Termini questions Outer Harbor housing

Rocco Termini, one of the city’s preeminent residential developers, doubts there’s a significant market for housing at the Outer Harbor.

“Everyone is talking about it but no one has produced a market study or any numbers,” Termini said Wednesday at a luncheon sponsored by Investigative Post on urban development.

The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. has proposed building some 2,100 housing units, as well as retail, restaurants and some parkland, on a portion of the Outer Harbor’s northern 171 acres.

That plan has proved controversial, with Rep. Brian Higgins and Assembly Member Sean Ryan, among others, contending it lacks public support.

Termini, whose notable projects include Hotel @ The Lafayette and Ellicott Lofts, said there is a market for housing in the city. He said some 3,000 units have been built in and around downtown over the past decade and there could be a market for up to 6,000 more over the next 10 years if priced right.

But Termini said housing on the Outer Harbor would likely be too pricey. The infrastructure costs would be “enormous,” he said, making housing too expensive to build and sell at a price the market will bear.

Another problem with housing at the Outer Harbor: its limited season appeal.

“No one yet has proven that anything works there in the winter,” Termini said. “Is there the mindset in Buffalo to go to the waterfront all year round?”

Architect Steven Carmina, whose projects include the conversion of the Tischman Building and the redevelopment of the 500 block of Main Street, agreed during Wednesday’s luncheon that it’s unclear whether there would be a market for Outer Harbor housing.

Instead, he said, Buffalo needs more public spaces.

“We need another park in the city,” he said.

Tim Tielman, a preservationist and urban geographer who designed the Larkin Square development, criticized the Sabres’ HarborCenter development. The blocklong facility, which opened a month ago, includes two rinks, parking ramp, restaurant, Tim Hortons and hotel.

“There’s smart growth and stupid growth – that’s stupid growth,” he said.

He criticized the inclusion of 900 parking spaces when there is already an abundance of parking downtown, as well as the building’s impact on the surrounding area.

“It’s shoehorned in, half of Washington Street is cut off, and the Cobblestone District is cut off from its direct connection to the water,” Tielman said.

Carmina said while he’s not a big fan of the project from an architectural standpoint, “it is the fullest and best use of the Webster Block.”

Speaking of downtown development in general, Termini said the key to success is the “wow factor.”

“That’s what brings people into the city from the suburbs: without that, downtown projects will fail.”

Carmina gave the example of the recently renovated Lafayette Lofts on Elmwood Avenue, where elements of the former bowling alley have been preserved in the building’s lower level.

That “wow factor” is “when people open the door of a unit and it’s not what they expect to see, it’s different from what’s built in the suburbs,” he said.

Tielman said that the priority for development in Buffalo should be creating places where people gather spontaneously.

“The key thing is: what districts, what neighborhoods make people comfortable enough that they want to spend time there?” he said.

He added that the existing development at Larkinville is just the beginning.

“The goal now is to make it into a neighborhood where you can go to the store and buy a loaf of bread,” Tielman said.

“If we only build for the car, that’s all we’re going to get. We have to build for human beings.”

The luncheon was part of “At Issue,” an event series hosted by Investigative Post. Sponsors include Bernhardi & Lukasik, the M&T Charitable Foundation; Talking Leaves Books; Schroeder, Braxton & Vogt; WGRZ; and Artvoice.