There’s hope for the Central Terminal. Not a plan, not the money, not a savior – just hope.
It comes via a story in The Buffalo News last month about the local treasure’s sister structure in Cincinnati, the former Union Terminal. It’s a spectacular Art Deco rail palace that, like the Central Terminal, fell on hard times as society and transportation changed.
But in Cincinnati, citizens found a reuse for the building, which is about 1½ miles outside the city center and in a not-so-welcoming, industrial neighborhood. Today, it is the Cincinnati Museum at Union Terminal. Last year, attendance hit 1.3 million. Not bad for a cavernous relic of a bygone era.
The story in Cincinnati is different from Buffalo. There, owners began looking for alternative uses for the building in the late 1950s. There was some success, but when Amtrak, which had taken over passenger service in 1971, moved to a smaller location the next year, rail service at Union Terminal came to an end.
In 1980, the building became a mall, but most tenants left by 1984. It wasn’t until 1990 that its current incarnation as a museum began to take shape, helped along by the return of Amtrak, which operates three times a week between Chicago and New York. Last year’s ridership totaled 13,681.
Also of critical importance was the willingness of taxpayers to help fund the building. In 1986, voters approved a $33 million tax bond to partially restore and transform the building into the Cincinnati Museum Center. And just last year, they agreed to dig a little deeper, voting to raise the county’s sales tax by one-quarter of 1 percent for the next five years. The revenue, expected to reach $170 million, will fund full restoration of the building. An additional $38 million is expected to be raised through state grants, private funds and historic tax credits.
Cincinnati’s example is not directly transferable to Buffalo. Tax increases, in particular, are anathema in the nation’s highest-taxed state. There are no plans for Amtrak to return to the Central Terminal – though the idea shouldn’t be written off – and the neighborhood, largely residential and poor, is more challenging than Union Terminal’s.
Still, the larger point is that Cincinnati didn’t give up on the building. A 450-foot-long concourse was demolished, but the main structure remains solidly and gloriously intact. It was a one-of-kind structure – the largest half-dome building in the Western Hemisphere – and Cincinnati kept at it until it found the right formula.
Buffalo’s train station was designed by the same architects as Cincinnati’s – Alfred T. Fellheimer and Steward Wagner – but its path to renewal is going to be different. What must join the two buildings is a commitment to keep revival an option until a practical plan to reuse it appears.
There are ideas. Earlier this year, The News asked local developers for their suggestions. They included loft-style housing on the top floors of the tower, non-traditional office space, breweries, a food incubator for gastronomic artisans, a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills, an open-space market, a charter school, a college and, as in Cincinnati, a museum. Several of the developers also thought it wouldn’t be impossible to lure Amtrak back to the building.
All are intriguing ideas, but the fundamental fact is that it can be done. Cincinnati did it. And we also know that Buffalo is on the rise today. It’s a different city from the downcast one of five years ago, and will be different, still, in another five years. New forces are at work that could produce the conditions for reusing one of Buffalo’s forlorn but priceless treasures. Hope lives.