The cavernous building on Niagara Street – once home to Curtiss Malting Co. – for decades has been a run-down reminder of a bygone era.
The building and dozens of others like it are clustered along the Belt Line – the 15 miles of track that the New York Central Railroad opened in 1883 to circle Buffalo. Many have sat idle or underused for many decades.
But the brick and concrete structures of past industrial might and elegance are emerging again as engines for economic development and could help revitalize Buffalo's neighborhoods.
“There is a lot of interest even though it's a wreck on the outside and kind of hidden in plain view,” Giles Kavanagh said of the former malt building he owns.
Kavanagh envisions the building in Black Rock as a brewery once more, but he also imagines a rooftop cafe and bar and even a large events center.
His building and the others represent a “Rust Belt chic” fast becoming Buffalo's new frontier as developers look for opportunities amid Buffalo's surge in redevelopment.
The potential of the Belt Line buildings will be highlighted Saturday in a tour offered as part of the Congress of New Urbanism's national conference this week in Buffalo. More than 1,200 urban planning and design professionals and others are expected to attend.
City officials in April listed the Belt Line buildings in the Buffalo Preservation Ready Survey, along with the state and federal historic tax credits available to developers.
The Belt Line buildings were homes to companies that made Pierce-Arrow cars, Wonder Bread, Otis elevators and other legacy products during the city's manufacturing heyday. Shuttered after the companies closed or moved production from the area, they are drawing interest now that most historic downtown buildings have been scooped up for redevelopment or are being readied for new uses by owners who had waited for the investment climate to change.
“We're not just talking potential anymore,” said Brendan R. Mehaffy, who heads the city's Office of Strategic Planning. “Investors are seeking building types that have historic qualities in areas outside of downtown. They offer a lifestyle that many people want today and are perfect for residential use, office use and lighter manufacturing.”
The cool, industrial cachet they carry makes them attractive locations. So do the large floor plates, vacant land for parking, access to public transit and, in some cases, convenient locations near retailers.
The Buffalo News looked at 30 buildings along the Belt Line – not the complete inventory – and found seven, including the Tri-Main Center and Larkin at Exchange, already are examples of large buildings developed for new tenants.
Projects have been announced, are under construction or have been recently completed at nine other buildings. That doesn't mean redeveloping the remaining sites will be easy.
Neighborhood blight, crime and neglected infrastructure pose major challenges to many of the other 14 buildings that are either vacant or underused.
Changes to the tax credits program could halt progress, as well.
“The possibilities for developing former vibrant parts of the city that have, in some instances, experienced many decades of disinvestment along the former Belt Line are increasingly realistic,” said Howard A. Zemsky, whose development of the Larkin at Exchange building a dozen years ago fostered the celebrated Larkin District revival.
Incentives will expire
Redevelopment projects such as these require sustained public-private-foundation partnerships, matched by a concentrated investment in streets, parks, and building rehabilitation and demolition, he said. Unfortunately, proponents say, a major incentive for turning around these buildings is about to be lost.
The state's Brownfield Cleanup Program will keep the 20 percent credit for environmental cleanup, but the 20 percent credit for improvements to the land after the cleanup expires next year with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's approval.
“When that happens, it will no longer be possible to do buildings like these,” developer Rocco R. Termini said.
Termini would change legislation so the credit could be used in low-income census tracts, eliminating costly New York City projects that drain most of the program's money.
Termini also would carve out an exception for upstate New York projects of $25 million or more. The existing $5 million cap, put in place to keep New York City projects from making this program too expensive as well, isn't enough to tackle the largest projects, including the Central Terminal, AM&A's, the Richardson Olmsted complex and the downtown Trico building.
The former Curtiss Malting Co. has an airy, theaterlike main room supported with steel beams, and a former art gallery space behind it bordered by brick walls the size of Fenway Park's Green Monster. Its rooftop offers expansive views of Lake Erie, the Niagara River and newly renovated Broderick Park.
The 1899 facility was one of the first in the country to harness electric power from Niagara Falls, using it to run a series of malting drums to process the malt. In 1911, the building was sold to the Fleischmann Co., a large multistate malting operation, until Prohibition caused the company in 1920 to become a farmers' cooperative grain warehouse, which it remained for 62 years. An unusual, square-shaped concrete grain elevator on the southeast side of the property stands as a testament to that period.
Like many of these industrial-strength buildings, the former malt house – which still has bins on the second floor – shows relatively little water damage, brick loss or other structural damage.
So opportunities for reuse abound. “It could be an epic, postindustrial concert hall,” Kavanagh said.
Kavanagh, a pricing consultant in financial services who works with U.S. and Canadian brokerages, said he's optimistic about the building's future, even though uncertain about the hulking structure's financial viability.
“The building showcases the ascendant confidence that Buffalo once had, and I think should have again,” he said.
