Part One: A Conversation with Paul Lang, Vice President of the Central Terminal Restoration Corporation

After decades of stoically tending to its namesake Central Terminal, the Central Terminal Restoration Corporation (CTRC) recently has seen fortunes turn.  A passionate site search for a new passenger rail station gave the community a cause around which they championed the Terminal vocally.  After a disappointing loss for the Central Terminal, an even more passionate Congressional Representative Higgins prodded the state and city to fund an Urban Land Institute (ULI) study.  Several smaller but still substantial grants have now been followed by a five million dollar grant from Empire State Development.  For the first time in over half a century there is structural investment in the Central Terminal.  It appears the tide has turned.

Recently I sat down for a two-part conversation with Paul Lang, vice president of the CTRC, to talk about the ULI study, recent grants, and plans for the future.  The ULI study formed the framework for the two-part interview.  Here is the first conversation.  Part two will appear in the coming weeks in Broadway Fillmore Alive, along with other Central Terminal stakeholder conversations.

BFA: From a first read of the ULI study, the vision presented for the Central Terminal and surrounding neighborhood has overtones of Canalside

Paul: Place making for the Central Terminal is different than Canalside, which had a blank slate and big checkbook.  The terminal has buildings and no money.

BFA: Do you envision the open public input process that went into Canalside’s early stage?

Paul: The more state and public sector funds are involved in the terminal, the more public input there will be in the process.  If the direction is a private developer that would mean restrictions requiring public input won’t be there.  Maybe it will be a mutant form of both. The terminal can’t be fully private, but I doubt that it will be the series of public meetings we saw at Richardson or Canalside.  The board is still figuring out how to do recommendations from the ULI study, we are trying to grow and do more outreach, and have more community events for the immediate population.

BFA:  What kinds of involvement or outreach have taken place?  Has the Bengali community been tapped yet?

Paul: We’ve had no conversations with the Burmese or Bengali communities yet.   Due to this grant being state funds, the goals are to complete projects on the books.  These current project is an electrical system upgrade, including two new high voltage service lines, begun with a grant from Crystal Peoples-Stokes.  A new staff position will help us with community outreach and engagement. We are scheduling a walking tour for the CTRC board for the neighborhood for this spring.  We have a loose association with Fillmore Forward, and Matt Urban for garden spaces.  We certainly need to do a better job with it.

BFA: What kind of staff has CTRC had in the past and what is planned for the future?

Paul: We had a paid executive director in the past, didn’t work out, and we ended up having to do an organizational reset.  This newest state grant of five million initially had a portion for seed money for staff, now Empire State Development has preferred to have the grant dollars go to tangible building needs.  We are working instead to identify foundations for seed money for staff.  Also we’ve extended the Terminal’s event season by two months.  Event revenue should be able to pay for a staff person on a break even basis as far as managing the building is concerned. Empire State Development and political stake holders will decide if staff positions will be more toward grant writer or more toward community outreach.  It would also be nice to have a project management staffer to handle operations and grant writing/community outreach.

BFA: Who has done grant writing for CTRC, or who does it now?

Paul: The real estate development committee writes grants. Also we use a mix of individual grant writers, with mixed success.  Always a concern is their cost.

BFA: The ULI report mentions the traffic circle as unregulated, and that the terminal is on an Olmstead boulevard.  Any thought of partnering with Buffalo Olmstead Parks and trying to formally extend the Olmstead footprint to in some way include the Terminal property?  Or any thought of the Terminal property becoming some form of National Parks Service property, or possibly like the Darwin Martin site?

Paul: The Terminal is landmarked and therefore protected.  Only the tower and concourse are landmarked locally.  Nationally the whole property is listed.  The projections afforded by the two types of landmarking are different.  Not sure of extending to Olmstead Parks, I would assume their plate is full already without another site.

BFA:  What period of historical significance has been chosen for the Terminal?

Paul: Opening day 1929 to 1940 has been identified as the period of significance.  This is before all the additions were made.

BFA:  What bidding rules apply to the Terminal and the grants it has received?

Paul: Empire State Development funding means rules and regulations for multiple bids must be followed. Also MWV rules apply.  Three comparable sealed bids.  We’re still writing the contract with ESD, so details aren’t known yet.  Everything will go through the State Historical Preservation Office, known as SHPO.

BFA:  What provisions are included for hiring local workers?

Paul:  A lot will come down to trades and apprenticeship programs.  ESD has workforce training as a bulleted item.  Currently we work with the World Monument Fund’s designated masonry apprenticeship program.

BFA: Can you describe the electrical work?

Paul: Recently we have been working with Ferguson Electrical.  A brownfield grant from National Grid paid for Ferguson electrical work, along with a grant from Crystal Peoples-Stokes.  And possibly some money from the five million will go toward electrical.  We will receive $180,000 more from National Grid as part of the five million.

