On Feb. 1, 1917, trains bound for places like Binghamton, Scranton and Jersey City first steamed out of Buffalo’s new Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Terminal.
The Buffalo Evening News that day proclaimed the new station as “spic and span.”
The depot was torn down in 1979, but a century after it opened, the train shed at the foot of Main Street awaits more “spic and span” days.
Last week’s announcement that Labatt USA will relocate its North American headquarters to a Pegula Sports and Entertainment facility on nearby Perry Street underscores the potential of the newly vibrant neighborhood.
The owner of the DL&W believes the old train shed eventually will play a role in that area, too.
"Everybody loves the space — its architectural elements, the beautiful windows, the fact that it’s on the water — it’s incredible,” said Kimberly A. Minkel, executive director of the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. “Even the rooftop is a tremendous space."
“The question has always been, how do we provide access to the second level to make it ready for development?” she added.
No solid plans yet guide the cavernous space once hosting trains like the “Phoebe Snow,” but the NFTA looks to extend Metro Rail and provide second-floor access that may some day entice developers.
[Gallery: Buffalo's DL&W Terminal, past and present]
The authority soon will seek bidders for the environmental studies needed to start a $42 million project that could be only a few years into the future, depending on Washington’s funding winds. The project took a giant leap forward earlier this year when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo committed $20 million.
The idea is to extend Metro Rail beyond its last downtown stop into the DL&W, where the NFTA houses its yard and shops complex. Stairs and escalators would ferry visitors to second-floor shops and other commercial development throughout 140,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor space. Two skywalks into the adjacent parking garage and KeyBank Center, home of the Buffalo Sabres, are also planned.
Though funding challenges lie ahead, Minkel said the authority remains optimistic about an eventual plan that includes:
• Pushing Metro Rail beyond the Erie Canal Harbor Station, eliminating the Special Events Station to its south, and directing traffic into the DL&W complex immediately adjacent to the Buffalo River.
• A new station on the terminal’s ground floor.
• Access to the second floor that until 1962 served six passenger trains at a time — considered key to attracting commercial developers.
• An existing parking garage to serve Southtowns commuters leaving vehicles there and taking Metro Rail to the burgeoning Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, where parking is expected to be at a premium.
• Possible docks in the Buffalo River that could serve the complex and add another mode of transportation.
The NFTA shows off the complex on a regular basis, Minkel said.
“All sorts of people look at it: developers, historians, people interested in architecture,” she said. "Some people just want to see it for the opportunities.”
Developers such as Rocco R. Termini, who has long been intrigued by the building, are not exactly rushing in. He notes the new second-floor access will prove important, but he still questions whether such a massive building and its associated rehabilitation costs can succeed.
All of downtown’s retail possibilities remain dependent on increasing foot traffic, he said.
“I absolutely like the building, but there has to be the right fit,” said Termini, who previously resurrected downtown behemoths such as the Hotel @ Lafayette.
“But you’ve got to have something exciting and thriving to bring people downtown, or else everyone will be out of business in six months,” he added.
Termini floats ideas like a partnership with Wegmans Food Markets featuring DL&W-based specialists producing ravioli or pierogis or sausage or pasta. They would sell to visitors but rely on supply agreements with supermarkets.
“It’s going to be very difficult to get traffic there on a daily basis,” he said.
Still, the NFTA is preparing for the day when interest and business sense meet.
Minkel said the authority will continue seeking federal and state funding for a required environmental impact study that should cost around $500,000 and could take six months to a year to complete, depending on the required scope.
Once environmental studies are completed, she said the authority must then initiate another round of funding requests for construction costs. Minkel estimates construction probably still lies at least two years in the future.
Metro Rail trains have been rumbling in and out of the complex since service started in 1984, picking up where the Erie-Lackawanna – the DL&W’s successor – left off after it ended passenger service. The former freight house below houses Metro Rail trains.
NFTA officials point to similar train sheds, such as the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, that now offer thriving retail attractions. They say the sights and sounds of a working rail complex combined with the surrounding industrial ambiance – including the sweet smell of Cheerios baking at adjacent General Mills – may hold the key to unlocking the Cobblestone District’s potential.
In 2015, the development around Canalside and the Buffalo waterfront prompted authority planners to examine how best to serve the area. Their ensuing $300,000 transit study conducted by Parsons Brinckerhoff also aimed to examine better links to a new downtown Amtrak station and enhancing the role of Metro Rail’s Erie Canal Harbor Station.