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Wiped Away

Trico Plant #1 in the 1970s. (photo provided by David Torke)

The Trico controversy: how we got here and what might happen next

Let’s assume for a moment that two years from now, the Trico building will be gone. Maybe just part of it will be demolished, with some remaining structure left standing or a design echo paying homage to what was once there. Maybe all of it will come down—a blank slate.

How will this have come to pass?

If one were compelled to identify one moment, one action, which pushed the iconic, sprawling Trico Plant #1 onto the road to demolition, it might be this one: In 2001, developer Steve McGarvey, having won approvals from the New York State Historical Preservation Office that would make his redevelopment plan for the complex eligible for state and federal tax credits, ordered workers to begin asbestos remediation. They started with the roof, removing 40 to 50 percent of the membrane, before work—and, as it turned out, the entire project—came to a halt.

Plagued by health problems and debt, McGarvey’s resources were insufficient to continue. In 2004, having come under fire from Mayor Anthony Masiello for falling behind on city taxes and violating building codes, the Erie, Pennsylvania developer—confined to a wheelchair and plagued with health issues as a result of a fall off a cliff when he was a boy—turned to his friend Paul Ciminelli, the prominent local developer, for help. Ciminelli took up the reins as designated developer of the property, armed with some motivated tenants and a partnership agreement that would be realized when the rehab was complete.

After that, there comes another candidate for the Trico building’s point of no return, if indeed demolition turns out to be inevitable: In 2005, McGarvey died, leaving behind an estate mired in debt and tax liabilities and derelict properties.

Not least among these liabilities was Trico Plant #1, which had been without much of its roof for five years by the time a bankruptcy court began to unravel McGarvey’s estate in 2006. Pre-purchase studies commissioned by the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, which would eventually purchase the building, indicated that, while the building’s skeleton of concrete and steel piers remained structurally sound, water was taking its toll on the interior, and possibly aggravating the former industrial facility’s environmental contamination issues.

BNMC put together a bid, using money committed by affiliates of the UB Foundation, for a brace of adjacent properties that were to be auctioned in the fall of 2007 to help to resolve McGarvey’s estate: the former M. Wile building, which McGarvey had successfully renovated and which UB coveted; a parking lot east of Ellicott Street; and the Trico complex, which for BNMC’s purposes comprised two parts—a four-story, 100,000-square-foot building on the north end of the property that would become BNMC’s Innovation Center, and the adjacent six-story, 580,000-square-foot structure, itself comprising five interconnected buildings.

BNMC had no interest in assuming liability for the contaminated behemoth from which McGarvey had begun stripping the roof six years earlier, so a deal was struck with the City of Buffalo that might be a third candidate for the fateful moment: In an agreement brokered by the city’s chief economic development officer, Richard Tobe, BNMC transferred title to the big building to the Buffalo Brownfield Restoration Corporation, a subsidiary of the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation, a city agency that operates out of the offices of the Erie County Industrial Development Agency. BBRC then signed a deal designating BNMC as developer of the property for a term of three years; that term was renewed in 2010.

The legal intent of the ownership transfer to Buffalo’s alphabet soup of quasi-public development agencies was to isolate BNMC from liability for the property—from the cost of protecting its integrity and keeping it up to code, from litigation should a brick fall through the windshield of a car passing by on Goodell Street, from responsibility for the environmental contamination inside.

The physical effect of the deal was further decay: BBRC eventually erected a fence around the perimeter to lessen the probability that a pedestrian or a car might be hit by a brick falling from one the building’s signature parapets, which had begun to show the effects of water penetration. But that’s all they did. BBRC never lifted a finger to button up the building and preserve it for future reuse. The roof was not repaired. The water kept coming in, freezing and thawing, wreaking incremental havoc. If BBRC intended to make the building’s demise an inexorable fact, then, short of planting a bomb, they could not have picked a better course than inaction.

Daylight to lights out

In 1920, Trico’s founder, John R. Oishei, purchased a four-story brownstone storehouse at Ellicott and Goodell, a remnant of the Christian Weyand Brewery, and surrounding property, on which he planned to build a new factory. Over the next three decades, the company built adjacent to and around the old storehouse, putting in new floors and additions whenever and wherever space was required for its expanding operations. Some of those additions were demolished to make way for new construction, but the Christian Weyand storehouse remained essentially intact. Viewed from Ellicott Street, it is a visible aberration from the rest of the complex.

Oishei and his partner, the inventor John Jepson, had developed the first windshield wiper blades for automobiles. Trico, originally called Tri-Continental Products, remained an innovator in the industry, accumulating more than 1,000 patents.

When Oishei began to build his new plant at Goodell and Washington, he hired engineers who embraced new ideas, too, specifically the daylight factory model. This type of construction was quick and cheap, but also strong and sensible, using reinforced concrete piers and steel sash windows that provided wide open, naturally lit floor space adaptable to a variety of uses, from warehousing to heavy manufacturing. Buffalo already had several good examples of the daylight factory when Oishei came along: the Larkin block, the Pierce Arrow plant, the Buffalo Meter Company—all three of which are currently in some state of adaptive reuse.

