The Buffalo History Workswrote that the station was "like a dead friend who hasn't been buried yet." Indeed, many would welcome the buildings demise so that it's "integrity" will no longer be shamed. Taking away "integrity" is something architects and historians talk about in regards usually to bad remodeling jobs, but in this case I think it can refer to the vandalism and stripping of the buildings ornaments for profit.
If the history of Central Terminal were a movie, perhaps it would be fitting to have the building go out in a big explosion, similar to the public housing complex in Ayn Rands 1947 novel "The Fountainhead." Better to be destroyed than to go on living in a world that doesn't deserve you.
When someone said "I'll meet you by the Buffalo," they knew it meant the large statue of a bison in the center of the concourse. When I told a friend of mine that the sculpture was accidentally destroyed when a forklift backed into it while a developer was stripping the building of it's decorations, he replied that the buffalo having broken into pieces on the ground "somehow seemed appropriate."
Unlike in the movies, Central Station has met no grand exit. At this point demolition could only mean that Buffalo will have lost one more irreplaceable historic structure and the empty space left will be as unfamiliar to the neighborhood as the building was nearly seventy years before. People in Buffalo lament the loss of several historic structures, one being the Larkin Building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Yet Buffalo still has many old buildings that are not only attractive, but are famous as well, including the Guarantee Building designed by Louis Sullivan.
As I'm sure many Buffalo residents would agree, the one thing good that could come from the destruction of the Larkin Building and other lost pieces of a great city is the saving of Central Station. And indeed, that is the challenge, can Central Station be saved, or will it join the ranks of that which no longer exists? Can a building with such a controversial past be built into something that can help revitalize not only the city, but the neighborhood it invaded so many years ago?
Given the history of the building, it seems clear that any large-scale, up-scale development like a hotel complex or a casino will only serve to be a force working against the people who call the East Side home. Like Central Station was intended to do, a large project would eventually attract more development that is incompatible with the neighborhood and force long-time residents out. It is therefore probably advantageous that any development in the building be sensitive to the needs and character of the surrounding neighborhood.
suggestions for re-use
Many residents and visitors had suggested possible uses for the building onThe Buffalo History Worksweb page. These uses include a variety of ideas including apartments, offices, retail shops, light industry, a Polish community center, a railroad enthusiast center, a college, a government building, an arts center, a place for the offices of arts and historical groups, a court house, a concert hall, a staging area for the departure of light rail transit vehicles, a recreation center, a reception and party area, and a technology center.
The most popular answer however might have been simply, a railroad station. Not only do many of these answers reflect things residents see as advantageous to the neighborhood, but reflect the general sense that saving the building, though an enormous challenge, would be good for the neighborhood and the City of Buffalo. Few thought the building should be demolished, and no one wished it's demise. Anything that could be built to replace it couldn't match what would be lost. You can call any place by any name, but without history, it might not be Buffalo.
As we have seen, there are many possible uses for the building. And maybe it's size could turn out to be an asset instead of an obstacle. I do not doubt that it may be possible to fit all of those things inside the complex. When in operation, the station offered a clothing store, jewelry store, bar lounge, full restaurant which could seat 250, snack stand, newsstand, barber, drug store and shoeshine shop in addition to the numerous floors of office space, a mail facility, railway express office, storage areas and more.
It's hard to think of Central Station as a thriving center of activity, seeing it in its present state. A downward economic cycle can work just as fast and be just as powerful as an economic boom. Buffalo, like most other early industrial cities, knows this fate too well. But with that we must keep in mind that an active income-generating enterprise in Central Station can bring the neighborhood and city up with it. If Central Station were renovated, the new life there could breed greater economic well-being.
For many reasons the value of Central Station is diminished. The buildings condition is one major detractor. Geographically, the building is not inside the center-city, nor is it connected by highways or other passenger connections. Routes on local roads to the structure go through undesirable neighborhoods. The surrounding areas are incompatible, one side being residential and the other side industrial.
