Statler City developer Mark Croce is jumping into the debate over a new convention center in Buffalo with his own preliminary proposal to expand the existing facility, more than doubling its size and linking it with a mostly vacant former hotel complex.
Croce's proposal would build an elevated addition on top of the existing convention center that also would extend over Franklin Street to link with the 19-story Statler building. The plan also calls for an elevated greenway that would create a public access point for the project, as well as additional green space on the roof. A 10-story parking ramp would be built across Mohawk Street from the Statler.
Croce's plan, outlined Wednesday during a meeting with Buffalo News reporters and editors, is the one of the first conceptual plans that builds upon a consultant's report released in September that proposed two potential sites for a new or expanded convention center: Expanding the existing site between Franklin Street and Delaware Avenue, or building a new center at the HSBC site between Washington Street and Michigan Avenue.
By building new space on top of the convention center's existing facilities, Croce said his plan would create a flexible facility that could remain in use during construction, and would leave the city with a flexible meeting space that could host smaller events in the current space, while supporting bigger events with the new space that meets modern meeting standards.
Croce also said the plan is more of a concept than a developed plan. He said the cost of the proposal had not been determined, but he estimated that it would be "substantially less" than the consultant's proposal for renovating the existing center and constructing a new convention building between Delaware and Franklin because his proposal involves lower property acquisition costs.
"Nobody is saying we have the magic answer and this is the perfect plan, but it's a starting point," Croce said. "This gives us the ability to have a flexible space."
Croce bought the Statler seven years ago, saving it from possible demolition and stabilizing the exterior. He has converted the bottom portion of the building into event space, but the upper floors of the 19-story tower remain undeveloped.
While Croce's plan would build on top of the existing facility, the consultant's report concluded that a vertical expansion was not realistic at the current site. The consultants dismissed the option of expanding the convention center on its own footprint, without taking over another city block, as awkward and unable to satisfy “even the minimum building program recommendations.”
Though the report did not account for the addition of the Statler space, the consultants felt that attempting to build upwards at the current location presented logistical concerns that would result in a “tall, complicated, and relatively dysfunctional vertical building.”
Croce's plan includes the construction of a 10-story parking ramp across Mohawk Street from the Statler. It would include 500 spaces dedicated to convention center events, filling a void that exists because the facility now lacks a dedicated parking area.
The plan also would connect the convention center with both the nearby Hyatt Regency-Buffalo and the Statler complex, where Croce said existing meeting and banquet space could be used during events.
"This plan basically connects Main Street with Delaware Avenue, without ever having to go outside," Croce said.
Croce said it makes sense to keep the convention center in its current location, which is near the entertainment district and many of the restaurants and hotels in the downtown area. Bringing more convention business – and people – into the area would spur further development, and possibly could accelerate Croce's efforts to redevelop the Statler, which now uses only three of its 19 stories. Croce's plan would leave the expanded convention center with about the same amount of space as the two options outlined in the consultant's report.
"This plan is actually the impetus for preserving and restoring the Statler," he said.
Erie County hired HVS Consulting last year for $150,000 to conduct a feasibility study that recommended doubling the size of the city's outdated convention center facilities.
But before anything happens, County Executive Mark Poloncarz has said the community needs to decide if it wants to stay in the convention business, and whether it is worth the cost of replacing the current, 40-year-old facility that is rapidly becoming obsolete. Poloncarz has launched a 90-day public comment period that runs through mid-December.
"It's an interesting concept," said Poloncarz, who met with Croce after the consultant's report was released. "I'm not sure it would work from an engineering standpoint and the like."
Any convention center project would require major financial backing from the state, Croce said.
Croce is not the only developer to put forth an alternative idea for a reimagined convention center. Other developers have floated their own concepts and architectural renderings since the report has been released. That includes Rocco Termini, who redeveloped the Hotel @ the Lafayette and other downtown lofts. Termini suggested that a new convention center should be built on downtown parking lots currently owned by M&T Bank between Washington and Ellicott streets, just north of Genesee Street.
But Croce is the first developer with an alternative whose property has already been cited by HVS as a potential link in the expansion and construction of a bigger and better convention center.
"I have seen Mr. Croce’s renderings, but the focus right now is on the public comment session, and not on specific locations or designs of a potential future center," said Patrick Kaler, the president of Visit Buffalo Niagara. "We can revisit specific designs and locations when the community has determined it wants to move forward with staying in the meetings, conventions and events business as well as the overall concept of a new center after the public comment period."
News Reporter Sandra Tan contributed to this story.