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Demolition of Great Northern proceeds slowly as court appeal still sought

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Great Northern demolition

Crews on the demolition of the Great Northern on Ganson Street in Buffalo Friday, Sept. 23, 2022.

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A 165-foot-tall Ultra High Demolition excavator continued to tear into the north side of the Great Northern grain elevator Friday, as an attorney for a preservation organization said an appeal in court is at least two weeks away.

But Paul McDonnell, president of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture, said the damage to the 400-foot-long grain elevator since demolition began on Sept. 16 is fairly minimal. Archer Daniels Midland, which owns the Great Northern, has estimated it will take eight months to bring down the entire hulking structure. 

"They've taken down less than 5% of the building, so that's on our side," he said. "That means there is a lot left to save. It's not too late."

Hank Balling, a civic engineer and construction manager, said the structure, which is longer than a city block, could still be rebuilt at the point where the last bay – there are 10 in all – is harmed if the court challenge proves successful.   

"Whenever this could be stopped, there will still be enough brick with the rest of the structure to be renovated," he said.

Balling said he considers the demolition of the Great Northern, once the largest grain elevator in the world and the first to use steel bins, "a mistake."

"The thing that got me going is not that it's just a historic structure, but the last one in the country," Balling said. "This would be the biggest mistake since the Larkin Administration Building came down."

Campaign for Greater Buffalo attorneys Richard Lippes and Richard Berger said their brief for the appellate division is a necessarily lengthy process with few shortcuts.  

"We hope to have the brief and the record on appeal filed on or about Oct. 7," Berger said. "We are doing this as quickly as possible, but the normal process of preparing a record on appeal and briefs takes a few weeks.

"It can't be done any sooner because there is a substantial record on appeal and the reporting companies we hire have to have time to put it all together," he said.

State Supreme Court Justice John M. Curran of the Appellate Division in Rochester denied a temporary restraining order hours after the demolition began on Sept. 16, following 10 months of the case being tied up in the courts. The appeal being planned would go before five appellate judges in Rochester, Berger said.

The crane has removed almost all of the north wall first damaged by a fierce windstorm on Dec. 11, six days before James Comerford, the city's then-commissioner of permit and inspection services, ordered an emergency demolition. The crane was busy on Friday pulling out sections of the first two large steel bins of the 30 that have been encased inside the grain elevator's brick walls for 125 years.

State Supreme Court Justice Emilio Colaiacovo denied the Campaign for Greater Buffalo a temporary restraining order on Jan. 5 and again on July 5. He was forced to reconvene the case after a panel of appellate judges in Rochester unanimously sent the case back to allow an expert witness to testify for the preservation organization.

After Colaiacovo issued his last ruling, he waited until Sept. 15 to dismiss the case, preventing the Campaign for Greater Buffalo from appealing his decision for almost 10 weeks.

McDonnell said the demolition has served to validate one of the preservation organization's claims presented during court that the damaged north wall from the windstorm had no impact on the steel structure as a whole.

"We have always said the steel structure was totally independent of the brick wall, and therefor the damage to the brick wall in December had no bearing on the structural stability of this building," McDonnell said. "The fact that they have removed rafters that connected the cupola to the brick wall, and the cupola hasn't moved an inch, proves we were right."

Mark Sommer covers preservation, development, the waterfront, culture and more. He's also a former arts editor at The News. 

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