Still the line between invaluable and valueless can be blurred. The building has many characteristics that can give it value. One is a right-of-way that could be used to connect the structure to the center-city by light rail from the Exchange Street Station, possibly even continuing to form a loop where the Conrail tracks intersect with the light rail in the northern part of the city. Rail patterns in the city could also provide for a possible connection to the University at Buffalo South Campus, Erie County Medical Center, Walden Galleria Mall and all connections currently made by the Buffalo light-rail system.
The building also has tremendous potential as a historical site. Even in its present condition, the building is likely attracting hundreds of visitors per-year. The area surrounding the building has potential to be developed into an urban park, enhancing the value of the building as well as surrounding structures. The neighborhood as well has deep traditions in immigrant culture and could be revived as a cultural center, alive with markets, ethnic foods, shops and cafe's.
Economic theory holds that there are two methods for improving an economy (developing), the first being exporting and the second importing less. Many export based industries have been followed by a multiplier effect. When jobs are created in exporting, they are followed by more jobs. Secondly, when a country, state, city or neighborhood begins producing and consuming products that they once imported, the economic effect can be tremendous.
Although this method is most closely associated with the manufacturing of physical products, tourism is an exporting based industry. As an example, if Central Terminal were to become the site of some tourist oriented enterprise such as the railroad and history museums mentioned in the suggestions to the Buffalo History Works, the neighborhood and city would benefit from the money that is brought into the neighborhood.
Likewise some sort of technology center could begin exporting something equally abstract: knowledge. If the building were to be developed into an institute that studied magnetic technology, like is used to propel high-speed trains in Germany and other parts of the world, the possibilities could be endless. That technology and it's potential uses move far beyond transportation. Recent advances in the technology for example, have uses involving fault limiters for electrical systems to prevent enduring power outages. That is an emerging technology related to transportation that has not begun to agglomerate yet in the United States. Developing the technology in Buffalo, and particularly in a building with deep history in the transportation industry could attract firms engaged in the use of the technology to Buffalo in order to be near the technology resource. Once being the second largest railroad center in the nation, Buffalo could take advantage of its historical assets to build the future.
That potential use would undoubtedly depend on a college in the area setting up a department dedicated to developing magnetic technology and use the building for such purposes. Many transportation links using that technology have been proposed in the United States, as well as throughout the world and it is likely that some will be built in the near future, providing immeasurable need for the perfection of the technology.
There are major precedents for such a plan. The City of Akron, Ohio for example has maintained its employment base despite the fact that car tires are no longer made there. There are more people employed currently in Akron than at the height of the rubber industry.
The present economic situation is credited to Goodyear setting up research and development facilities in its Akron headquarters. From that came insights into the production of plastic resins and polymers. Further, the University of Akron set up the School of Polymer Science, attracting large numbers of polymer based companies. Today, Northeast Ohio is known as Polymer Valley because of the number of firms located there.
Silicon Valley is one other well-worn example where an agglomeration of firms located because of readily available access to technology. When Stanford University began allowing researchers to financially benefit from their discoveries, large numbers of computer chip manufacturers began to agglomerate in this area of California. The rest is history.
The research facility in California at Stanford was an example of a local asset that began to attract export-based industry. In a 1985 article in Economic Development Commentary, Wilber and Philip Thompson stressed the point of creating local advantages that can aid economic development. "We tend to lose sight of that relatively small set of local services which are so critical to export industries vitality." These advantages are not necessarily something as big as Stanford University, but can consist of advertizing agencies, law-firm, banks and other outlets essential to operation. The article continues "We can leverage existing local occupational strengths as surely as we can target new national industries."
Of course, the neighborhood of East Buffalo, nor the city itself could hope to become self-sufficient. The service industries would be established for the purposes of limiting the importing of that which can be created and consumed in the locality, such as finished food items (restaurants). Secondly, other services would be used to attract additional exporting based businesses, whether that exporting be to downtown, downstate, or Hong Kong.