BFA:  Brownfield Opportunity Areas can provide significant dollars toward large projects.  Are there brownfields on the Terminal property?  Any thoughts of expanding involvement in that program?

Paul:  Until the full project is understood we can’t enroll the Terminal in the brownfield program. The same consideration applies with regard to historic tax credits.  The way they work, we want to maximize the project cost that will apply to them, since they work as a project cost multiplier. So historic tax credits apply later when the full project scope and cost is known.

BFA:  Can you talk a little about the situation with the Canadian developer Stinson who was interested in the Terminal?

Paul: Yes, I can comment on the Stinson project.  The CTRC board had concerns about the ability to finance it.  The financing methods typical to Stinson’s projects work in Canada, which has a different financing method. There they divert part of what we would call 401K investments, with many individuals participating.  He planned to use a Canadian investing pool to do the project, however there were concerns about Stinson’s ability to do the  financing.  It appeared that we would need to transfer ownership of the Terminal entity to Stinson and then get it back from him.  The CTRC board was not comfortable, so we did not renew his agreement when it expired.  Our relationship with him had expired before the ULI study started.

BFA:  Can you describe your vision for the Terminal’s future?

Paul:  The overall picture will be deferred to a private investment piece that has to be identified.  Right now we plan on activation of the restaurant as a year-round destination in the concourse.  Some seed money will go to place making with an emphasis on private development.

BFA: What is the current composition of the CTRC board and volunteers?

Paul:  The board is 12 members.  The volunteer core is 30, which includes the 12 on the board.  Volunteers can balloon to 50 to 60 in the warmer months when we’re doing seasonal activities.   So broadly 20-50 throughout  the year.  We can always use more.  It’s not just about hands, but skilled trades for sure.  Volunteers we need include business, marketing, website, social media.  All these tasks are falling on board right now.  There has been some board and core volunteer burnout, some people step away, some come back, some don’t.  The current board is newer, since there were a lot of board changes around the time of the executive director changing, and responsibilities have been diversified so people are fresh and there is less burnout for now.  In terms of youth volunteers, we have boy scout eagle projects.  Generally our needs work better with colleges because schedules line up better.

BFA:  What is the timeline for this newest grant?

Paul: The five million will be spent within two years on the concourse.  The design phase begins in January and construction is February 2019 through fall of 2020.

BFA: How did Representative Higgins’ strong advocacy for the Terminal during the rail station site search help or hurt the Terminal?

Paul:  The Higgins relationship has moved the needle as far as public attention and demand for something to be done with the building and at the site.  Nothing has gotten to the point where federal funding can kick in.  State funding from the team of Stokes, Zemsky and Kennedy has been the greatest help so far.  The City of Buffalo has been very supportive behind the scenes with permits and code compliance, so that we are able to be able to open and function. The Mayor orchestrated the ULI study . Councilman Franczyk has been a regular supporter.  Even if we had gotten the rail designation it would not have moved the needle on the entire project, since the rail use would have been less than ten percent of the Terminal.

BFA:  There is a lot of square footage locked up in the Terminal.  Has the CTRC board considered the impact of releasing all this space along with the former HSBC tower and the Statler building?

Paul: There is 2 million square feet between the Terminal, Statler and HSBC. The challenge is job creation and growth to fill some of these spaces.  There needs to be some incentive for imaginative entrepreneurs to fill spaces. There are still enough bad office buildings to cannibalize but that isn’t real growth.  This is a City question.

As a closing note to this first conversation with Paul Lang, here is additional information from the Urban Land Institute’s website on ULI studies. “ULI Case Studies showcase innovative approaches and best practices in real estate and urban development by providing a wide range of information on a variety of development project types in a searchable format.” Since 1947 the Urban Land Institute has offered an Advisory Services Program, which across the US assembles 15 to 20 panels each year on various land use topics.  These panels follow a set process for each study.  Study steps include: “Review background materials.  Receive a sponsor presentation and [site] tour.  Conduct stakeholder interviews.  Consider data, frame issues and write recommendations.  Make presentation.  Produce a final report.”  Panelists are volunteers, from outside the local area of the study, and are not stakeholders or interested parties.  Locally, in Buffalo, ULI studies have been used to provide a starting point, or clear direction, in challenging, large reuse projects.  ULI studies include these features: “detailed description of the project and the development process…story behind the development and the lessons learned…photos, site plans, floor plans, and a development timeline.  Site and building data, development cost data, sales and rent figures, vacancy rates, and financial data.”  Other ULI studies in Buffalo include 2008 Artspace Buffalo Lofts, 2011 Millard Fillmore Gates Hospital, and 2013 One HSBC Center.