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Canary in a Coal Mine

Architect Clinton Brown talks about the redevelopment of the E. & B. Holmes Warehouse

Buffalo’s Old First Ward, the venerable, traditionally Irish neighborhood that borders the Buffalo River was once the one of most thriving and lively sections of the city. Because of its proximity to the water, the First Ward teemed with factories, saloons, hotels, and the residences of the men and women who worked there. Today there is still a strong residential community, but much—though certainly not all—of that industry has vanished.

The E. & B. Holmes Warehouse. (Photo by Rose Mattrey)

So the First Ward sits quietly now, but why? It is right on a waterway that leads out into Lake Erie, there is an abundance of undeveloped space, a rich cultural history, and a 14-acre park. Waterfront property is the most sought-after land in most cities. What makes Buffalo different?

Clinton Brown, of Clinton Brown Company and Newark Niagara LLC, believes that the Old First Ward has the potential to become the vibrant economic city-center that it once was. Newark Niagara acquired the deteriorating E. & B. Holmes Warehouse on Chicago Street near Ohio Street in 2005. He plans to convert the 156-year-old warehouse into a residential and commercial space, which he has dubbed “The Cooperage.” Brown says he was “looking at regenerating Buffalo, and thought that if we are looking to regenerate the city we go to where it started in the first place. Buffalo started right there on the Buffalo River.”

While the river has suffered the environmental damage that accompanies the industrial work that has been conducted there for more than a century, there is new hope for it, too. A $3 million study will be conducted over the next few years by the US Environmental Protection Agency, Buffalo Niagara River Keeper, and Honeywell to determine both the level of contamination in the river and the most efficient way to eradicate the contaminants.

Brown is not the only person that sees value in this old building or the old neighborhood. The Preservation League of New York State has provided Newark Niagara with a $200,000 loan to put towards the restoration of the building. Jay DiLorenzo, the president of the Preservation League of New York State, says that the E. & B. Holmes Warehouse is a building worth saving because it “works with a building type and a setting that we find throughout Upstate New York. Abandoned and historic industrial buildings dot our landscape from New York to Buffalo. Finding a new life for these resources, and using them to drive private reinvestment in distressed areas, is what historic preservation is all about.”

Brown admits that he has chosen an unproven part of town for his high-end, live-work lofts. “We are a little bit the canary in the coal mine,” he says, adding optimistically that he expects this canary to “sing, pretty sweetly.”

Artist's rendering of the Cooperage

Part of his optimism comes from the fact that efforts are being made to improve the infrastructure of the First Ward. State and city money has been set aside for the purpose of repairing some of the more heavily utilized streets in the surrounding area. Also, the bordering Cobblestone District has seen some successes, beginning with the Elk Terminal Lofts in 2001 and continuing with last year’s opening of J. W. Morrisey’s. Hockey season brings a steady crown into the neighborhood. Nearby, the Erie Canal Harbor Project continues to unfold.

Brown feels that this proximity to the bustling district will help give the building the appeal it needs to attract renters.

Not everyone in Buffalo feels that this project will be a success. The comments sections on articles about the proposed project posted on both and are filled with skeptics, as is par for the course in Buffalo. Bruce Beyers, in response to the article, wrote, “I don’t know what’s going on here. Even a simple visual examination of the site would reveal to the most deluded Buffaloon the reality that this structure would exceed many millions of dollars in rehab costs.” Other commenters argued that everything from safety in the neighborhood, to the lack of nearby amenities, to the environmental issues created by the industry that once thrived there, make the Cooperage project infeasible.

Clinton Brown (photo by Rose Mattrey)

Brown reacted calmly to this skepticism. “Its like having a child hit in the face,” he said. “You’re sitting in the emergency room, blood all over the place, but you know the child is going to clean up just fine once the doctor arrives and he or she does the surgery. It looks terrible but the bones are very, very good.”

Brown says that he has done his research and that restoring the building and area will take a great deal of work, but that it is far from impossible.

The most notable damage is the crumbling wall on the back side of the building. Preservationists frown on any alterations to a historic building’s exterior, but in this case alterations are necessary. Brown says he will preserve as much of the building as possible.

“We have confidence that Newark Niagara has a real sensitivity for historic features and will do all they can to preserve anything that can be restored,” said DiLorenzo.

Beyond the loan that the Preservation League of New York State has given to Newark Niagara, the group will also provide the company with technical support, and will advocate “strongly for Governor Paterson to sign historic rehabilitation tax credit legislation he has before him.”

For the Cooperage to succeed, city and state politicians need to follow through on their promises of new and improved infrastructure. And the developers will need to convince potential leasers that the area is safe and close enough to the attractions of the Cobblestone District to be worth the price of a high-end loft.

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