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Neon Rick James sign may light up Elmwood Avenue

A large neon sign featuring the likeness of Buffalo-born funk star Rick James may soon anchor a new project designed to transform a little-known public parking garage near the former Women's and Children's Hospital into a destination for fans of Buffalo music and public art.

A rendering provided by the advertising firm Fourth Idea shows James in bright red boots in the iconic pose he struck on the cover of his 1981 record "Street Songs."

The plan also calls for the garage, on the 400 block of Elmwood Avenue, to be transformed into a tribute to Buffalo music history, with murals and installations honoring Western New York musical greats and graphic elements resembling turntables, stereos and cassette racks. It has been aired to generally positive response in a pair of community meetings and is now under consideration by the Buffalo Arts Commission.

The project, which emerged from a competition launched by Newell Nussbaumer of Buffalo Rising and supported by local developer Rocco Termini, is the brainchild of Buffalo designer Thomas Mooney and his advertising firm, Fourth Idea.

"This is about celebrating musical heritage and Buffalo's rich history, from the Goo Goo Dolls to Harold Arlen," Mooney said. "There's a lot to talk about and a lot to celebrate."

A rough rendering shows what a parking garage near Elmwood Avenue and Hodge streets would look like as a tribute to Buffalo music history.

The purpose of the project has three main goals: to alleviate parking along a busy Buffalo thoroughfare, to infuse a struggling block of Elmwood Avenue with new life and to create a destination for Buffalo music fans who lack a public place to honor the city's many musical success stories.

For developer Rocco Termini, who owns Thin Man Brewery at 492 Elmwood Ave. and serves on the board of Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps, which operates the parking garage, the project has the potential to transform an urban block that has long faced challenges.

"We're in like a death spiral on Elmwood Avenue. Yeah, the property values have gone up but nobody can afford to rent there," Termini said. "How do you draw attention to Elmwood to make it something where people want to go to?"

Newell, a longtime resident of the Elmwood Village, agreed.

"There really is nothing like that in Buffalo that pays tribute to all of these incredible musicians that we have," Nussbaumer said. "People will be out there taking selfies with Rick James and people will say, 'Oh, let's meet over on that section of Elmwood where Rick James is.' It would create a signature work of art, a signature bookend or anchor for the neighborhood."

A rendering shows a proposed neon sign featuring Buffalo musician Rick James that may be installed at the entrance to a parking ramp near the Bank of America on the 400 block of Elmwood Avenue.

The choice of James to anchor the project, given his conviction for assault in connection with two drug-fueled incidents in the early 1990s in which he and his girlfriend were accused of holding women captive and torturing them, is sure to be controversial.

"I think the question is one that should be addressed and debated vigorously. The idea behind memorializing his place in culture and musical history is where we were coming at this from," Mooney said, adding that he and the project organizers are open to adapting the proposal based on public feedback. "It's certainly not intended to celebrate anything other than that, and to celebrate all the positive aspects of Rick James as an artist."


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