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Train station snub may be blessing in disguise for Central Terminal

Did the Central Terminal lose the battle but win the war?

The choice of downtown for a new train station was a deep disappointment for supporters who have grown accustomed to the Central Terminal being passed by.

But the attention lavished on the East Side landmark during the selection process, the passionate support received from the public and the expressions of commitment from politicians suggest a second act could yet be in the Central Terminal's future.

There's also a wild card, too – Canadian developer Harry Stinson.

Stinson is negotiating with Central Terminal Restoration Corp. to acquire the 523,000-square-foot facility – the size of nine football fields. That includes the 17-story tower, concourse building, baggage building and ample underground and street-level parking.

[PHOTO GALLERY: Inside Buffalo's Central Terminal, an art deco marvel in decay]

Negotiations have gone on for more than a year, but Stinson said an agreement is drawing near.

"We're days away from the final version of the agreement," Stinson said. "It will have to go through a process, but the agreement is essentially done. There is nothing we see as collectively insurmountable."

Stinson has grand plans to put a shine on the complex's faded grandeur. The goal is to put commercial office space in the tower and use the concourse for entertainment, dining and special events. The baggage building would become a hotel.

Harry Stinson at the Central Terminal in Buffalo, N.Y., on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

The developer also is planning, further down the road, to put hundreds of housing units on the property, which is currently a brownfield.

It remains to be seen if Stinson becomes the developer, and what that might mean going forward.

Mayor Byron W. Brown, Rep. Brian Higgins, Assembly members Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Sean Ryan and State Sen. Tim Kennedy, and Howard Zemsky, who heads Empire State Development, the state's development agency, were among those who have said in recent days that they want to see the Central Terminal make a comeback.

There are other ideas as well on how the Central Terminal Restoration Corp. might move forward:

Urban Land Institute

Zemsky, a Buffalo businessman who developed the Larkin at Exchange building, said much of the onus for the building's future rests with the Central Terminal Restoration Corp.'s board of directors.

"I do think there is some burden on the not-for-profit," said Zemsky, who held leadership roles for years with the Richardson Center Corp. and Martin House Restoration Corp.

"Leadership matters. It mattered on the Richardson. It mattered on the Martin House. There has to be a robust planning process and buy-in," Zemsky said.

The Urban Land Institute brought a panel of experts to Buffalo in 2007 to study the potential of the Richardson Olmsted Complex, and could do something similar with the Central Terminal, he suggested.

"We just cut the ribbon on a hotel at the Richardson on a plan that was remarkably similar to what they laid out," Zemsky said.

[PHOTO GALLERY: Official Opening of the Richardson Olmsted Complex]

"I think the board would be advised to engage in a robust planning process. The Urban Land Institute has demonstrated their five-day panel process can be very effective in laying out a vision for complex projects like the Central Terminal."

Private ownership can take advantage of state and federal historic tax credits that have been crucial to funding dozens of historic preservation projects in Buffalo. But Zemsky said a developer would be less likely to see something on the order of the $76.5 million in state money that the Richardson Olmsted Complex received. That's because the Richardson is overseen by a not-for-profit corporation acting as public stewards.

"Privately developing the Central Terminal would really put the burden of investment on the developer," Zemsky said. "The requirements to get public money into a private project are certainly more rigorous. If it is going to be owned privately, we would expect that a substantial amount of capital to come from the developer."

Looking to Cincinnati

Buffalo Council Member David Francyzk, who represents the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood that's home to the Central Terminal, wants to float a bond to raise money for the building's restoration.

He said the city, county and state did that for the Cincinnati Union Terminal – the other art deco train station built by railroad architects Alfred Fellheimer and Steward Wagner four years after the Central Terminal opened.

Mitt Romney held a campaign rally at Union Terminal in Cincinnati in 2012. (Getty Images)

Today, the building is one of the most popular destinations in Cincinnati, with a natural history museum, local history museum, IMAX theater and small Amtrak station.

"What they did could be a model, and I want to meet with some of those folks at some point this year," Francyzk said. "I really want to see how they did it. I think this is possible."

Franczyk said he also would like to form a committee with other like-minded politicians. People, he said, are now energized to restore the Central Terminal.

"This battle over the train station has awoken the sleeping giant," Francyzk said.

Mass MOCA

Buffalo architect Adam Sokol has another vision for the Central Terminal.

He and his team looked at different possibilities in other cities, and feel the most viable model is Mass MOCA – a museum of contemporary art that offers giant installations in a converted factory complex in North Adams, Mass.

"It's hours from Boston and it's more miles from New York City, and yet it's been a smashing success," Sokol said. "They have brought in millions of people over the years, hold events and stimulate tourism in what had been a downtrodden, industrial town in the middle of nowhere."

The massive complex – which got off the ground thanks to more than $18 million in state funds prior to its opening in 1999, was developed incrementally over time. It now includes restaurants, businesses, other galleries and performing arts spaces. Sokol believes this is a good model for the Central Terminal.

"Culture is a great driver," Sokol said. "If the state were to step in with serious investment, it could take off."

Can Stinson succeed?

Stinson has had successes, notably in 1990s Toronto, where he built a 51-story tower on top of a subway station. The developer has also had setbacks, including the Hotel Niagara in Niagara Falls that, despite predictions of success, wound up undeveloped, with him selling the building to Empire State Development.

Stinson chalked up Hotel Niagara as a learning experience dealing with Niagara Falls politics. He sold the hotel when the opportunity to develop the Central Terminal came about, and realized he would need to do things differently.

"I learned I need a better team on the ground. I need a team on the ground," Stinson said.

That team includes the Phillips Lytle law firm, the architectural firm Carmina Wood Morris and Cannon Heyman and Weiss for historic tax credits.

Stinson said he is "enthralled" with the Central Terminal, which he likens to a "movie set." He said he is confident the concourse will be open and active within two years of taking title to the building, while stabilization work occurs on the exterior.

A stairwell inside the Central Terminal in Buffalo, N.Y., on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Despite not yet owning the building, Stinson advertises the property on his website, and said he is encouraged by tenant interest.

"The amount of the attention this building has received as a result of this process has generated some very fascinating inquiries, with people whose names will surprise the public when they learn they are thinking of being tenants," Stinson said. "But nobody wants to sign a lease with someone who doesn't own the building."

Paul Lang, Central Terminal Restoration Corp.'s vice president, expressed "cautious optimism" over the negotiations.

"The private development interest is encouraging, and all of the community support has demonstrated there is more than just us who want to see investment in the building," Lang said. "We feel we're getting close to some monumental steps."

Stinson is also negotiating with the City of Buffalo to acquire 16 acres along Memorial Drive for future housing. He is seeking a second six-month extension of his designated developer agreement with the city, which expires in May.

Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of the Office of Strategic Planning, declined to discuss those negotiations, but said he is in regular contact with the Central Terminal Restoration Corp. as the city proceeds forward.

Stinson said he would have liked to see train service return, but suggested it might be better to revisit the issue of a train stop there in several years, when the building is up and running.

"By that time there would be a better rationale to stop there," he said.

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