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BNMC Offers Preservationists a Tricky Deal on Trico

Tuesday’s meeting of the Buffalo Common Council’s Legislation Committee started late, because the preceding meeting of the Community Development Committee ran late. (See Buck Quigley’s account of that meeting above.) Before the committee’s chairman, Ellicott District Councilman Darius Pridgen, gaveled the meeting to order, a phalanx of men in suits and ties descended on one of the microphones, crowding out all other comers.

This was unfortunate, as the men in suits and ties were there to argue on behalf of demolishing Trico Plant #1 and against designating the complex a local landmark, and there were several public hearings on the agenda ahead of that issue—a frozen yogurt place, a pizza joint, a long annual report from the city’s Office of Communications, among others. Pridgen asked the men in suits and ties please to move aside and let others use the mic, which they obediently did.

When it was time to talk Trico, they returned. The first to speak was Mark McGovern of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, which is designated developer for the complex under an agreement with the Buffalo Brownfields Restoration Corporation, the city agency that holds title. That agreement expires in six months—a time frame that the next speaker burdened with some significance. McGovern used his time to introduce the chairman of BNMC’s board of directors, Bill Joyce. Joyce is a macher, and he wasn’t the only one in the crowd: Developer Paul Ciminelli, who has a long history with the Trico complex and extensive interests in the medical campus, was there, as were developer Peter Krog and commercial real estate expert Jim Militello. The latter two testified in support of Joyce’s assertions that the massive structure was too expensive to rehabilitate, that the market could not absorb so much new commercial space, no credible developer could make the project work, and the property was only developable as a “greenfield”—that is, sans the iconic Trico Plant #1 complex. BNMC’s attorney, Terry Gilbride of Hodgson Russ, argued that the feasability of preservation and reuse was a criterion for conferring local landmark status, according to the city charter; this is a misreading of the criteria, as was pointed out by Tim Tielman of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture during his testimony.

Local landmark status which has been recommended twice now by the city’s Preservation Board, would make it more difficult for BNMC to demolish Trico, while opening up the possibility of historic preservation grants and tax credits.

BNMC has been clear all along, Joyce said, that it was not interested in developing even the part of the structure that runs along Goodell Street, which BNMC had proposed saving, while demolishing the rest for parking in the short term and expasion of its Innovation Center in the long term. “At this point in time, we can’t do it,” he said. “We can’t even save half that building.” Nor could any other developer, he believed, based on the expertise of folks like Krog and Militello.

And then Joyce unveiled this offer: BNMC would give Preservation Buffalo Niagara, a group that favors landmarking Trico and complete preservation of the structure, six months as de facto designated developer. In those six months, PBN would have free rein to come up with a viable plan—“unfettered by us,” Joyce said—to preserve and reuse the Trico complex.

If, after six months, PBN had failed to produce such a plan, Joyce said, BNMC would come back to city and request permission to demolish it. In the meantime, Joyce said, he hoped the Common Council would refrain from making the building a local landmark, a designation that he believed would condemn the building to 20 more years of abandonment and neglect.

On Wednesday, PBN acknowledged in a statement that it “is exploring a cooperative agreement” with BNMC “to identify an economically feasible, historic preservation appropriate, adaptive reuse proposal for the property.”

How does PBN hope to land a developer with a plan and financing by then? Is PBN worried that they’re being set up to fail, so BNMC can say in six months, “Look, the preservationists couldn’t do it. We tried. Now renew our developer designation and let us knock it down.” Right after the mayoral election is over, so Mayor Byron Brown’s administration needn’t answer to anyone about the matter during the campaign? Is PBN worried that those councilmembers who were going to vote against landmarking anyway will likewise use this offer as a fig leaf to justify their voting against or tabling the recommendation to landmark the complex?

In Wednesday’s statement, PBN said, “In order to guarantee the eligibility and the ultimate reuse of the Trico Plant #1 Building, Preservation Buffalo Niagara strongly supports the current local historic landmark application for the property. Such designation would not only allow for valuable public involvement in the reuse process but would also protect the historic integrity of the building and it’s eligibility for historic tax credits and/or other State and Federal funding.”

The Preservation Board’s to landmark Trico was sent out of the Legislation Committee for the full Council to address next Tuesday. The committee made no recommendation on how the full Council should vote.

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