Several blocks from Larkinville, the former F.N. Burt Co. building – where paper boxes were made in the early 20th century and New Era Cap Co. made baseball hats at the end of it – is fully leased. When finished, the six-story, 330,000 square-foot building will include Class A office space, as well as offices for cultural groups and community organizations.
Samuel J. Savarino has redeveloped the building at 500 Seneca St. and two others in the nearby Cobblestone District.
The mindset toward such buildings has changed, Savarino said. “All the buildings and industrial architecture that we looked at as part of our sad history are now looked at as what's possible,” he said.
Savarino won't be alone in the neighborhood. The Frontier Group recently purchased the former A&P Bakery at 550 Seneca St. and plans to fill the four-story, 91,632-square-foot space with 31 market-rate apartments and office space.
Peter M. Cammarata, president of Buffalo Urban Development Corp. and a self-described “Belt Line enthusiast,” said the agency has seen interest in the Northland Avenue area on the East Side, near a former Belt Line rail stop at Fillmore Avenue.
“There are definitely some spaces along the Belt Line that could make a nice open platform for office space for research and development, or for information technology,” Cammarata said.
Preservationist Timothy A. Tielman said the Belt Line ranks in importance to Buffalo with Joseph Ellicott's radial street grid and Frederick Law Olmsted's parks and parkway system.
Neighborhoods such as Grant-Amherst, North Park, Parkside and the Larkin District are a result of the rails that moved passengers and freight, he said.
Termini gauges development opportunities within a circular pattern.
'Anything is possible'
In the middle are the downtown properties. Around them are the first and second rings, which are already being redeveloped. Then the third ring follows. Some East Side properties, because of the blight and crime, are in the fourth or fifth rings and will take longer to redevelop, Termini said. “I think after the second and third rings, anything is possible,” he said.
Termini is converting three former brick factories in Black Rock into loft-style apartments and commercial space.
The former Houk Wire Wheel at 316 Grote St. in Black Rock – now Houk Lofts – was recently converted into 22 fully leased apartments, a hair salon and tattoo parlor.
Work finished Monday converting the former FWS furniture store and warehouse at 1738 Elmwood Ave. into the Foundry Lofts. That redevelopment includes 46 market-rate apartments, a small boutique hotel and banquet center, and commercial space.
Termini plans in July to begin converting the former American Radiator building across the street at 1807 Elmwood Ave. ARCO Lofts will have 38 market-rate apartments and commercial space.
The three projects have a combined cost of nearly $39 million. They cover more than 160,000 square feet. Termini christened the area “Pierce-Arrow Village” after the nearby former auto plant.
“No one ever thought we would rent in that neighborhood for $1,350,” Termini said of Foundry Lofts, the former FWS building, where railroad signals were once made. “We had commercial space that we're getting $20 a square foot. The bank was in here from Philadelphia, and they couldn't believe it. Our gross revenue is actually higher that what was projected.”
The Wonder Bread building – the East Side building where Twinkies were also once made – inhabits three acres at 313 Fougeron St. On the other side of the tracks is Del Monte Foods, the maker of Milk-Bone dog biscuits and the only business along the Belt Line that still moves products by rail.
The Wonder Bread building is missing letters from its towering sign. Copper flashing has been stripped from the roof. But with its large arched windows and floor plans, the building could someday be converted to loft-style apartments offering beautiful views of the city and secure parking, broker Richard R. Recckio said.
But changes must first come to the immediate area, he said.
For now, the building is marketed as inexpensive warehouse space.
“I just don't think if people had to live in that area they would feel safe getting into their cars at night. I don't think it's safe in the daytime,” Recckio said.
Still, young people and developers with an appreciation for architecture and open space in which to live or work have a different outlook, said James R. Militello of Militello Realty.
“The negativity around Buffalo, in my opinion, has been neutralized and maybe removed,” Militello said. “You now look at the next generation of developers, and they are willing to jump right in and tackle something on the East Side or Lower West Side. It's a whole mindset that's different, and that's refreshing.”
William E. Breeser has quietly invested in Niagara Street. The largest of his 10 buildings, at 1250-1270 Niagara St., was once home to Sterling Engine, a military supplier during World War II.
Most of the 100,000 square feet has been leased. New occupants include Resurgence Brewing Co. and the Body of Trade and Commerce Gallery.
“You get an old neighborhood, and when stuff gets cheap enough, then crazy people like me buy it up and try to see how to repurpose it,” Breeser said. “The artists go first, then the hipsters follow them, then suburbanites trying to get back to the city.”
Until the last several years, the impetus was for people to move from Buffalo. Now they want to stay, reflecting a national trend to return to cities, he said.
“All you can do is recognize and try to capitalize on it, and these buildings are a great way to do that,” Breeser said.
Jason Wilson, a preservation consultant, said the former Curtiss Malting Co. building is a perfect example.
“This building epitomizes the potential for all of these older industrial buildings, primarily centered along the Belt Line, that once defined job loss and depopulation,” Wilson said. “Their rebirth characterizes the renaissance happening in Buffalo right now.”