to do and we have thousands of people here the trains will probably stop here and sure isn’t going to cost $150 million for them to stop here.
That’s something that will evolve. It’s going to be four or five years before they have that station going. We’ll be fully functional in four to five years. We’ll have things happening here in two years. If the station had been selected here how many people do you think would have suddenly become part of this process? How many committees would I have to deal with? It would have been numbing. I never set out for a public/private partnership. This is designed to be a self-sustaining development project that succeeds on its own merits. According to their study they’re going to spend more money to stop the train here than we’re going to spend on the whole development. You gotta shake your head at that.
We’re happy with the exposure it’s brought all kinds of new people into the picture interested in being involved in some way, whether they’re tenants or suppliers or finance people, even heritage people. The exposure has been great so we’re grateful for that. We got an awful lot of publicity and we didn’t get the baggage that came with it. There should be a stop in both places. There should be a stop downtown. There should be a stop here. So they’re going to pay for other one downtown and we’re not.”
WAS IT ALL JUST TALK?
Everyone of the people who voted for downtown or advocated for downtown all expressed a heartfelt desire to see the Central Terminal restored and, more importantly, to see something happen that would begin to change the horrible conditions in the east side of Buffalo. As congressman Higgins and others have said, our Buffalo renaissance isn’t valid until it reaches the forgotten parts of our city.