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Saving Trico from wrecker is a win-win

Score one for common sense.

Strike a blow against rushing in with a wrecking ball, a knee-jerk reflex that I thought we had cured.

On the civic scorecard, credit preservationists for paving the road to economic development. Barely two years after Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus officials announced its imminent demolition, the historic Trico complex – as reported last week – is ready for rebirth as a hotel/office/apartment complex. Preservationists helped make it happen. The same preservationist-brokered model may save St. Ann Church and can be used to counter future rush-to-demolition urges.

It’s a new formula for preservation, one that goes beyond filing lawsuits and jumping in front of bulldozers.

The last-gasp stuff has its place. Sadly, it has had too much of a place over the years, from saving the historic Commercial Slip to preserving the 1871 Asbury Delaware United Methodist Church (now Babeville).

So many downtown eyesores have blossomed into assets in recent years, notably the Hotel @ The Lafayette, that one assumes most people now see vacant old buildings as potential resources. Then the Trico near-disaster comes along, shattering that illusion.

Thankfully, the Trico crisis never got to the point of lawsuits and bulldozer-blockage. We partly have dapper, white-haired Tom Yots, 30-something Jason Wilson and a new preservation mindset to thank for it.

“They were helpful in us being able to save Trico with the plan we have today,” developer Peter Krog confirmed.

The Yots-led Preservation Buffalo Niagara was formed five years ago as an alternative to bulldozer-blocking last resorts.

Instead, the aim was to convince property owners, developers and politicians that, in most cases, it makes more sense to redevelop grand old buildings than to destroy them.

“We have architects and developers on our board, we can show property owners how preservation can be profitable,” said Wilson, who – with fiancée Bernice Radle – forms Buffalo’s young preservation power couple. “Everything doesn’t have to end up in lawsuits and protests.”

Make no mistake, the key to saving Trico is developer Krog and hotelier David Hart, who have a reuse plan for nearly the entire 600,000-square-foot complex. But preservationists, community pressure and neighborhood groups helped pave the path to resurrection.

Medical Campus officials two years ago dropped the D-bomb announcement for the historic, multibuilding site of Buffalo’s former windshield-wiper pre-eminence. Medical Campus CEO Matt Enstice subsequently acknowledged that the Trico building was purchased eight years ago without a plan in place or regard for its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Wilson, Yots and others persuaded Medical Campus officials – bruised by public blowback to their demo plans – to do a reuse study for the battered complex. It opened the door to revival.

“The study would either show that the building was beyond saving, or it was salvageable to reuse or sell to a developer,” Wilson noted. “Either way, the study worked for BNMC.”

The study confirmed that leveling much of the complex would disqualify the Medical Campus from historic tax credits, which would otherwise cover 40 percent of reuse costs. Without the tax credits, the Medical Campus couldn’t afford to rehab the small piece of the complex that it wanted to keep. It would either be left with a parking lot and a huge black eye for destroying a nationally significant building, or – best case – find a preservation-minded developer to take it off its hands.

That’s what happened. Krog and Medical Campus officials did a building swap that worked for everybody – and saved Trico. Krog’s and Hart’s office/apartment/hotel plan should qualify for the historic tax credits. Yots and Wilson brokered the study showing that Trico was savable.

“Our first notion was to tear down 50 percent” of the complex, Krog told me. “Now we are saving most of it, with the expectation of getting tax credits.”

I like happy endings. Especially when preservationists help write the story.