It was a disappointing report produced by the Urban Land Institute for those who had hoped the panel of experts who visited Buffalo’s Central Terminal had the key that would unlock the secret to reviving the vacant East Side landmark.
In fact, it did have the key, just not the one expected. What the experts presented was no magic formula, but the steady kind of work that builds support for a project such as this. It’s not a build-it-and-they-will-come approach, but the reverse: When they come, you can build it.
That is to say, there are not enough interested people visiting the Broadway-Fillmore area of the city to support a successful project at the sprawling terminal complex. And there is little reason to believe that finding some new uses for the building will attract thousands of people to the area. It’s why putting a new train station inside the old terminal didn’t make sense.
Think of the effort to stoke interest in the Broadway Market at any time of year but Easter. It hasn’t worked, because there aren’t enough potential customers in the neighborhood daily to allow the market to thrive year-round.
That’s why the Urban Land Institute concluded that the primary task has to be improving the neighborhood. A lively district that attracts visitors and hosts a dense population is the necessary precursor to any successful reuse of the terminal.
That’s why Canalside has succeeded. It’s why the reuse of the Richardson Towers complex was doable. It’s why plans for One Seneca Tower make sense. There is already a population to serve.
It is certainly possible that the two forces could work synergistically. That’s what happened in Larkinville, where private investment helped to spark a neighborhood renewal. But it helped that the district is close to downtown.
So, for now, the Urban Land Institute’s recommendations seem familiar. “The Central Terminal should be the most interesting and creative venue in Buffalo,” the report said. “Not an imitation of other successful places and spaces, but wholly new and unique.” Its recommendations included “raves, festivals, concerts, food stalls and art shows.”
“Inside and out, the terminal should be viewed as a canvas for culture, art, sports, food, music and theater,” the report said.
Nevertheless, the report was clear-eyed about the challenges: It is necessary, it said, “to change the perception, reputation and vibe” in order to overcome “existing market challenges.” That’s a culture change and that takes time.
Still, the report can be a catalyst. It could generate greater commitment by Mayor Byron W. Brown and Howard Zemsky, the developer of Larkinville and now the president of Empire State Development. What is more, Zemsky’s boss, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, has been passionate about fostering a revival in Buffalo.
Beyond that, the institute recommended common-sense, if routine, actions such as engagement with the multicultural community around the terminal, and for the Central Terminal Restoration Corp., which owns the former station, to broaden its focus to include promotion, management and planning.
Fundamental to all of this is to ensure that the terminal complex is protected against further deterioration. The last train left decades ago and the buildings have fallen on hard times. If it is going to take years more to awaken the terminal from its slumber, then we at least need to be certain that when that day comes, the terminal is in shape to respond.