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Backers want historic grain elevators turned into national park

Buffalo's canyon of grain elevators is colossal. They are seemingly impenetrable. And there are a lot of them.

In their heyday, the silos stored millions of bushels of grain inside more than 30 grain elevators. Today, 15 still remain, though just a handful are used.

Now, an idea – and it's just that at the moment – is being floated to turn the cluster of six grain elevators known as Silo City into a national park. It would celebrate the cultural and economic importance of these concrete behemoths, and their invention in Buffalo in 1842 by Joseph Dart and Joseph Dunbar.

The area – also known as "Elevator Alley" – constitutes the densest collection of concrete grain elevators in the world.

"If you want to see great silos, this is one of the few places in the whole world to see them," said Adam Sokol, an architect with offices in Allentown and Los Angeles. He came up with the idea and has drawn conceptual site plans for "Buffalo Grain Elevator National Park."

A grain elevator in Silo City can be seen through the brush that has grown on the grounds over the years since the elevators were last used in 1963. Click on the image to view more photos from Silo City. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

"The grain elevators in Buffalo are one of a handful of iconic historic resources that are emblematic of the city, are very visible and close to downtown," Sokol said. "They are also an important part of the cultural history of this country."

RiverWorks building brewery inside grain silos

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, likes the thought of turning Silo City into a national park.

"It's an exciting idea that should be pursued," Higgins said. "If there are benefits to advancing the celebration of Buffalo's industrial heritage through the creative reuse of the grain elevators, let's do it.

[GALLERY:  A Closer Look: Silo City]

"I think the time has come to take this untapped cultural asset to the whole next level," Higgins said.

Sokol points to Lowell, Mass., where some of the nation's first factories were turned into a national park. Visitors, including schoolchildren, see museum installations and interpretive exhibits that explain the importance of the factories in local and national history.

The Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, while operated locally, is another good example, he said. The museum was built in the ruins of what once was the world's largest flour mill on the Mississippi River waterfront.

"There's no reason something like these can’t happen with the Buffalo grain elevators," Sokol said.

Backers say turning these grain elevators on the Buffalo River into a national park would stimulate tourism while building on Buffalo's heritage. (Rendering courtesy of Adam Sokol)

Rick Smith, who owns three of the six grain elevators considered part of Silo City, thinks creating a national park there could be ideal.

"I think we're doing a good job being stewards of it now, but they're a community asset, and it's important to get our National Park Service engaged in managing sites of importance," Smith said.

Smith has spoken with Higgins and said it may be a good time to reach out to additional elected representatives, as well.

Smith said people are often unaware of how important grain was in Buffalo's evolution.

"A lot of people think Buffalo is a steel city," Smith said. "But Buffalo had the world's largest grain port, and the grain business gave Buffalo most of its wealth. The steel was owned by out-of-town guys since Day One."

Buffalo produced 29 million sacks of flour a year as late as 1963, more than the next two leading centers combined, he said.

Aug. 6, 1949: Buffalo’s grain elevators at near-record capacity

Silo City in the past several years has become a summertime destination for cultural events. Torn Space Theatre does annual large-scale theatrical performances there. Art installations, music and poetry readings also occur inside the silos.

Students from the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning go there to do research. A television travel show compared the grain elevators at Silo City to the pyramids, and the British Broadcasting Company reported on them. Janeane Garofalo fell to her death at Silo City in "The American Side," a movie filmed there in 2013.

Grain can still be found on a conveyor belt in one of the buildings in Silo City. Click on the image to view more photos from the site. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Sokol sees a national park complementing what's occurring along nearby streets. Ohio Street, once a desolate industrial road, has seen two new waterfront apartment buildings, park and rowing club enhancements and a new streetscape in the past few years. Ganson Street is now home to Buffalo RiverWorks, a new destination for ice events, entertainment and socializing.

"A national park there works in terms of tourism, in terms of drawing people going to Niagara Falls and in terms of attracting people across the border," Sokol said.

"There’s also an opportunity to stimulate further commercial development of the surrounding area."

Sokol imagines commercial zones, potential pedestrian and vehicular bridges and site improvements for walking and passive recreation.

A national park, Sokol said, could also help activate the stretch of the river from Canalside to Silo City, with waterfront cafes, boating and skating in the winter.

[GALLERY: Proposal for Buffalo Grain Elevator National Park]

As a national park, money could be spent to stabilize the massive structures, including sealing them from water and adding fire safety measures.

There are National Park Service sites in upstate and Western New York, including the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site in Buffalo and the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls.

Silo City, however, is considerably larger than those.

"What exists now is measured in square feet rather than acres," Sokol said. "But the grain elevators are absolutely unique and worthy of preservation, and I do think there is a fit as a national park."

Turning the site into a tourist attraction would also add to the new uses being found for Buffalo's grain elevators.

In 2015 – 100 years after it was built – the Connecting Terminal on the Outer Harbor became the canvas for a nightly industrial light show. And in a matter of weeks, the former GLF grain silo, at RiverWorks, is expected to find new life as a brewery.

Historic Elk Street grain elevator to get new lease on life as offices

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