Louis Billittier Jr. favors a new Bills stadium downtown.
But he doesn’t want it built just down the street from Chef’s, which he co-owns.
One of the three favored downtown sites from a consultant’s study places a new stadium within an area bordered by Michigan Avenue and Chicago Street, and Swan and Exchange streets. But that site – the smallest of the three – would require the loss of a portion of Seneca Street between Michigan and Chicago, putting the stadium grounds right at the doorstep of one of Buffalo’s most popular restaurants.
For that reason, a likely consequence of the “Exchange Street site” would result in Chef’s – a dining institution that opened in 1923 – having to move.
“It may be in our best interest to relocate. I don’t want to, obviously, but everything is on the table, I guess,” Billittier said.
James Sandoro shares the restaurateur’s concerns. His Buffalo Transportation Museum/Pierce-Arrow Museum, the non-profit facility he donated to the city and operates, would be another casualty of a stadium there.
So could Larkinville if the Exchange Street site is selected for a new stadium. Seneca Street access to Larkinville, the popular entertainment and commercial area started by Howard Zemsky, a key adviser to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, would be shut off. Larkinville also can be reached via Exchange and Swan streets.
Together, these businessmen and others in the neighborhood could pose formidable opposition to the selection of the Exchange Street site as a possible new home for the Buffalo Bills.
Sandoro is one of the biggest landowners in that area, and he is naturally protective of the auto museum he started and grew.
Last year, Sandoro opened a new addition, featuring the Frank Lloyd Wright Filling Station, with the help of $6.3 million in taxpayer dollars, boosting attendance almost 30 percent.
He recently purchased adjacent property to significantly enlarge the museum’s footprint. Altogether, he owns more than 20 properties in the area, including parking lots.
“I’m cautiously optimistic they will rethink it and go with another site after they do a more detailed look,” Sandoro said. “They are shoehorning the stadium into a small site, and away from all the parking,” he said.
At the same time, Sandoro said he was eager to see a new stadium downtown.
“I think it’s great for Buffalo and would love to see it down here, but not exactly on one of the sites they picked, obviously, because it impacts us.”
To be sure, it could be a long time before a decision is reached whether and where to locate a new stadium, and then years after that to build. Terry and Kim Pegula, the Bills’ billionaire owners, are likely to have a large say in what transpires.
But the uncertainty has several business owners in the several-block area wondering what the future may hold.
The family-owned McCullough Coffee Roasters, at its current location on Swan Street since 1980, is one of them.
“We were a bit surprised to see that one of the options would be right on top of our facility,” said Warren Emblidge III, the company’s president. “We have been roasting coffee in a number of locations in Buffalo since 1867, so the one thing we know is change is a constant.”
But Emblidge said he was happy the Bills are staying in Buffalo and would be in favor of whatever plan offers the best deal for taxpayers.
“We’re willing to play our part if it comes down to that. We would simply ask to receive fair compensation for the land and the building, as well as the cost of relocating equipment,” Emblidge said.
Sandoro has other concerns besides the loss of the transportation museum.
He has lived in the area with his wife, Mary, Ann for 53 years, and worries a massive stadium would block the sun for homes just north of the stadium for all but a few hours in the afternoon, and throughout the winter. That includes newer housing on the north side of Swan Street that would face a massive parking lot after years of disruption.
Three or four of the buildings that would need to be torn down were built in the early 1900s, Sandoro said, and they represent the last physical remnant from that time. That includes the former Dodd’s Dairy building he recently acquired.
Closing a portion of Seneca Street off Michigan Avenue would also shut off that main drag between downtown and Larkinville. Sandoro said it reminds him of how the street was decimated, along with neighboring streets, by the urban renewal of the 1960s.
“They knocked down wonderful buildings I tried to save. It was a disaster,” Sandoro said. “At my age” – he’s 70 – “I don’t want to fight. I want to save history and continue our mission to bring tens of thousands of people each year to our world-class museum.”
Billittier, who was a County Sheriff road deputy before retiring in 2008, said working traffic detail for Bills games in Orchard Park leads him to doubt that city streets and other infrastructure could handle the tens of thousands of cars pouring in on game day at any of the three favored downtown sites.
“I know first hand what it takes for 80,000 people, or even 60,000 people. It’s tough to move that many cars, and Abbott Road was six, seven lanes, and everything here is one lane each way right now,” Billittier said.
While Sandoro is enthusiastic about a new stadium being built in the city, he is also wary of talk about how it would create jobs. He heard those promises when Coca-Cola Field displaced businesses in the 1990s.
“When they put the baseball stadium in, they said it would be great for me and my parking lots. But before, there had been places that employed people five days a week, and our parking lots were full. Afterward, we were left with 72 games of baseball. It was an absolute disaster for us,” Sandoro said.
He said he doubted he would want his museum incorporated into a stadium as an alternative.
“I suppose we could be built underneath the bleachers, but I wouldn’t want to be there. We wouldn’t be able to operate 365 days a year, plus we have free parking.”
The report, prepared by AECOM, an engineering consultant, for the governor’s office, said the Exchange Street site would be the most accessible to nearby highways and have the best access to existing parking of the three urban sites. Its proximity to retail and mixed-used development also made it a good candidate for a multi-purpose stadium that could attract business conferences.
The report also acknowledged public input would be necessary to form a more complete picture of the issues involving that site.
“Engaging with the community to further understand potential impediments will be important with respect to this site,” the report said.