In 1985, 17 years after Oishei’s retirement, the Trico plant employed 2,550 people; in 1998, when the British conglomerate that had purchased Trico decided to move the company’s headquarters to Texas, just 225 factory jobs remained. Thanks to a package of subsidies, those jobs remained for a few more years, relocated to another facility. (In 2004, those jobs disappeared as well.) In the meantime, Trico Plant #1 was vacated.

The outfitting of the building and the manufacturing techniques used there ran the gamut of 20th century technology, with all the attendant environmental nightmares: trichloroethylene degreasing baths; transformers and other electrical equipment filled with PCB-laden oils; heavy metals of every variety short of the uranium decay chain, including lead, mercury, chromium, and cadmium, among others; and benzene, napthalene, and other polyaromatic hydrocarbons.

At least 10 environmental assessments of the building were made between 1993 and 2002. None of them offered good news. Environmental regulatory agencies recorded 20 releases of toxic compounds from the plant between 1989 and 1999. Leaking transformers required a $500,000 cleanup in 1993 and 1994. Prior to that effort, cleanups seemed to consist of isolating toxic materials in storage rooms and occasionally resurfacing areas where the floors had been permeated by contaminants.

The most recent assessment, performed in 2006 by Watts Engineering for BNMC when they were contemplating purchasing the property, suggested that the water coming in the roof had compromised those resurfacing materials, exposing the contaminants beneath. A sub-basement was filled with 144,000 gallons of water that demonstrated moderately elevated levels of PCBs. Remediation, Watts said, “would likely be cost prohibitive” and “demolition may well be the only viable option.”

Where the membrane was removed, some parts of the thick concrete slab roof have turned to rubble, according to engineers who have evaluated the building. The parapet that reads “Trico” on two sides facing east and south is decaying. Some lintels and interior walls are deteriorating.

Still, the basic structure is sound. The impediments to saving the Trico building are not physical. They are financial.

What might have been

Developer Paul Ciminelli believes that Trico Plant #1, as conditions obtain today, is destined for demolition. But he didn’t always think so.

It was Ciminelli who introduced McGarvey to the building in the first place. The two were friends and business partners: Together they’d purchased several buildings on Niagara Street that they hoped to redevelop. (That project, too, became a victim of McGarvey’s death and his tangled estate. Ciminelli sold its interest in the Niagara Street buildings in 2006.) Based on the work McGarvey had done in Erie reviving old industrial structures, the Trico building seemed a natural fit.

McGarvey purchased the building through a limited liability corporation, or LLC, in 1999. In 2000, he transferred the property to a limited partnership called Century Center—the name he’d chosen for the interests he’d acquired along both sides of Goodell Street and east of Ellicott.

After McGarvey’s Trico project became mired in his health and financial difficulties, he enlisted Ciminelli Real Estate in a partnership. Ciminelli committed $5 million to the project, and was contracted as designated developer. Ciminelli, with its established local connections and bigger staff, took over the project under a contract that paid Ciminelli a fee throughout the development period and, in the end, left the company with an ownership stake in the final product. In the end, the estate paid Ciminelli a fraction of the fees owed and the partnership was dissolved.

The hurdles to preserving and reusing the building that McGarvey and Ciminelli faced in 2005 are not so different from those a developer would face today. The floor plans are a bit tricky. There’s a lot of dead space. Ciminelli says the lintels are awfully high—perfect for lighting a factory floor where workers are standing at machines, but less than ideal for office workers sitting at desks.

The environmental issues, Ciminelli says, “are not that bad. They’re manageable.” Remediation adds significantly to the cost, he says, but Ciminelli had something that a developer taking on the project today might have difficulty finding: two big tenants who were emotionally attached to the idea of the building being preserved and reused. One was New Era Cap, which was looking to expand in the city and had not yet built its new home on Delaware Avenue. The other was LP Ciminelli, the construction company run by Paul Ciminelli’s brother, Louis. LP Ciminelli, like New Era, has since found new digs.

If reuse of the Trico building cost a little extra, said Paul Ciminelli, it was okay: The clients were willing to pay.

Preservationists who are clamoring for the Trico building to be saved point to successful reuses of similar buildings. Ciminelli is renovating the former Buffalo Meter Company building, more recently known as Bethune Hall, into 87 apartments. Up in Tonawanda, Kissling Interests continues to rehab the former Remington typewriter factory—a massive complex that presented a number of engineering issues similar to Trico’s. The Tri-Main Center is another example.

Then there’s the Larkin Building on Exchange Street, a very successful project undertaken by Howard Zemsky and his partners in CityView Properties to transform the former Graphic Controls warehouse into office space.

But the market, never great in Buffalo, is worse now, post-recession. The HSBC Tower is going vacant shortly, which may drive downtown rental rates even lower than they usually are. There are no big tenants currently looking for space, as there were when the Larkin Building came online.

BNMC’s executive director, Matt Enstice, says that he’s been told that rehabbing the Trico complex would cost a minimum of $300 per square foot, or nearly $180 million. Federal historic rehabilitation tax credits might bring that down by 20 percent; the state offers another 20 percent tax credit, but that credit is capped at $5 million—helpful but minor, given the size of the project. Demolition might cost $10 million on the outside, maybe as little as half that.

