Buffalo's Central Terminal project advances as 'Turtle' landmarking vote looms

Feb. 17—While Niagara Falls awaits a city council decision on a proposal to designate the "Turtle" building as a local landmark, preservationists in the City of Buffalo are celebrating a step forward in a decades-long effort to resurrect a long-vacant building of historical and cultural significance on the city's East Side.

Local and state officials announced earlier this month the selection of a development team for Buffalo's Central Terminal building.

The Buffalo News reported that the team, led by Queens-based CB Emmanuel Realty, will be in charge of a 10-year, $300 million state-supported plan aimed at turning the Art Deco complex, built as a train station in 1929, into an entertainment and residential "East Side hub."

The naming of the preferred development team followed the June 2022 announcement from Gov. Kathy Hochul that the state, together with "philanthropic supporters," including the City of Buffalo and the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation, agreed to contribute $61 million to help cover construction costs.

The project represents the culmination of a grassroots preservation effort led by residents and community leaders who came together to save the building from being demolished. Their effort led to the creation of a non-profit group, the Central Terminal Restoration Corp., that acquired the building in 1997.

Over the years, members — many working on a volunteer basis — undertook clean-up projects and performed routine maintenance at the site while hosting various public events designed to raise funds and awareness about the building's existence and its potential.

Among them: Carl Skompinski, a Buffalo resident who, in recent years, has turned part of his focus to advocating for preservation of the former Native American Center for the Living Arts — a building built in the form of a Turtle — on Rainbow Boulevard in Niagara Falls.

Skompinski believes a stabilization and restoration effort similar to the one that took hold at the Central Terminal building could be possible for the Turtle, which has been vacant since it ceased operation as a Native American arts center in 1995.

Skompinski said the Turtle has some advantages the Central Terminal did not, including a much smaller footprint in need of redevelopment. He also believes the building is in better overall condition than the Central Terminal was when the restoration corporation first acquired it.

"I think it has so much potential," he said.

An important part of the process involves establishing a planning or steering committee that would work in a redevelopment plan. He believes, given the structure's history, involving indigenous groups and representatives would be an important piece of such an effort.

"There's a movement for this type of activity where there wasn't in the past and there's funds to be had, both public and from foundations, that can help move this project forward," he said.

Monica Pellegrino Faix, a Niagara Falls resident who is the executive director of the Central Terminal Restoration Corp., sees an "interesting parallel" between what happened with the old railroad hub on Buffalo's East Side and what could happen with the Turtle building if the right combination of public and private support comes together in the Falls.

While critics of the effort to landmark the Turtle building have questioned doing so without having a viable redevelopment plan for it first, Pellegrino-Faix noted that in instances like the Central Terminal or the Richardson Olmsted campus, another large-scale, state-supported redevelopment project in Buffalo, what comes first is often recognition by the community that a particular building is regarded as a "special place."

The Turtle building, in her eyes, meets that threshold.

"I think the Turtle is just a really special place to so many people and it has a really important location in our downtown," she said. "Who can deny it's a very cool building?"

The building and the situation it is in reminds Pellegrino Faix of another structure on Pine Avenue — the former Niagara Falls High School building — which years ago was slated for demolition by the Falls school district before residents and local preservationists stepped in.

Today, she noted, the building is home to the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center.

"A group of people said, 'This is something important to us, to our community, this means to something to us and our people. We have to do something with it," she said. "You don't necessarily need a use in those early years, you just need to say, 'This is important to us.'"

Pellegrino-Faix conceded that, not unlike preservation efforts at the Central Terminal or the NACC, the process will take a lot of hard work from a lot of different people.

The key, she said, is having a building left to preserve, which is why she views the local landmarking of the Turtle building as an important step for the building's future.

"It took from 1997 when the Central Terminal not-for-profit acquired the property until about 2019 to really move it into the place where it is now, where there is more of a reality that (the redevelopment) will happen," she said. "In those interim years, it was really about saying this is a special place and this special place is embedded in a community that really cares about it and we should really find a redevelopment and find a reuse."

News on the advancement of Central Terminal restoration comes as city officials consider a local landmark designation for the Turtle building that was endorsed in a 6-0 vote by members of the Niagara Falls Historic Preservation Commission earlier this month.

The commission's decision must be ratified by a majority of the members of the Falls city council for the designation to become official.

Falls lawmakers are scheduled to consider the request to make the designation official during Wednesday's council meeting.

The building's owner, the private firm Niagara Falls Redevelopment, has made it clear that it opposes landmarking the building. Through its attorney, the company recently submitted in writing a list of concerns about the legality of the move.

Chief among them: The building's age. NFR's attorney argues that state historic preservation status has exclusively been granted over the years to buildings 50 years old and older and, as a structure that's been around for about 42 years, the Turtle building should not qualify.

A representative from Preservation Buffalo Niagara has said that while that may be the case, there is no law against applying landmark designation to a structure that is less than 50 years old.

In a letter to the editor that was published in the Niagara Gazette, NFR's long-time Executive Vice President Roger Trevino noted that the Turtle building operated as the Native American Center for the Living Arts for less than a dozen years and it failed because "there was no ability to make the facility financially viable."

"Thanks to NFR efforts, the property was, and remains, back on city tax rolls. Since purchasing the property, NFR has paid more than $1.3 million in taxes to the city, county and school district — in addition to the original purchase price," Trevino wrote.

In his op-ed, Trevino argued that the Turtle building — at 67,000 square feet — is "just too big to support the kind of cultural center some preservationists desire."

Trevino also indicated that NFR has made "numerous efforts" over the years to develop the site and spent "considerable expense and several years" attempting to establish a Smithsonian-affiliated museum inside.

In the end, Trevino indicated that the company, "couldn't find any financially viable Native American group" with an interest in moving the project forward.

NFR representatives have said that they are open to working with the community at large and the indigenous community in Niagara Falls on cultural preservation efforts.

As to the idea of the Turtle possibly following a similar path to redevelopment as the Central Terminal in Buffalo, Haggerty said: "We have no information on state funding for an effort to renovate the old Central Terminal in Buffalo and how it might relate to any future viability of the Turtle structure for development."