A new tack for Central Terminal

Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

One billion dollars opens the door to all sorts of possibilities. Consider the Central Terminal.

Despite its scars, the Central Terminal might be the neatest space in Buffalo. The city’s proverbial diamond in the rough, even if the emphasis is on “rough.”

Plans to revive the hulking structure have been kicked around for years, to no avail. Now comes a pitch from Larry Quinn, conveyed in an interview published Tuesday at investigativepost.org  to restore the Central Terminal and relocate the Albright-Knox Art Gallery there.

I asked Quinn how he would spend the $1 billion in cash and incentives that Gov. Cuomo has promised the region to get its economy back on track. Quinn offered a number of ideas, including this one:

“Marry the area’s greatest cultural treasure with the area’s greatest architectural treasure. The Albright-Knox has a world-class collection of over 7,000 works of art, most of which are in storage an unseen. If you have ever been to Paris and seen the thousands of people from all over world who line up outside the Museum d’Orsay every single day, you can easily imagine what can happen here if we helped the Albright-Knox realize its full potential.”

That didn’t sound too bad to me. I visited d’Orsay Museum six years ago. It houses the greatest collection of impressionist art in the world in a restored train terminal. The place blew me away.

Mind you, Paris has a lot of neat spaces. Hell, the city is wall-to-wall neat space. But the neatest of all for my money is d’Orsay. The art and ambiance is a knock out one-two punch.

But what do I know? I mean, I thought the Sabres were Stanley Cup material this season. So I put Quinn’s idea to the reality test.

First I called Louis Grachos, director of the Albright-Knox, for his reaction.

“I think it’s a really great idea. The Central Terminal is an incredible treasure in our community. We’d be absolutely open to satellite space there. “

Grachos is quick to add there’s no interest in vacating the gallery’s current quarters on Elmwood Avenue. There’s also no need to, he said, as the gallery has more art in storage than it knows what to do with, including numerous pieces Grachos described as “A” caliber. The gallery owns close to 8,000 works in storage and can only display about 400 at a time.

“We’ve got a very deep collection and a very limited amount of space to work with,” he said.

Next up was Howard Zemsky, who, as co-chairman of the Regional Economic Development Council, is going to have a lot to say about how the $1 billion is earmarked. Zemsky is one of Cuomo’s go-to guys in Western New York and one of the city’s leading preservationists.

Zemsky was measured in his response. He’s not interested in spending money to create a vacant gallery on Elmwood Avenue. Nor is he keen on spending money intended for job creation on anything else. But he left the door open to state involvement in the Central Terminal if there was a real economic development opportunity.

“Our success will ultimately be measured by our ability to help create wealth, investment and jobs in our community. You could get me a lot more excited about substantial public investment in the Central Terminal and adjacent property as part of a larger private industry investment.”

“Imagine Google, or [a] similar [company], being attracted to the unique characteristics of that building. It would be easier to imagine providing some public investment to help ready the building for their occupancy,” Zemsky added.

Is there private investment to be had?

Martin Biniasz, marketing director of the Central Terminal Restoration Corp.,  said his group has engaged in several serious discussions with developers interested in the 15-story tower.

“We’ve had some pretty high-level developers come through,” he said.

One is a condo developer, another an out-of-state company “looking for a hip, iconic building to house their headquarters,” Biniasz said.

So, it seems there might—repeat, might—be the kind of private-sector investment that Zemsky said would be necessary to interest the state.

Restoring the Central Terminal complex would not come cheap, of course. A study in 1996 put the price tag at $54 million; a more recent study done for the restoration corporation set the figure at $75 million.

Whatever the costs of restoring the Central Terminal, they could be broken up—say “X million” for the towers in mostly private capital, “Y million” for the concourse and other public space financed in part on the public’s dime. In other words, restoring the terminal would involve multiple projects, multiple players, and a mix of public and private money. The total price tag would add up, but individual pieces might not be killers of and by themselves.

Quinn envisions Cuomo’s $1 billion pot as the source of public funds. Zemsky said any state investment in the Central Terminal would be contingent on leveraging private investment. But using any of the $1 billion to help expand nonprofit activities, as worthy as they might be, is not a good use of the state’s economic development earmark for the region, he said.

“We’re trying to stick to the mission of this money,” he said.

There are numerous ways of getting at money for a restoration that facilitates an Albright-Knox expansion.

Biniasz made a point of noting that $76.5 million in state money has been pledged to restore the Richardson Olmstead complex adjacent to Buffalo State College, while the Central Terminal has essentially gotten by without such largess. Which begs the question: If Richardson, if Ralph Wilson Stadium, why not Central Terminal?

“The East Side of Buffalo has been forgotten, and we don’t have the big names associated with the project [that Richardson does]. In turn, we don’t have the political juice to demand our fair share,” Biniasz said.

They key question right now is whether there’s something feasible to be done that would provide a good return on investment for taxpayers.

The billion dollars allows for those kinds of questions to asked. Sounds like it might be time to get to work answering them.