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Proposal for a public works campus raises issues of cost, preservation

Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown’s long-running hope for a public works campus that would replace a number of the city’s aging truck depots and impound yards deserves careful consideration.

Besides improving efficiency, removing the Broadway barns on the edge of downtown would be a boost for the African-American Tourism Corridor.

Working against the project is the cost, estimated at $40 million. The details of how the public works campus would be financed have yet to be unveiled, but the state would be expected to provide much of the cash. Regardless of who pays, the city will have to work hard to justify that level of spending.

Getting rid of the Broadway barns would remove its snowplows, garbage trucks and construction equipment from the redeveloping neighborhood that is home to the African-American heritage area.

However, preservationists argue that there is value in a part of the structure built as a New York State armory in 1858. The armory was designed by the acclaimed neo-Gothic architect Calvin Otis and is steeped in Civil War and political history.

Tim Tielman, executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo, said the armory is one of the oldest civic buildings in Buffalo, and the main entry portal is still there, inside the Broadway barns. In addition, there is the gigantic drill hall built in the 1880s for a regiment that later moved to its own armory in Masten Park. Moreover, the armory is specifically noted as a priority element in the Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor Draft Management Plan.

Any plan for removing the Broadway barns will have to examine the possibility of preserving its historic elements. We don’t want to look back in a few decades and regret the loss of a key piece of Buffalo’s history.

Consolidating the city’s public works facilities in one location would improve efficiency and be safer and more comfortable for workers. Although the mayor says he doesn’t have an exact location in mind, he wants it to be in a more appropriate industrialized area. Assuming it’s centrally located, a one-stop shop seems to be a reasonable want.

A public works campus, or at least a new building, has been on the mayor’s wish list for some time.

In an Another Voice column published in The Buffalo News last summer, Brown talked about working with the Citizens Planning Council and Common Council to commission the first-ever building analysis survey. Preliminary assessment data showed “a substantial savings if the City of Buffalo Department of Public Works consolidated its five facilities into one public works campus.”

Creating a public works campus and clearing the path for improving the African-American heritage corridor won’t be simple. For now, Brown says, he’s just trying to start the conversation. That conversation will have to weigh the city’s wish list against the cost while taking into consideration preserving history. With downtown on the rebound, this is a good time for that conversation.