Corrugated metal covers the 14 tall arched windows of a National Grid building on Busti Avenue near Niagara Street.
But preservationists and neighbors say the metal covers even more: the building's historic importance. The former Terminal House B was once used to bring power from Niagara Falls in the early 1900s.
So Preservation Buffalo Niagara has joined with a neighborhood group, a developer and Assemblyman Sean Ryan among others to try and persuade National Grid to bring back the glass windows or introduce public art as part of the ongoing beautification of Niagara Street.
"It would be wonderful to see the building cared for in such a way that people could see how important it has been to the region," said Jessie Fisher, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara. "This could include restoring the original windows or adding a public mural to the boarded windows that tells the story of Nikola Tesla and the generation of electricity."
"Niagara Street is the gateway to the City of Buffalo, and we are putting tremendous work into redoing the street," Ryan said. "When National Grid boarded up the windows a generation ago, Niagara Street was a different street. Those days are over and the building now looks blighted. Boarded-up windows are no longer the norm on Niagara Street."
So far Niagara Grid hasn't offered them much to be optimistic about.
"We will not be putting up the windows again in large part because the safety and security issue that caused them to be covered up still exists," said Steve Brady, a National Grid spokesman.
The stretch of Niagara has been designated Tesla Way Heritage Corridor in honor of the inventor and the historic moment when AC power was successfully sent from the Adams Power Station in Niagara Falls to Terminal A on Niagara Street. Terminal B was also used in the first decade of the 20th century.
The building's electrical components and poorly lit spaces pose a safety threat to thieves if they were to break in looking to steal copper, Brady said.
"Someone getting in there could get hurt," he said.
Brady also said installing glass windows would be costly.
"These are not the kind of windows you order from Home Depot," Brady said. "We are hoping to dress up the front of the building, but we also need to be very cognizant of the cost."
'Could look a lot better'
The corrugated metal arrived decades ago to cover up the two-story high windows.
Giant transformers are no longer used at 996 Busti Ave., but electrical transmission continues to service an extensive network of underground cables, Brady said. No one works full time inside the building. Workers are dispatched there only for scheduled maintenance.
Three towers behind the building carry utility lines that cross the river into Canada.
"It might not look like it from the outside, but it's still a working building," Brady said.
"That building could look a lot better given all the other work on Niagara Street right now," said William Paladino, chief executive officer of Ellicott Development Company.
Ellicott Development recently renovated a mid-market to upscale apartment building on Busti next to the utility building, and the company is adding 15 units on the first two floors.
"We want buildings to look occupied, and we want density," Paladino said. "That building looks like it's a vacant building right now."
Not all nearby property owners agree.
William Breeser, who owns several buildings on Niagara Street, said he has doubts about returning the windows.
"I don't know what's inside that building, and what we are looking at if we open those windows," Breeser said.
Anthony and Kathy Mecca, who live nearby, think National Grid should bring back the glass windows. They wonder why a security system couldn't alleviate security concerns.
"They're really being shortsighted," Anthony Mecca said. "That building, with the windows, could be their trademark. It's a beautiful building. They could use it with their literature."
Kathy Mecca said restoring the building would demonstrate the utility's partnership with the community and a commitment to the positive changes taking place on Niagara Street.
"By not doing that, they're saying, 'We don't care. We don't care about the history of Niagara Street, or the history of the building that we occupy," she said. "God knows they have enough money to do it."
'Safety and security'
A decision on what to do with the building's facade is expected in coming weeks, said Brady of National Grid.
"Safety and security" concerns and a lack of dedicated funds limit the utility's options, he said.
The idea of returning the approximately 15-foot-high windows – some of which may still be encased under the corrugated metal covering – was considered and rejected, Brady said.
A couple of ideas are being considered for the facade, including exterior lighting.
Ryan, a Democratic assemblyman from Buffalo, said the building needs more than better lighting to contribute to the upswing on Niagara Street.
Ryan said there are ways to meld security concerns with aesthetics if there is a willingness to do so.
Cost should not be a hurdle, he said.
"National Grid just received a 10 percent rate hike, so they can clearly afford to fix up this building," Ryan said.
Ryan facilitated a December meeting with National Grid; Barbara Rowe, chairwoman of Vision Niagara; a neighborhood group; and Aaron Ott, Albright-Knox Art Gallery's public art curator. A mural was discussed, as well as photographs of Tesla that could be attached to the building.
But National Grid has since concluded artwork would be difficult to maintain and pay for, Brady said.
"The challenge with artwork is that it needs to get redone periodically," Brady said. "The windows are on the face of the building, and they're all exposed to the weather. Unfortunately, there is no budget for this sort of work."
Barbara Rowe, Vision Niagara's board president, said the building's appearance needs to be addressed because it's located at a key point on Niagara Street.
"If you are looking from a point south looking north, it's right at the bend of Niagara Street," Rowe said.
She hopes National Grid listens to the community and responds with a good plan.
"I'd like to see something that can really be a good quality art piece," Rowe said. "And, of course, it would be ideal if we could see the full form of the arched windows."