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Transforming historic buildings into magnets for future growth

Renovation of historic buildings is gaining momentum in downtown Buffalo, as derelict buildings like the AM&A Warehouse, Hotel Lafayette and others are revived by developers to meet demand for innovative living and office space.

One of the leaders in the field is Carmina Wood Morris, an 11-year-old architectural firm that has handled the design work for several high-profile historic preservation projects. Steve Carmina, principal of the firm, spoke about his company and the preservation movement.?

>Q: Tell me about Carmina ?Wood Morris?

A: We started in 2001, a firm of four, and the intent was to be a part of the rebirth and success of downtown Buffalo. That was our macro goal.

We started small. We had some really terrific clients that we were working with. We worked on some projects in the Cobblestone District on Mississippi Street, and we were at the forefront of really the revival of that district.

That really led us to more historic work, although in 2002 and 2003, the tax credit projects were still sort of struggling through the process of financing. The state tax credit was not what it is now, and it was a lot more difficult to sell those. So many developers, other than Rocco [Termini], were still shying away.

So in the meantime, we were taking on a lot of corporate work, a lot of medical work. We did a lot of primary care, a lot of specialized medical practices. We were fortunate enough to get involved with Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center and their new ER and trauma center, and for a young firm, a project like that was huge for us.

But the real turning point for us, on historic projects, came with my sort of less-than-chance meeting with Rocco Termini. I harassed him for a few weeks until we were finally able to set up a conversation to talk about how we could get involved with his work. We helped him with some of the initial conceptual work on the Webb Building, and that turned out to be our first commission with Rocco.

That project, and the relationship we had with Rocco led to everything else, led to working on AM&A's Department Store, which is an on-again, off-again passion of ours as a team; led to AM&A Warehouse Lofts, which is a success; and ultimately led to Lafayette, which is to date the pinnacle of our careers.

>Q: What is special about ?the Lafayette?

A:The Lafayette is so different from other projects because it really, truly is not just an exterior restoration. It's an interior restoration. So much archaeology went into finding and reinventing detail that was there. A lot of research that was done by my partner and staff to really get that project right. Other projects are easier in that they're mostly exterior restorations. So projects like the Webb Lofts, the Remington Rand building, the old Buffalo Meter Company building, tend to be exterior restorations. They give you much more flexibility on the inside. Lafayette was much more of a challenge, because you had clashing architectural styles, which became in and of themselves important architectural pieces.

>Q: Is Lafayette your signature ?accomplishment?

A: From a historic preservation standpoint, there is nothing (comparable) here except for the Darwin Martin House and the [psychiatric] hospital, the H.H. Richardson property. I'm not sure there is anything here in Buffalo that can touch the Lafayette from the standpoint of the original architecture, as far as active historic projects in the city of Buffalo. Certainly there's projects like the Central Terminal and other projects which are amazing that haven't been restored yet. But of the projects that are now happening and have been restored in the last 10 years, other than the ones I've mentioned, this project is right there.

>Q: How much of a role do ?historic credits play in historic ?preservation efforts?

A: There wouldn't be any. The only historic work that would be getting done would be work that is either funded strictly through public money, and big dollars public money, like the Richardson complex. All projects would have to be done like that. These private projects, these smaller projects, people like Rocco would not be investing in projects like this without tax credits. It's such a heavy lift to get through to the point where you could actually restore a building.

>Q: Are there a lot of other projects in Buffalo that you'd like to see done?

A: We sort of joke about it. We're sort of the yentas of historic buildings in the city. We are constantly trying to marry a client with a building. So we're always scouting buildings. We know what's here in the core of the city, and we're confident that we're sort of on the edge of pushing out to the next layer. So right now, there are projects that I want to see happen, like the Curtiss Building, which Marc Croce owns.

I'd like to see the AM&A's project get done. That's a huge one for us. And it, along with the resurgence of the Brisbane, that I'd like to see the Hunt family take advantage of historic tax credits and do something there.

The Tishman is the other piece. That's the other node to Lafayette Square. That's getting closer to starting. We're working with the Hamister Group. That's imminent.

The Statler is an important piece of the city. That's a really heavy, heavy, heavy lift. I like Marc, and I silently pray for that building's success every day.

>Q: Is there a lot of interest by tenants who want to be in historic buildings?

A: I think there's a huge amount. People are realizing that there's an opportunity. As a residential tenant, we're finding that people that are buying these are now in the mode of their two-year program to get their butts downtown, to live downtown. We're finding that a lot of adults are moving from the suburbs back into the city.

>Q: Do you see real potential for downtown Buffalo to come back?

A: Slowly but surely, yeah, I do. I'm hopeful that some of the uses on Main Street get replaced. EAP (Employee Assistance Program) does not belong on Main Street anymore. The parole office certainly does not belong on Main Street. Hopefully those are the type of things that go other places and returns Main Street back to something else.

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