Over the last 35 years, Steve Carmina has seen Buffalo experience its highs and lows, but never expected what he is seeing today.
As a veteran architect and founder of one of the area’s most active firms, the Buffalo native has been involved in many of the redevelopment projects that have changed the region’s landscape over the years.
During his career, he’s worked for Kideney Architects, Uniland Development Co. and Silvestri Architects, and even ran his own consulting firm specializing in federal historic tax credits back in the 1980s – well before the use of such financing was in vogue.
In February 2000, he set off on his own and teamed up with partners R. Christopher Wood and Jonathan Morris, forming what is now Carmina Wood Morris PC. The firm began teaming up with innovative developers who wanted to reuse older buildings, and effectively helped to kickstart the wave of adaptive reuse projects. It’s developed a specialty in particular with historic tax credit conversions after the state introduced its own credit in 2006, and has won five awards from the Preservation League of New York State in the last four years. Today, the firm has 27 employees.
Among its historic projects are the Hotel @ Lafayette, Webb Lofts, Remington Rand Lofts, Bethune Lofts, 550 Seneca Street Lofts, 10 Lafayette, 100 South, Calumet Building, LAPC Lofts, AM&A Warehouse Lofts, Huron Lofts, and the Bosche Lofts. But its portfolio of projects ranges the gamut of other new residential, office and retail space, such as Compass East, The Delavan hotel, the William Seneca Building, AAA of Western New York, the 310 Rainbow Hyatt Hotel in Niagara Falls, the Pediatric and Adolescent Urgent Care facility in Amherst, and others.
Carmina also purchased and redeveloped his own building in downtown Buffalo, where he now also lives, as he seeks to enjoy a revitalized urban core. He is a member of the Buffalo Place board of directors.
He talked with The Buffalo News about how the city has changed, and what he sees for the future.
Q: What changes have you seen in Buffalo over your career?
A: I was working in the city when they built the transit system. All the changes they’re making down there, I saw them laying down the original plan. I saw urban renewal. I saw the demolition of old buildings, and like a lot of people then, I didn’t believe my eyes. We were looking for a way out of the hole we were in. I don’t think I was wise then.
But the challenges were there. Industry was disappearing. Shops were disappearing, and I worked for firms where we struggled every year because there wasn’t a heck of a lot of work out there. That was true for most of the ’80s.
In 1986, I went to work for Uniland Development. Their main thrust of development was Amherst, the municipality that was drawing all of the businesses away from the city of Buffalo, offering lower rent because of the potential for tax abatements for construction of new buildings, and all the parking they could ask for.
Q: How about more recently, since your firm opened in 2000?
A: In 2000, everybody was sitting on the edge of their chairs, knowing that something was going to happen. We saw the non-starters like Bass Pro and the teasers coming into the 21st century that made it seem like people were interested in us. We had the hope of the Rigas family that was going to build an empire in the city of Buffalo.
So we had the typical things that give Buffalo residents a chip on their shoulder. We get teased and then we get torn apart by people.
But the reason why I came into the city is we believed in it. It wasn’t really until maybe 2004, when we got our building and moved into it, that we really began to see some of that genesis taking place.
In 2004, we probably had maybe 30 projects on the books for the entire year. By 2006, we probably had 130 projects on the books. They didn’t all coalesce into a building or a project, but they were people that wanted to do something, and that began to build a base.
So that shows that, across the board, things are happening, and not just in Buffalo but all over New York.
Q: Are you surprised with what happened in the last decade?
A: I don’t want to say it surprised me. It fulfills my deepest wishes, my brightest wishes.
You wish for something all the time, and while it doesn’t come true, you might get part of that wish come true. Because of who we are, we never expect to get our whole wish.
But other than that we don’t have a championship yet, all of our wishes are coming true. We love the Pegulas and what they’re doing, and we pray every day that they’re going to live forever, that their family will be OK and love our city the same way 50 years from today, because when have we had something like that since the Knoxes?
Most of my wishes are coming true. I wish I was 10 years younger so I can enjoy them longer, but I’m not going to get depressed by something like that. My wife and I are excited about what’s happening, and it’s making us young.
Q: How did you end up with a specialty in adaptive reuse?
A: I worked for a really great firm, now Kideney Architects. They were a firm born out of the ’30s, with Jim Kideney and his partners. They did a lot of old buildings, and I was fortunate when I was at Kideney to get exposure to adaptive reuse back then.
But it wasn’t historic tax credit work. I actually started a business in the ’80s to do historic tax credit work, during the days when it was just a federal tax credit. I did some projects on Linwood, did some consulting on a project at the Chautauqua Institution. It fizzled away, but I always had this appreciation for old buildings.
It really was Rocco Termini that got us back involved. He was the guy that I called one day and said, “Why aren’t we working together?” The Webb Lofts came out of that.
That put us into the current paradigm of historic preservation, and we haven’t looked back. We’ve been fortunate to have some amazing clients and now those clients have given us the foundation to get called by others.
Q: Are there enough historic buildings remaining?
A: A year and a half ago, we sat in a room with my senior staff and I said I don’t know where we’re going. We seem to be running out of buildings.
But we’re not. Now we’re doing these really great stand-alone projects. There are still a ton of schools in the Buffalo school system that they’re selling. And there’s the East Side, which has been so largely ignored, not because the community of developers haven’t wanted to do something, but the opportunity hasn’t presented itself. Now it is. And there’s Niagara Street.
In our office, we call them the new frontier. We’re working on something now which is the Yukon of the new frontier.
It just amazes me how many guys are coming out of the woodwork who have been holding buildings for 20 years and are now seeing they can make a go of it doing adaptive reuse. So I’m not worried about it anymore.
Q: You sound excited. Are you?
A: It is exciting. Plus, we’re moving to other cities. We’ve got projects in Utica. We’re looking at buildings for clients in Albany. So we’re trying to move ourselves around a little bit.
But no one is more on our radar screen than our city, and it’ll never be more than our city.