Technology is an example. James Heilbrun explained the importance of exporting in his 1987 book Urban Economics and Urban Policy, "a city is very much an 'open economy.' It does not produce everything it consumes; nor does it consume everything it produces. Trade is not merely incidental to the city's life; it is absolutely indispensible." Disadvantaged areas like the neighborhood around Central Station though are undoubtedly importing much of what they consume and exporting little, other than labor.
The situation must be reversed in order to bring real economic development. Central Station could play a crucial role in providing for such a transformation.
On a smaller scale, this prescription for economic policy emphasizes the need for Buffalo, and East Buffalo in particular to begin attracting those functions which are not only essential to industry, but to begin fulfilling the needs of its own population instead of relying on them being imported from other parts of the city and suburbs. As a retail and business complex, perhaps Central Station could be a catalyst for beginning such a transformation.
If Central Terminal were to become a mixed-income residential development, new residents would bring new wealth into the neighborhood. Regardless of income, when new people come into an area, they bring money. Without having employment possibilities in the immediate neighborhood, that income would likely be made elsewhere and brought into the neighborhood.
When suburbanization began to occur after World War II, money that had been made and spent inside city limits began to be made in the city and spent in the suburbs, causing a downward spiral. Today more and more residents are rediscovering urban life and many of them work in the city. Today though, reverse-commuting is not uncommon. Residents who live in the city and work in the suburbs will be spending increasing portions of their income in their urban neighborhoods.
Which brings us to a third mentioned suggestion; making Central Terminal a regional hub for mass-transit. If this path were taken, the valuable links to suburban office parks and downtown offices could make not only Central Station, but the East Side of Buffalo an extremely attractive place to live. Residents would be able to commute to work with ease.
The trend of suburbanization can and is being reversed as more and more people have longer periods of their lives outside of child bearing years when they are able to live in urban areas. One of the attractions to "moving back" is the potential to be within proximity not only to work, but to amenities such as museums, theatre and night-life. The other major attraction is the interesting spaces that exist in cities. In many cities old warehouses and hotels have been converted into living space. The Terminal Warehouse in Cleveland is an excellent example of a building which was once a source of neighborhood blight and is now an income-generating asset to the Warehouse District. Because of the geographical separation from downtown Buffalo though, the transportation link to the center-city and even Niagara Falls is a crucial ingredient to making such a project viable.
At this point if the tower of the building were developed into apartments, the old passenger bridge area into the regional transportation hub and the lower terminal buildings into a technology center, a need for local amenities would surely follow. With few retail opportunities in the neighborhood, and new demand, the remaining portions of the buildings could develop into shops, restaurants, a market and so forth. This could also be further incentive for tourists to visit the building and any exhibits which have been located there, again contributing to the exporting base of the neighborhood.
To provide for expansion, the large areas of industrial land behind the terminal could be used for companies that may be attracted by the technology center. Additional residential properties could be found in other local buildings which would undoubtedly begin to be rehabilitated as well.
And finally another activity that could be initiated by the light-rail link to downtown could be the possible re-use of the building as none other than a passenger station. Passengers unwilling to board in East Buffalo could board downtown on the metro and catch a train east or west bound in Central Terminal.
In order to begin the process though Central Station must gain that one ingredient it doesn't poses: economic value. If the light-rail link could be established, the building could become a tremendous asset because of the easy access to the center city and other areas.
Access and transportation links are what gives land value. Highways and infrastructure give value to farmland being developed just as waterways and canals gave value to land in earlier years. Today, light-rail transit is being used in places like Oregon to encourage development around it's transfer points. Likewise projects like the 1996 Waterfront line in Cleveland have been called "a lightningrod for economic development," along the once industrial North-end of the City, just as the Washington D.C. Metro system brought value not only to small towns along it's route, but to the Center-City by improving inter and inner-city transportation links.
