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Stakeholders call ideas for reusing Central Terminal 'underwhelming'

A lot of people had high expectations Friday for the release of a report on the rebirth of the Central Terminal.

Then came the recommendations.

“This was sorely, sorely disappointing,” said Elizabeth Giles, a board member with Citizens for Regional Transit. “What a waste of time.”

“There was nothing new,” said Eddy Dobosiewicz of Forgotten Buffalo, an educational and tour company. “It was a $135,000, political cover-your-behind exercise. Some civic leaders had to do something because of the train station process that turned into a public relations disaster, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard before.”

“I was filled with such hope,” said Marlies Wesolowski, executive director of Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center of WNY. “Instead I came away feeling disappointed and underwhelmed.”

Wesolowski thought there might be calls for a museum to anchor the site. Or perhaps studios for artists.

What she didn’t expect were recommendations without any permanence.

The Urban Land Institute’s panel of eight experts said the Central Terminal’s comeback is linked to the return of the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood. Considering that neighborhood's low market value, they concluded it would be premature to attempt to lure private development, or to plan for transformative projects.

Instead, the panel called for arts and cultural events year-round in the Central Terminal concourse to improve the former train station’s image and appeal. Community investment was also recommended to improve nearby housing stock and infrastructure.

There were calls for more engagement with the multicultural community around the terminal, and for the Central Terminal Restoration Corp., which owns the former station, to broaden its focus to include promotion, management and planning.

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But a lot of things were missing during the 80-minute presentation in the Buffalo Museum of Science auditorium,which was attended by about 125 people.

There were no recommendations for the reuse of the Central Terminal’s tower and baggage buildings.

Nothing was said about the feasibility of adding a future train stop.

The need to stabilize the complex – estimated in the tens of millions of dollars – let alone restoring the 1929 art deco landmark was given only passing mention.

And the potential for private development anytime soon was dismissed.

Community interest in the Central Terminal was sparked by the recent, unsuccessful attempt to have a new Buffalo train station located there.

Harry Stinson, a Canadian developer, pursued plans for over a year to create permanent event spaces and a hotel there. The Central Terminal Restoration Corp. severed negotiations, but the development team is hoping to try again.

Some were surprised by the panel’s focus on one-day events, or the need to “brand” the site when thousands have attended art and train shows and other events there for years.

“The Central Terminal is already doing a lot of one-day events, and there already is a buzz around it,” said Wesolowski, who works in the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood.

The dozen members of the Urban Land Institute from around the country, including Washington, D.C.-based staff, arrived in Buffalo on Sunday. They spoke to 95 people from community groups and the neighborhood, and toured the facility and the area before writing their recommendations.

“The future is bright,” declared Michael Stern, who chaired the advisory panel. “This is a great asset to the community. Efforts to enhance the Central Terminal and the Broadway-Fillmore area need to be aligned and coordinated in order to achieve the best outcome.”

Both the city and Empire State Development Corp., the state’s development arm, paid $50,000 each for the study, with a $35,000 grant coming from the institute. The Urban Land Institute has done similar week-long studies with recommendations for other large-scale sites in Buffalo, including the Richardson Olmsted Complex, One Seneca Tower and the former Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital.

“The terminal is a symbol; it has been a symbol of decline but can now become a symbol of hope,” the report said.

Malaika Abernathy Scriven, a panel member from Washington, D.C., said while the Central Terminal is a place of fond memories for many, others have only known it as a mostly empty and rundown building.

The report said it was necessary "to change the perception, reputation and vibe" in order to overcome "existing market challenges."

"The Central Terminal should be the most interesting and creative venue in Buffalo," the report said. "Not an imitation of other successful places and spaces, but wholly new and unique."

To that end, recommendations included "raves, festivals, concerts, food stalls and art shows."

"Inside and out, the terminal should be viewed as a canvas for culture, art, sports, food, music and theater," the report said.

Developing outdoor recreational spaces in the vicinity of the Central Terminal, and creating a park on the grounds were also proposed.

Studies were recommended on the conditions of the buildings, and to estimate repair and restoration costs.

Fillmore Council Member David A. Franczyk suggested the real benefit of bringing the Urban Land Institute in was getting the involvement and hopefully bigger buy-in of Mayor Byron W. Brown and Howard Zemsky, president of Empire State Development.

“The analysis and recommendations for the Central Terminal complex have certainly given my administration and partners at Empire State Development and the Central Terminal Restoration Corp. a realistic path forward,” Brown said.

“I am pleased the panel recognized the diversity of the neighborhood, and the multicultural aspect of those who live in the surrounding neighborhood, which has to be addressed as we move forward.”

Zemsky said the number of people who were engaged bodes well for the process moving forward.

“Through this process we have been able to gather so many stakeholders and neighbors from the community, and maintaining that dialogue and participation will be important for the ultimate success of this project,” Zemsky said.

“The governor is focused on Buffalo, and I think this is good timing.”

Wesolowski said she also thought the timing was right for good things to happen there. But she didn’t see any new or big idea emerge from the recommendations to propel things forward.

“We are such an out-of-the-box city,” she said. “You mean we can’t come up with one more out-of-the-box idea for an out-of-the-box icon?”

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