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Editorial: Central Terminal was right to cut ties with developer, seek expert input

The Central Terminal and the people who want to see it revived have suffered enough. Its board is making a smart move in deciding to swap out its sputtering engine.

It can’t have been an easy decision. After 12 months of hoping that Harry Stinson would make good on plans to restore the deteriorating art deco wonder, the Central Terminal Restoration Corp. voted earlier this month to sever its relationship with the Canadian developer.

Stinson says he had partners interested in moving forward, but in light of the decision to build a new train station in downtown Buffalo and the failure of anything productive developing at the East Side landmark, this is the right time to take a deep breath and re-evaluate. That doesn’t mean the restoration organization couldn’t return to Stinson at some future point or that those who have expressed interest in helping to develop the terminal are suddenly locked out. It only means that this is a good time to reconsider assumptions and possibilities.

Stinson was named the designated developer for the project a year ago and he was given a six-month extension in November. With that agreement expiring and little but expressions of interest produced, the board is embarking on a promising new tack: It wants to engage the Urban Land Institute to help direct efforts to revive the sprawling, towering complex.

The Urban Land Institute has a national reputation and a local track record. The world’s largest group of real estate and land use experts, the institute has played prominent roles in several difficult projects here, including reuses of  the Richardson Olmsted Complex, the old Millard Fillmore Hospital at Gates Circle and One Seneca Tower. The organization stands to play a useful and creative part in the effort to restore and reuse the Central Terminal.

This is true, even though Stinson had produced expressions of interest from potential partners.

As it stood, the board had to have noticed that Stinson had failed in his bid to restore the old Hotel Niagara in downtown Niagara Falls. The Hamilton developer had predicted renovations would be completed at the hotel by summer 2013. Instead, after five years of inaction he wound up selling the building to USA Niagara Development Corp. last year for $4.4 million.

That hotel is at least in a downtown that is seeing renewed activity and, once back on the market, it quickly attracted the interest of other developers.

The question is unavoidable: If Stinson was unable to undertake that project, how much confidence can remain, a year after his designation, that he can pull off a vastly more difficult project that is nowhere near a downtown? The Terminal Restoration Corp.’s hesitation is certainly understandable.

Even with the decision to place a new Buffalo train station near Canalside, there is reason for optimism about the future of the Central Terminal. For one, its profile was raised as the committee charged with finding a site for the new station performed its job. The terminal lost the train station but gained momentum.

For another, New York State is plainly interested in spending money on the project. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo cited redevelopment of the East Side and specifically included the area of the Central Terminal in his plans for the second phase of the Buffalo Billion, approved last month as part of the new state budget.

And, of course, the opportunity to involve the Urban Land Institute in this challenging project is tremendously encouraging. Having helped in the restoration of the Richardson Towers, where the Hotel Henry just opened, it plainly has the know-how to take on big, urban projects that actually succeed.

This is a worthwhile change of direction. What it will produce is, at this point, anyone’s guess, but the new course points in a direction that provides more hope than advocates for the station would otherwise have.

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