Even if one assumes these numbers are intended to support a point of view—that demolition is inevitable—it remains that this is BNMC’s point of view. It’s what reuse of the Trico building looks like to them, given the sort of spaces they want to build: flexible, modern lab spaces contained signature, modern architecture

“Everyone says, ‘You can do it,’” Enstice said. “Well, you can do anything you want in this world. If we put lab space in this building, it costs us probably three times what it should cost.”

3 Chances to Hear the Trico Plans

• Preservation Board: Thursday, March 22, 6pm, Common Council Chambers

• Preservation Buffalo Niagara: Thursday, March 22, 8pm, Common Council Chambers

• Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture: Tuesday, March 27, 6pm, Promised Land Baptist Church at Mulberry and High Streets.

Where things are now

In 2010, BBRC, the owner, advocated for a demolition permit for the entire Trico complex, on behalf of BNMC, the developer. That attempt went nowhere.

This January, Enstice began a series of meetings—including one with this newspaper—to show BNMC’s latest plans for the site, which began with demolition of everything but perhaps the Weyand Brewery storehouse; included an expansion of the Innovation Center, which is now fully leased; allowed for the eventual development of the entire site, when financing and a developer and a market coincided; and proposed temporary surface parking in the interim.

Among the people with whom Enstice met was community activist Harvey Garrett, who formerly served on the city’s Preservation Board and is a member of Preservation Buffalo Niagara. Enstice said that Garrett convinced him to hold off on pursuing a demolition permit and to convene a roundtable of preservationist groups, engineers, developers, architects, cost estimators, and other experts to discuss a full range of possibilities for the complex—complete demolition, complete preservation, and points in between. There was a “handshake agreement,” Enstice says, that the participants would be given access to the building and to any information that BNMC possessed about its condition. Whatever conclusions the roundtable reached, he said, would be released in a joint statement when the process concluded. No one would speak publicly until then.

“We might agree to disagree, or we might have a joint vision: Here’s what we’re going to try to accomplish for this community,” Enstice says. “Instead of our community working against one another, we were trying to find collaborative solutions.”

Garrett believes that 20 years from now, the city will regret having demolished any part of the structure. But he also believes the process that commenced in January might serve as a model for how parties with differing needs and capabilities might achieve compromises instead of stalemates.

That didn’t quite happen. Two weeks ago, a drawing representing a phased demolition plan for the structure was leaked to the press, and all hell broke loose. The new executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara, Tom Yots, released a statement asserting its support for complete preservation of Trico Plant #1 and scheduled a public hearing to discuss the matter. Enstice released a statement saying, in effect, that BNMC would make no statement until the roundtable had reconvened. He felt misunderstood, because the phased demolition plan was intended to be illustrative rather than indicative of a final plan, and somewhat betrayed, because the partners with whom he’d been negotiating—with whom, he acknowledged, he probably ought to have been negotiating two years ago—had broken that handshake agreement.

Last week, he convinced PBN to reschedule its public hearing until this Thursday, March 22, in Common Council chambers, following a city Preservation Board meeting that will consider an application to grant local landmark status to the complex—a designation that might aid preservationists determined to prevent its demolition. At that meeting, BNMC will likely present a plan that would allow for preservation of the part of the structure that borders Goodell Street, should a developer be willing to take on its renovation. Demolition of the rest of the structure would begin at the north end of the complex and move south. The first new structure would be an extension of the Innovation Center, a project for which Enstice is reasonably sure BNMC can get financing; in between the new building and the old building, BNMC would build underground parking for 150-200 cars. The Weyand Brewery storehouse might be saved, too, and converted into apartments or office space.

Tim Tielman is executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture and so far the most vocal critic of the latest proposal to take the building down. Tielman’s group was not invited to participate in the roundtable discussions; Bernice Radle, a board member for the Campaign, was present, but she insists that she did not speak for the Campaign—and that Enstice and Garrett understood that she took part in the meetings as an individual.

Excluding the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture may prove to be a miscalculation. The group has threatened a lawsuit to prevent demolition and has scheduled a public hearing of its own, on Tuesday, March 27, at the Promised Land Baptist Church at Mulberry and High Streets.

Still, Tielman is not unsympathetic to the notion that preserving and reusing the Trico building may not make sense for BNMC. He simply argues that the option of taking the burden off BNMC and mothballing the historic structure until a feasible reuse plan materializes ought to be on the table. BNMC’s designated developer agreement expires in 2013. Enstice says it’s possible his board of directors will want to walk away from the building if their redevelopment plans for the site are stymied by a lawsuit.

Tielman thinks that might not be such a bad thing. He points out that Mayor Byron Brown is chairman of BUDC, which ultimately holds title to the property.

“This is an issue for the citizens of Buffalo properly to decide,” Tielman says. “It should be the city’s responsibility to come up with a solution that helps Allentown, that helps the Fruit Belt, that helps downtown—not just the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.”

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