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Editorial: Costly task of rehabbing Terminal A requires big thinking

How do you eat an elephant?

That popular question is apropos when talking about what to do with Port Terminal A, the long-vacant behemoth sitting on 50 acres of prime Buffalo Outer Harbor property.

The answer for both seems simple: one bite at a time. In the case of Terminal A, however, the first bite is turning out to be quite expensive.

The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. is trying to digest the numbers in a report from Trowbridge Wolf Michaels Landscape Architects.

Port Terminal A offers plenty of space – perhaps too much. Its approximately 600,000 square feet of space, nearly 10 times the space inside the main exhibit hall at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, may be more than most companies want to tackle.

Neighboring Terminal B is much smaller – 97,148 square feet – and less trouble to repurpose since it has fewer environmental hazards. It would cost a comparatively piddling $274,000 to repair the roof, electrical and water systems and install a new fire suppression system. Its larger counterpart requires far more attention and dollars.

The study’s costly options are enough to make a comptroller blanche.

Rehabilitating the building, including a new roof and clearing all of the contaminants: $17.5 million.

Tearing it down: $13.7 million. The asbestos-contaminated roof would consume $4 million of that.

Mothballing the building so the tough decisions can be kicked down the road: $3.1 million.

Making one-third of the building code-compliant for storage rentals: $1.9 million. That price tag may be cheap, but it’s hardly the best use of such a prime piece of land.

Doing nothing and letting a rotting building blight a waterfront on the rise is not a viable option. Erie Canal Harbor board member Sam Hoyt recognizes that, and says the agency now must figure out its next step, and develop a time frame.

There are ideas out there. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, suggests using the Navy Pier in Chicago or Fells Point in Baltimore as examples of redevelopment opportunities. An indoor water park has been suggested.

As News staff reporter Mark Sommer wrote, a plan in 2014 calling for three clusters of housing of 1,500 to 2,100 units each, along with cultural zones and other amenities, met with such fierce resistance that the agency dropped its proposal. The city’s new Green Code zoning ordinance allows development on the 50-acre parcel where Terminals A and B sit, and on a smaller site by the Buffalo River, near Times Beach Nature Preserve and Wilkeson Pointe. Waterfront officials said there are no plans to develop the riverfront parcel, but they want to start developing the 50-acre site.

Two major obstacles to development are money and historic preservation. Preservation Buffalo Niagara does not want to see the building, where Ford cars were once built, destroyed.

That all makes it harder to determine the best path forward. Tearing down the building to clear the way for new construction would be unacceptable to preservationists. And, as Assemblyman Sean Ryan pointed out, the push for development has centered on reuse. The spirit of “lighter, cheaper, quicker,” he said, would likely preclude major new construction.

Converting the building to housing won’t be easy because too much of the space is far from exterior walls.

Hoyt says the agency will share the report with developers in the near future, hoping for ideas.

Here’s one to consider: Amazon. The internet giant is looking for a place for a second headquarters complex, so why not offer Amazon the whole site. All that space comes with beautiful sunsets over Lake Erie as a bonus.

If that doesn’t pan out, there’s always the elephant model – develop the site in stages as money and ideas fall into place.

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