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Several architects push for downtown train station site

Several prominent Buffalo architects strongly resist the notion of returning train service to Central Terminal, despite the fact that Rep. Brian Higgins touted a letter from 25 local architects who support the idea.

The Buffalo News obtained the same email list of more that 250 design professionals that was used to collect signatures for a letter supporting returning trains to Central Terminal. The News then sent the people on that list an email asking them whether they supported a new train station downtown or at the East Side landmark that Amtrak abandoned in 1979.

Architects side with Central Terminal for new train station

Of the 18 architects who replied, eight favored a downtown site. Four supported the Central Terminal. Four didn't express a preference, and two proposed other options.

Among the architects who sharply criticized the proposal to return trains to Central Terminal, two are employed at firms that have worked to restore the facility in years past.

In other words, the letter that Higgins highlighted told only part of the story.

Missing were the thoughts of local architects such as Robert T. Coles, a  Buffalo architect since the 1960s.

"A great piece of architecture such as a train station downtown would do much to stimulate downtown growth and would be connected to the mass transit system as well as the inner and intra-city systems," Coles said in an email.

Local historic preservation architect Clinton Brown agreed.

"We must continually restore the core intermodal network," Brown said. "A downtown station will do this best for the train-using visitors and travelers that we need to grow WNY."

Two downtown sites are focus for new train station

And architect Duncan Black suggested a downtown train station would likely prove to be a better long-term investment.

"Long range maybe we should consider a location that could support special train travel here for sporting events including potential for a new football stadium within walking distance," Black said.

Some back Central Terminal

Those arguments run counter to the one architects made in the letter that Higgins touts, which focuses on Central Terminal's historic importance.

"Buffalo doesn't need to build a rail station for 'anywhere USA'," said the letter, which went on to criticize one of the new station's proposed downtown locations. "Interpretation has its place, but in this instance, there is no need for it, as Buffalo already has a rail station more inspiring and more a part of the story of this community than any interpretation under a Thruway viaduct could ever be. It is Central Terminal."

Higgins said that between the architects who signed the Central Terminal letter and those who told the News they backed the historic site – including some who signed the letter – at least 60 percent of architects who commented backed the idea of returning trains to the historic East Side station.

Moreover, he noted that several of the architects who signed his letter are among the area's specialists in historic preservation. Robert Stark, who spearheaded the letter, worked on the Graycliff estate in Derby and Larkinville, while Peter Flynn worked on the Guaranty Building and the H.H. Richardson complex.

"I like the architects who signed the letter because they have taken on the most significant restoration projects in Buffalo," said Higgins, D-Buffalo.

Potential problems cited

But several other prominent architects told The News that restoring train service to Central Terminal could be fraught with problems.

"The Central Terminal was strategically poorly situated when it was built 90 years ago, and would cause both locals and visitors to have to drive through the crumbling East Side simply to access it," said Adam Sokol, whose firm, ASAP, proposed a Larkinville location for the new station. "Amtrak could not maintain the Central Terminal when it served it in the 1970s, and with a similar level of traffic, there is no reason to assume a better outcome today."

Robert McCarthy: Train station debate revisits 1927 controversy

Sokol noted that the Central Terminal is larger than New York's Penn Station, which serves more than 1,200 trains a day. In contrast, only eight trains a day now serve Buffalo.

Higgins and other supporters of returning train service to the Central Terminal argue that doing so will spur development that will fill the vast building, which features a tower with 65,200 square feet of space as well as two vast concourses with 71,400 square feet of space.

The vast grand concourse of the Central Terminal. (John Hickey/News file photo)

The proposed return of train service to the station would take up no more than 6,200 square feet in the smaller of those two concourses, according to the consultant who is drawing up train station proposals both for Central Terminal and downtown.

That means passengers would be arriving to a desolate Central Terminal in Buffalo unless several other amenities are added to the facility at the same time as train service returns, several architects noted.

[Gallery: Inside Buffalo's Central Terminal, an art deco marvel in decay]

"If there are minimal riders routinely, then the place will appear mostly unoccupied, unless there are other legitimate daily uses to create activity making it feel safe and welcoming," said Matthew W. Meier, a partner in HHL Architects, who did not note a preference for a particular train station site. Meier's firm has worked on historic restorations in Buffalo for nearly 50 years and spent more than a decade working on Central Terminal repair and restoration efforts starting in the 1990s.

The walk from the platforms to the front door in Central Terminal is more than 360 feet, noted Paul L. Battaglia, who directed and authored a "Buffalo Central Terminal Engineering Feasibility Study" 20 years ago.

"That is simply inconvenient for a traveler," said Battaglia, who favors a downtown train station.

Other architects noted additional concerns. Local architect Mark G. Rampado questioned the maintenance costs of operating such a small train station within such a vast facility.

The sprawling Central Terminal grounds on Buffalo's East Side. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Daniel J. Keefe, an architect with Buffalo City Schools, noted that in its 50 years of operation,, Central Terminal never spurred any notable development nearby and would be unlikely to do so now.

And local architect Andrew Petrinec echoed Mayor Byron W. Brown's concern that support for Central Terminal may be driven more by nostalgia than modern-day facts.

"I feel it is extremely frivolous for us to talk about putting the station back into use when train ridership continues to decline in the country," said Petrinec, who did not specify his preference for a train station location.

Arguments for Central Terminal 

Those who argued in support of Central Terminal said there are both historic and economic reasons to return trains there.

"In my view, there is no reason not to restore the Central Terminal as the primary train station because of its interconnectivity to points east and west, and because its restoration will both bring back a Buffalo landmark, and help create another central point for redevelopment of the City," said Frank Burkhart, president of Advanced Architecture and Planning of Grand Island.

Local architect Thaddeus J. Fyda noted that the Central Terminal has more room for development of an intermodal transportation center, more room for train platforms and more parking. In addition, it is directly connected to Amtrak's westbound route to Chicago, whereas a downtown station would require westbound trains to back up for a mile to reconnect with the main westward route.

Historic tax credits could be used to finance the Central Terminal project, which also could accommodate a railway museum, restaurant and possibly even a relocated Broadway Market, Fyda said.

Such possibilities are missing from the cost estimates developed by WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, the consulting firm preparing a report on possible train station locations for a committee that will decide the site in late April. And some backers of Central Terminal are angry about that fact.

"The estimate report is personally disturbing because it is placing emphasis that cost is THE deciding factor, without considering the many positive affects the Central Terminal location would have to Buffalo, WNY and the immediate surrounding East side area, beyond the building itself," said local architect Hector P. Garrido.

Concerns about politics

Higgins has been making similar arguments, but several architects who wrote to The News – while not mentioning the congressman by name – appeared frustrated by the fact that politicians are raising their voices before the consultant's train station study is completed. A committee of local officials will decide on the train station location later this month after that consultant's report is completed.

State officials, consultant take issue with Higgins over Central Terminal

"I believe first and foremost that the process should be allowed to play out without the politicians getting involved and trying to sway the decision based on their political interest," said Rampado, who favors a downtown train station. "They have hired a well-qualified professional consultant and the facts and recommendations of their report and analysis should be the guideline for making a decision. Too many politicians right now are making erroneous comments and the process needs to keep their emotions in check."

For his part,  Higgins noted that his involvement in the train station is  not unlike the pressure he put on the New York Power Authority a decade ago to set aside tens of millions for Buffalo's waterfront in a hydropower relicensing agreement.

The result of that effort, he noted, is Canalside. And Higgins sees that as proof that politicians thinking boldly can produce unexpected change for the better.

"I will always challenge the limits of our city's possibilities," Higgins said. "That's why I'm here."

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