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Developer looks to Larkinville for Central Terminal inspiration

An emerging plan to restore and revive Buffalo Central Terminal would look to Larkinville for inspiration, according to the Canadian developer who signed a six-month letter of intent to redevelop the iconic East Side train station.

Howard Zemsky brought new life into the mammoth-sized Larkin at Exchange building that reverberated through the surrounding area, with old businesses and residences coming back to life.

“I see this as an expansion of Larkinville,” said Harry Stinson, who made his mark converting industrial buildings into condominiums in Toronto.

“It’s just wonderful what Zemsky did with the Larkin building, and is now doing with the neighborhood. It proves the public appetite for character buildings. I like that about Buffalo.”

Stinson is in preliminary discussions with Central Terminal Restoration Corp., the not-for-profit owner, over the future of the art deco station. He expressed confidence that ideas for the complex, which include a small-scale convention center, offices, residences and boutique hotel – can succeed.

Stinson is aware there is skepticism that anyone can successfully tackle the colossal, 523,000-square-foot site located in a depressed part of town. The developer said hardly a day goes by that someone doesn’t bring up Bashar Issa, who swept into town in 2006 with empty promises to buy the Central Terminal and renovate the Statler Hotel.

Stinson said he is committed to trying to give the Central Terminal a new start.

“The Central Terminal is the ultimate adaptive reuse, the ultimate project, and I have done this sort of thing. For me this would be the crowning jewel,” said Stinson, adding, “This will also put a whole new spin on Buffalo.”

The developer found success converting industrial buildings into condominiums in Toronto, fell on hard times and is now launching a comeback that he hopes will include the Central Terminal.

“We call it Terminal City. It will be a complete mixed use, the core of which will be the concourse and the terminal building. I see the concourse as a wonderful event and meeting space, with full-service catering,” Stinson said.

Stinson envisions a 150- to 200-room boutique hotel above the concourse, and possibly midsize offices in the tower building because of the floor plan. Low- to mid-range housing would be part of the mix.

Stinson said he is well aware of the challenges ahead for a project he put in the “many tens of millions of dollars.”

“I’m not underestimating that it will take a significant amount to bring it back to a maximum level,” Stinson said. “It is the nature of doing these restoration buildings. But when you’ve done decades of these buildings, you encounter the same types of problems and you get used to the solutions for them. You’re still dealing with concrete and wood and steel and glass.”

Stinson said there were plans, too, for the neighborhood, but he was not ready to discuss them.

“The perception of the neighborhood is obviously the biggest challenge here. It’s not the Central Terminal,” Stinson said. “I can see the past grandeur of the neighborhood, but clearly there is a lot that needs to happen there.”

It’s a challenge he welcomes.

“The street where I built the Candy Factory Lofts in Toronto was a very mournful place,” Stinson said. “There were empty warehouses, rundown residential, derelict storefronts, a park full of drug deals. It was the steroptype of, ‘You don’t want to go in that neighborhood,’ and now it’s a desirable place to live,” he said.

Stinson, who is 62, developed the Candy Factory Lofts in 1998, followed by One Kings West, a $150 million hotel-condominium complex, in 2005. But in the 2000s, Stinson was on the losing end of a prolonged legal battle with former business partner and Toronto theater producer David Mirvish and saw his career fall into a tailspin.

In a comeback of sorts, Stinson turned the coincidentally named Stinson School, a former elementary school in Hamilton, Ont., where Stinson Developments is based, into condominiums. That $23 million project, completed in December 2013, is being followed by the Gibson School Lofts conversion, also in Hamilton, with a price tag of $30 million.

But Stinson’s lone development in Western New York has fallen short of expectations.

He obtained the long-shuttered Hotel Niagara in Niagara Falls in September 2011, and predicted the 13-floor, 230-room hotel would be restored and reopened in two years. Instead, the project stalled and the building was nearly sold to a Pittsburgh company.

Now, Stinson said the estimated $22 million hotel project is back on the front burner. He blamed the complexity of the Stinson School project for diverting attention and resources away from the hotel, and said he and the hotel chain he partnered with underestimated the difficulty of financing a historic hotel in Niagara Falls.

Stinson said his plan is now to finish the events and banquet spaces, including the main ballroom, and one or two floors of rooms to get things moving.

“We can start working on this in the new year, now that we have scaled it back to a reasonable level,” Stinson said.

He envisions the Central Terminal as a one-of-a-kind project.

“This building is a giant set, really,” said Stinson, whose father worked in the film industry. “I love this building.”