Dec 30


One inspection of grain elevator in 28 years

Buffalo building inspectors turned a blind eye to the deterioration of the Great Northern grain elevator for nearly three decades.

Since it bought the Great Northern grain elevator in 1993, ADM Milling Co. has told city officials at least three times the iconic Ganson Street structure needs to come down. 

Each time, to justify its request for a demolition permit, the company has commissioned and filed with the city — and most recently with the state Supreme Court — engineering reports and affidavits outlining the building’s alleged structural deficiencies and the danger it poses to the public.

And yet, city inspectors have never in those 28 years demanded the company repair the problems those reports detail. The city has never written up ADM for a code violation and never taken the company to Housing Court.

In fact, the city’s commissioner for permits and inspections — James Comerford, who is retiring Friday — told Investigative Post that city building inspectors have only assessed the structure’s integrity once since ADM took ownership in 1993. 

According to Tim Tielman, executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture, that makes city officials complicit with ADM in the historic landmark’s deterioration. 

It’s not as if the city’s building inspectors didn’t know the building was being neglected, Tielman told Investigative Post. 

They had ADM’s engineering reports, he noted, and ample opportunity over the past 28 years to observe the structure’s decline. After all, Tielman said, a lot of city inspectors, as well as the commissioner who oversees them, live in South Buffalo.

“Imagine all the inspectors driving over the Skyway twice a day, 300 days a year … looking at that building and not saying, ‘Geez, you know, it doesn’t have its gutters,’ ” Tielman said.

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On Dec. 11, a wind storm knocked down a portion of the brick wall that sheaths the mammoth, 124-year-old elevator’s cylindrical steel grain bins. In the week that followed, ADM sought an emergency demolition permit from the city, which Comerford, as permits and inspections commissioner, granted on Dec. 17. 

The following day Tielman’s preservation group filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court against ADM and the city, and secured a temporary restraining order preventing the demolition. 

Since then, a number of elected officials, including Congressman Brian Higgins and State Senator Sean Ryan, have urged the city to rescind the demolition permit and ADM to seek alternatives to demolition. Developer Douglas Jemal has expressed interest in purchasing the Great Northern to secure and redevelop the building. Jemal’s interest prompted Mayor Byron Brown to write a letter to ADM officials asking them not to tear the building down. The mayor has not instructed his commissioner to rescind the demolition permit, which the city charter grants the commissioner the power to do if he determines the permit “was issued in error.”

On Dec. 27, state Supreme Court Justice Emilio Colaiacovo extended the restraining order for a week and instructed the parties to try to negotiate a resolution out of court. If they failed, the judge said, he would issue a ruling himself. 

Earlier, this week, after two days of mediation, the parties informed the judge they were at an impasse. Colaiacovo has called for an evidentiary hearing on Jan. 3 to determine if Comerford had “a rational basis” to order an emergency demolition.

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ADM first sought permission from the city to knock down the Great Northern grain elevator in 1996. A battle ensued with historic preservationists, who had succeeded in convincing the Common Council to landmark the structure just five years earlier.

In 1996, the Council agreed to allow ADM to demolish the building, on condition the company replace it with a new facility. ADM balked and the Great Northern sat idle, as it had been since 1980, and its condition continued to deteriorate. 

The company tried again for demolition permits in 2003 and 2020, according to Comerford. 

By email, Comerford told Investigative Post he dispatched two inspectors last year to evaluate the company’s claim that the building posed an imminent danger.

“From the ground, there appeared to be no apparent violations,” Comerford wrote, adding that he visited the site himself and agreed with that assessment. 

Comerford did not respond to a request to produce reports generated by that inspection.

The commissioner said he told the company an emergency demolition was not justified. If ADM wanted to knock down the landmarked building, they’d have to appeal to the city’s preservation board and the Common Council for permission. They did not.

That was the only time in 28 years city inspectors have assessed the building, according to Comerford. 

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“There were no previous violations or complaints regarding the structure right up until the time of the north wall collapse,” Comerford said.

Except there were, Tielman countered. 

But instead of complaints coming from surrounding property owners, preservationists or proactive city inspectors — the usual prompts to city action — the issues were raised by the company itself. 

Court documents filed by ADM’s lawyers describe dissolving mortar, falling bricks, flying sheets of metal roofing, and a host of other alleged structural deficiencies. Some of those assessments date to 1994, others from last year, and still others from the last three weeks.

Tielman and his organization dispute ADM’s contention that the building cannot be salvaged. They have submitted their own expert testimony dismissing many of the issues raised in the company’s engineering reports as specious and others as consequences of ADM’s bad stewardship. 

For example, if the mortar between the bricks has been washed away, Tielman argued, maybe it’s because the company never replaced the building’s gutters and downspouts, which might have mitigated water damage to the walls.

Specious or not, he said, the city could have acted on the company’s own reports 25 years ago. Or last year. Or anytime in the years in between. 

In fact, the city could start fining ADM for its neglect of the Great Northern right now, he said, and demand the company secure the structure immediately, before any future reuse becomes moot. 

“With the information they have, they could simply go and cite them right now,” Tielman said. “They could send an inspector out this afternoon and begin writing them up. I would start with ‘Replace gutters and downspouts.’ ”