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A dark lining to silver cloud of tax credits

A moment of triumph, undercut by frustration. A silver cloud, with a dark lining.

Rocco Termini unveils Tuesday his greatest success. The developer officially opens the revived Lafayette Hotel, downtown's newest restaurant/residential oasis. In 12 months, the 1904 landmark morphed from eyesore to icon. Inside are apartments, a hotel, banquet halls, shops, bars, restaurants. It is a seven-story beacon in Buffalo.

Reviving buildings like this -- Buffalo has as large a collection as any struggling upstate city -- will jump-start downtown resurrection faster than a speeding silver bullet. But only if Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers make it happen.

The Lafayette is just one piece of Termini's vision. It is just the start of what he and other urban-friendly developers can do -- if Albany lends a hand.

Up the block from the Lafayette is the AM&As monolith, vacant for decades. Termini has the rights, but not the means, to revive it. If redone, it saves not just a structure. It creates a neighborhood. Its resurrection rides on Bill A9110. Stuck in the bowels of an Albany legislative committee is the spark for downtown's revival.

Historic tax credits are the key to saving the buildings of Buffalo's past -- and future. It is the helping hand needed for the heavy restoration lifts. Bill A9110 would raise the tax-credit ceiling for historic buildings from $5 million to $12 million. Do that, Termini said, and he starts work on the AM&A's tomorrow. Do that, and you give developers the tools to transfuse landmarks.

"People talk about the $1 billion the governor promised Buffalo," said Termini, who needed Washington dollars to pull off the Lafayette. "In terms of the economy, I'd rather have the tax credits lifted. Think about how many buildings you could restore. Reviving [the Lafayette] alone brings 150 full-time jobs."

It is more than jobs. Assemblyman Sean Ryan is pushing the tax-credit bill in the Assembly (its Senate equivalent, backed by Mark Grisanti, is expected to pass).

"Look at the return taxpayers get out of the Lafayette project," Ryan said. "We get hotel tax from the rooms, sales tax for the retail and restaurant, liquor tax from the bars and more property tax out of the building." Beyond that, a revived Lafayette lures investors to the neighborhood, inflates property values and brings people downtown to live and play.

The holdup? The state budget is done. Raising the tax credit limit by June 21 -- when legislators go home -- means taking the money from someplace else. It also means fast-forwarding a downtown revival that is long overdue.

"I think it has a shot," said Devin Lander, aide to Assemblyman Steve Englebright, the bill's downstate sponsor. "It's an economic driver that preserves historic buildings."

It is also, Termini and Ryan said, an idea Cuomo likes. The governor toured the Lafayette this month. "We chatted with the governor [about raising the tax-credit ceiling]," Ryan said. "He indicated his support." Raising the tax credit ceiling is arguably the quickest way to revive former factory towns. That works for upstate cities. That works for an ambitious politician. And these days, what Cuomo likes, Cuomo usually gets.

"I don't see a bill like this [passing] this session, unless the governor wants it to happen," said Assemblyman Robin Schimminger. "But if the governor likes it, then it's very possible."

And that is the bizarre calculus of Albany. Magic can happen. Dark linings can be erased from silver clouds. Grand old buildings -- and hurting downtowns -- can find new life.