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Former Dillon Courthouse in downtown Buffalo could be targeted for reuse

The former Michael J. Dillon Memorial U.S. Courthouse on Niagara Square in downtown Buffalo could become the latest government office building targeted for reuse or redevelopment by the private sector, if no other federal agency expresses interest in it by early November.

The nine-story vacant structure at 68 Court St., which was replaced in November 2011 by the 10-story Robert H. Jackson U.S. Courthouse on Niagara Square, has been declared “excess property” by the U.S. General Services Administration, as of Oct. 8. This means that it’s available first for transfer to and reuse by another arm of the U.S. government, but only for a 30-day “screening” period.

If that period expires without any expression of interest, the building could become available for other uses through a transfer or sale, depending on what is determined to be its “highest and best use.” As part of the process, the GSA will solicit proposals not only from other government agencies, but also from nonprofits and private developers.

If that happens, the former post office and courthouse could be the third major example in recent years of the state or federal government unloading an unneeded office building for private redevelopment.

The former Dulski Federal Office Building at 200 Delaware Ave. is now the Avant building, after Uniland Development Co. bought it and spent $85 million to convert it into a mixed-use facility with an Embassy Suites hotel, five floors of office space and 28 condominiums.

Farther downtown, Benderson Development Co. bought and converted the former Donovan State Office Building at 125 Washington St. into One Canalside, a $30 million, eight-story mixed-use project with a 96-room Courtyard by Marriott hotel on the lower four floors and the headquarters offices of law firm Phillips Lytle LLP on the upper four floors.

Both are now fully occupied and not recognizable as the drab former government facilities they once were.

“This is an example of GSA strategically using a resource that is no longer mission-critical to the agency to serve as a catalyst of economic development,” said GSA Northeast and Caribbean Region Regional Administrator Denise L. Pease.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, have already called on the GSA to ensure a quick reuse of the facility, citing its importance and value for the community, as well as infrastructure upgrades that include new elevators, a new generator and a new roof.

Noting that it already has been vacant for four years, they want the agency to “guard against land speculation and to consider community and economic impact” in selling the building, according to a news release from the lawmakers.

“The Dillon Courthouse sits on prime real estate, in the center of the City of Buffalo, which is seeing unprecedented growth and development, so we must make sure the next entity that takes over this property will move quickly to ensure that the property does not sit vacant any longer,” Schumer said in the release.

The lawmakers urged the GSA to consider not only the price, but “also the long-term community benefits,” as well as the developer’s ability to get the job done, citing past examples of developers buying properties in the city with no immediate plans for reuse. In a letter to GSA Administrator Denise Turner Roth, the lawmakers also noted that GSA had received several responses last year to a “request for information” seeking ideas for reuse of the building.

“GSA should do everything in its power to ensure that the Dillon Courthouse is quickly put into valuable reuse,” the lawmakers wrote.

State Sen. Marc C. Panepinto, D-Buffalo, and others have urged the University at Buffalo to consider moving its law school from the North Campus to the former courthouse, citing its proximity to federal, state and local courts, as well as to City Hall and numerous law firms. UB has roundly ruled that out, although some observers are still supportive of the idea.

The art deco-style Dillon Courthouse was constructed in 1935 and was named for local Internal Revenue Service Officer Michael J. Dillon, who was killed in the line of duty. It was originally designed to be as much as 12 stories, but financial constraints limited its height.

The 180,950-square-foot concrete block building, which is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, sits on a 0.75-acre triangular lot and occupies an entire block bounded by Niagara, Court and Franklin streets and Niagara Square. It includes a basement and seven surface parking spaces.