A fresh concept emerged for the critical redevelopment of downtown's anchor AM&A's building. Fine. But Buffalo ought to borrow a movie line: "Show us the money." And, for that matter, the commitment. And, while you're at it, a detailed plan, partnership and financial agreements.
The fundamental priority for the city in any AM&A's project is to restore this central site in the city core to productive, and preferably exciting, uses. If developer John Giardino or building owner Richard Taylor can deliver on that, Buffalo benefits greatly. But given Taylor's track record with this building, and as a corporate citizen, City Hall must remain wary and impose strict conditions.
Taylor is now in Housing Court, having stonewalled safety inspections for this building for years while it stood vacant and deteriorating without utilities. It's hard to grasp why the public has to contend with this inaction, and why the city can't get inspectors inside defies logic. While former Mayor Anthony M. Masiello blocked his own inspectors, the new Brown administration put Taylor on notice that won't be tolerated. No plans or promises should prevent court action and inspections designed to protect the public interest.
The building is a downtown wound that the owner and the city allowed to fester, and only recently has the Brown administration taken the tougher stance needed all along. Giardino, meanwhile, has a $38 million development concept, but not yet a formal development partnership with Taylor. Giardino also needs to line up financing and engineering analysis. For that matter, Giardino is not the only interested developer.
Formal partnership or not, Giardino took a fine first step in bringing in Miami-based architect Bernard Zyscovich, a key designer and planning consultant on memorable projects in that region. He is a strong proponent for adaptive reuse of existing structures. Zyscovich's concept would preserve the Washington Street facades of both the main AM&A's building and the warehouse building across Washington, and would incorporate echoes of Buffalo architecture -- terra cotta and large light wells, for instance, in the project.
It would also break the horizontal department-store front into more vertical elements, converting what most previous developers have seen as unworkable floor plans into manageable zones of office, retail and residential spaces. That mixed-use development is a good fit for downtown, and the initial design -- still awaiting detail -- has some strong elements. The downtown core would benefit immensely from a vibrant rebirth of a long-dead shell in the heart of the downtown business district.
That deserves encouraging, but this is just one proposal and the city must remain wary. There must be an imposed series of development deadlines with financial or property-forfeiture penalties for failing to meet them. Neither is an onerous nor a unique requirement, given similar deadlines agreed to by the Common Council and developer Carl P. Paladino for a proposed office tower on Court Street.
Standard tax incentives and credits would be fair, but public investment must be limited, if given at all. With those safeguards, a far more detailed proposal than the present concept designs is worth evaluation and consideration. The key is to get the heart of the city beating strongly again.