In regards to creating a magnetic technology center, Buffalo may do well to follow the lead of other areas looking into establishing high-speed rail corridors. Establishing a MagLev or other high-speed link to Niagara Falls and Toronto could bring enormous wealth into the region and serve to further sell and demonstrate the technology.
the urban vision
In his 1967 Book The City is the Frontier, Charles Abrams outlined a blueprint for better urban environments. They include utilizing the natural features of cities, multiplying the number of trees, parks and green spaces, making the city more attractive for tourism, diversion and leisure, developing a mass-transit program, building upon existing neighborhoods rather than destroying them and enhancing walkability.
Today many urban environments have become much improved by following this vision. Rivertrails in Pittsburgh seek to both enhance walkability and to take advantage of natural resources, New apartments in old Toledo Hotels are building upon existing neighborhoods and tourist attractions from museums and aquariums to sports stadiums have increased the numbers of tourists visiting cities. Still many areas with similar assets continue to fall victim to a lack of investment and initiative.
Today many of the same characteristics are cited as a solution to persisting problems including under investment. The one element Abrams did not mention specifically was local neighborhood organizations dedicated to the betterment of their neighborhood.
Indeed, Community Development Corporations and Business Improvement Districts have helped to both spur and direct development and bring new life to urban areas in recent years.
As a city, Buffalo or any other place will quite naturally focus on downtown development. That is the most visible and is where the image of a given place originates in the eyes of the rest of the world. These other pseudo-governmental entities therefore are especially crucial to the development of areas outside the central business districts.
These entities do however fulfill elements Abrams did mention, leaving room for people to contribute to their own neighborhoods, thus giving people a sense of belonging in those neighborhoods and some responsibility for thier improvement and well-being.
Whatever is to happen to Central Station the project should achieve several of the criteria discussed. First, the historical significance of and value deriving from the architecture and presence should be taken advantage of. Secondly, the process should include input from the neighborhood and city-at-large, such as the suggestions made on the Buffalo History Works web page. Thirdly, funding for a transportation link to the building should be sought in order to give the building economic value and help insure it's survival.
The process must also look into the economics of the neighborhood and into Buffalo as a whole. Whether the ultimate use be centered around tourism, residences or around technology, planning for the establishment of service infrastructure in the neighborhood can both help insure the success of the project and to begin the transformation of the neighborhood by allowing more money to stay within the general area.
Because of the general difficulty of such a project, it is clear that the development is not going to happen through City Government, nor is likely to happen under the initiative of a private developer. Historical groups and community leaders must therefore take the initiative to bring about the re-use of Central Station.
The process could involve a series of community and leadership meetings geared toward setting up a Community Development Corporation with the responsibility for securing federal, state and local funds as well as creating a plan for re-use. The buildings owner must become involved in the process, or agree to sell the building to the CDC.
Secondly, a national competition could be held in order to offer various alternatives, containing the central ingredients, for re-use. Several of the alternatives could be reviewed by the CDC and the finalists could be presented publicly. This process could serve to attract national attention and bring in potential developers. A certain amount of prestige could be built into what could be called "The Biggest Challenge."
If Central Station is to be saved, most importantly the people of Buffalo must come together to discover the strengths that do exist, to build on those strengths and make the building the part of the neighbohood it never sought to become. All things considered, Central Station is an asset to Buffalo and can be used as a catalyst for building up the neighborhood and the city. Too often though a developer doesn't come along to save such a structure, but with some effort a developer may come along to act upon an idea. Too many developers have come and gone with little idea of what to do with the building and no help to bring about the process.
If through creative brainstorming and community ingenuity potential alternatives and physical plans can be developed, the building will have a much better chance of surviving into the next century and assist in rebuilding the promising future that was known by the people of Buffalo when the building was built.
Eric Miller is a writer based in Akron, Ohio. He covered "City News" for a weekly paper in Pittsburgh until recently taking up Urban Studies for his Masters in Akron. Miller works in the Mayor's Office of Economic Development and has been an advocate for urban renewal, pedestrian-oriented environments, developing mass-transit links and the re-use of existing buildings and infrastructures. His study of Central Terminal is part of a project entitled "Alternative Urban Futures" which he is completing for his Masters.
Please send any questions or comments about this essay directly to