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Common Council Report

The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus - pre-approved by Robert Gioia.

Tuesday’s meeting of the Common Council’s Legislation Committee was something of a slog, even for committed Trico saga enthusiasts: more than two hours of testimony concerning a measure that would confer local landmark status on the vacant battleship of a building that fronts Goodell Street between Ellicott and Washington.

The building already is listed on the state and national historic registers. Buffalo’s Preservation Board has recommended naming it a local landmark, too, saying that it meets six of the nine criteria the board uses to evaluate candidates for the designation; a property need meet only one to qualify. Local landmark status accords the Preservation Board the power, subject to Common Council approval, to allow or disallow any alterations to the building—complete or partial demolition, for example, two possibilities among several that are being contemplated by the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the designated developer for the former Trico plant. Ordinarily, the Preservation Board’s input is strictly advisory.

The leadoff speaker at the committee meeting was Tim Tielman, who sits on the Preservation Board and is executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture, and Culture. On behalf of the Preservation Board, Tielman argued the case for landmarking the structure; as executive director of the campaign, Tielman has been the most strident public critic of the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation’s stewardship of the building and the BNMC’s plans to tear down part or all of it. Most of the succeeding speakers agreed with Tielman’s dual points of view: Its structure, history, and location argued for landmark status; the building is ultimately salvageable, despite its degradation and environmental contamination, and ought to be preserved and reused. A few disagreed: two speakers who said they represented Fruit Belt residents; a tenant of BNMC’s Innovation Center, an adjoining part of the Trico complex that BNMC rehabbed with help from a Restore NY grant; and the attorney who has helped guide BNMC as it decides what to do with the massive building.

That attorney, Terry Gilbride of Hodgson Russ, argued that a great deal of misinformation had been bandied about in the four months since it came to light that BNMC was conducting roundtable discussions with a coterie of preservationist organizations, developers, and neighborhood groups in pursuit of a redevelopment plan for the site. Those discussions, suspended temporarily when the possibility of demolition hit the media, recommenced last Thursday; the roundtables will now help to shape an adaptive reuse study that should be completed in July, and that will be included in whatever plan, if any, BNMC submits to the city for approval.

(Gilbride opened his comments by assuring the Council that, despite a multiplicity of “conspiracy theories,” there exists no plan for the site as yet; no proposal has been brought to the city. Paradoxically, he later read aloud part of a letter from Robert Gioia, president of the John R. Oishei Foundation, in which Gioia expressed his support for BNMC’s “plan” for the site.)

The adaptive reuse study, Gilbride said, would detail the economic and environmental obstacles to preserving and reusing the structure—information without which the landmark designation—“this rush” to give “absolute veto power” to the Preservation Board, as he erroneously described it—the Trico complex could not be considered properly.

Following Gilbride was Dan Sack, vice president of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture, and Culture, who pointed out that for all his arguments about the difficulties reuse of the Trico complex presented to BNMC, or any other developer, Gilbride had failed to address the issue at hand: Does the Trico plant qualify for local landmark status? Nobody had come to council chambers that day, Sack said, to debate the unequivocal good of job creation, or to parse BNMC’s strategic plan, nor were they gathered to examine the building’s condition. They were there to determine whether the structure meets any one of the nine criteria the Preservation Board uses to judge whether a building is a local landmark. Trico, according to the Preservation Board, meets six.

When the public hearing closed, Niagara District Councilman Dave Rivera immediately moved to discharge the designation to the whole Council with a recommendation to approve. Ellicott District Councilman Darius Pridgen, chair of the committee, expressed his preference as the councilman in which district the building lies that the designation be tabled while he learned more about the issue. Pridgen solicited a promise from Gilbride that BNMC would do nothing to the building in the meantime; on behalf of the Preservation Board, Tielman said that he preferred that it go to the Council for a vote next week but that he was willing to let the issue to rest for three weeks, if Pridgen felt he needed more time. Rivera offered a compromise that pleased nobody: He motioned that the designation be sent to the whole Council next week, but without recommendation. That motion passed, three (Rivera, Dave Francyzk, Joe Golombek) to two (Pridgen, Demone Smith).

In fact, there is unlikely to be a vote on the issue when the Council meets next Tuesday, because neither side of the issue has the five votes it needs to get its way. It’s split four to four, assuming Delaware’s Mike LoCurto will vote in favor of designation and Golombek continues to buck the majority of which he is generally a part.

■ If his stance on the Trico issue irks his fellow majority members, North District Councilman Joe Golombek’s position on filling the vacant South District seat must have them roaring. Golombek has joined Dave Rivera, Dave Franczyk, and Mike LoCurto in supporting Matt Fisher, a former aide to the departed Mickey Kearns. In addition to having won the recommendation of the South District Democratic committee, Fisher is the last of the leading candidates standing: Tim Whalen withdrew when he saw he could not win the appointment; Bryan Bollman, chief of staff to Council President Rich Fontana, failed to meet the residency requirement; and A. J. Verel, it turns out, spent a couple years in jail, which is not a disqualification in itself but is enough to derail what was already a long-shot candidacy. (A shame, too: Verel and Fisher were best in show during the interview portion of the competition.)

For the “anyone but Mickey’s guy” crew, that leaves community activist Linda Bain, whose interview was less than dazzling. Nonetheless, Fontana, Darius Pridgen, Demone Smith, and Bonnie Russell are behind her.

That’s right: another four-to-four split, just like Trico. Damn it, Joe!

Expect a deal to be made on this issue soon. (Indeed, on Tuesday afternoon, after the long Legislation Committee meeting, the majority was meeting to discuss the appointment.) If the Council majority fails to appoint Fisher, it will have descended to a new low mark for pettiness and what Smith described, frustrated by the committee vote on Trico, as “gamesmanship.”

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