The New Statler Twilight Zone

10 Nov

The key is to avoid looking around. If you follow the path laid out for visitors – in the Delaware entrance, up the stairs, to the right, into the ballroom – the Statler Hotel doesn’t look half bad. You are helped in this endeavor by friendly docents who block your way into any other section of the building, ensuring you stay on the prescribed, most restored, route. Still, there are signs. Bits of plaster on a freshly cleaned rug. Dusty stairs and marble. Move off, out of the crowd, and peer into some of the upper galleries, and the scope of the problem becomes obvious – the peeling glamour becomes wholesale decay.

About a year ago, I asked if Canalside would end up like the Statler (massive failure) or the Buffalo Airport (quiet success story)? That question hasn’t been answered yet, but let me turn it on its head. Will the Statler end up like Canalside (unrealized massive public expenditure) or the Buffalo Airport (completed and positive massive public expenditure)? At the Preservation Buffalo Niagara sponsored event late Wednesday morning, in the unheated Terrace Room of the Statler itself, I heard a plan that sounded more like the Elephant House restoration at the Buffalo Zoo.

First, the meeting details. Developer Mark Croce and lawyer/partner Robert Knoer provided a few more tantalizing specifics on their Statler renovation plan. In this effort they were bookended by Preservation Buffalo Niagara Executive Director Henry McCartney and Chair Catherine Schweitzer, who gave glowing reviews and full endorsement of the plan. More on them in a moment.

Robert Knoer started with the massive scope of the problem. At 800K square feet, the Statler is roughly the size of the Boulevard Mall in Amherst. It’s lower roofs are leaking, the HVAC system is antiquated, $5 million is owed in mortgage and tax liens, and chunks of the terra cotta “ribbon” are falling on people’s heads. Oh, and by the way, its hard to demolish. In a thinly veiled swipe at Donn Esmonde and the rest of the commentariat, he indicated no one knows how much demolition would be, and any number, from $10 million to $20 million, is speculation. What he does know is that the Statler is full of asbestos, and it’s hard to implode a building right next to a shiny new glass skinned federal court house.

So what to do. The Croce/Knoer plan has three phases: 1) Spend $5.3 million to do emergency stabilization work on the roofs, terra cotta, and HVAC system, 2) Fix up the first floor to provide usable retail space that can generate income, and 3) Save the upper floors for organic growth (drywall ready, not shovel ready) of no pre-specified variety. Observant readers will note that under this plan, nearly ten million dollars is required just to make the Statler the “going concern” is was two years ago. Once stabilized and open for minimal business, the first floor should generate $500K a year in income, enough to help fund whatever adaptive reuse (hotel? call center? apartments? condos? backoffice?) is in store for the upper floors.

The unanticipated portion of Phase 3 was the proposed linkage between the Statler and Convention Center. This is not a sky bridge. It’s is a 50k square foot behemoth over Franklin Street to expand the Convention Center and marry it up with hotel rooms and meeting space inside the Statler. Robert Knoer called it payback on the public’s investment.

The public’s investment? Wait a second, they haven’t asked for any money yet. You are right, and they never did. They asked for “support,” and got it from Preservation Buffalo Niagara. Said Henry McCartney:

“The principals of Statler City LLC have done their homework, carefully studied the building and come up with a feasible plan. It is now time to show them our support and move forward with this effort to save the Statler.”

Which is where this event turns bizarre. Beneath the polished presentation, smiling politicians, and unified front, what was unsaid and implied was far more interesting than any specific plan. Lest anyone be confused, the leading WNY preservation group just endorsed altering the facade of our most celebrated historic landmark to connect it to the most egregious example of terrible urban planning in Buffalo. Rather than pushing for the Warsaw Pact convention center to be removed, so the coveted original street grid could be restored, Preservation Buffalo Niagara is ensuring its perpetual existence with a permanent link to the Statler.

And why? The video-promoted National Trust Convention in 2011. On more than one occasion, Robert Knoer noted that Buffalo could not stand for preservation-minded convention goers leaving their daily events to see a Statler, right out their front door, barricaded and boarded up. The egg on the face of the convention organizer, Preservation Buffalo Niagara, would be considerable. PBN needs a Statler solution, and the Croce plan is the only one. They sold their soul for a week long glorified business meeting. 

The train wreck continued. A who’s who of current (Collins, Hoyt, Higgins, Kearns) and former (Masiello, Pitts) Buffalo politicians made the event, but not Byron Brown, who’s office is across the street. Rumor is that Brown was peeved that Croce mentioned the November 15th closing deadline in the newspaper. That closing is coming fast, and one source in the room speculated that, at the end of the day, this was all just elaborate stagecraft to convince bankruptcy trustee Morris Horwitz to look favorably on the Croce offer.

The final bizarre item may be the most glaring: the funding. Croce and Knoer did not ask for public dollars directly, but implied they were seeking “community support.” PBN references “blended funding” several times in their press release, and hinted more information would be forth coming when the deal closes. My guess – stand by for good old fashioned fund raising. PBN is not a foundation, and has no scratch of their own, but they are a charity, and can solicit tax deductible donations as a pass through. Are you ready to buy your $10 Save the Statler red wrist band?

30 Responses to “The New Statler Twilight Zone”

  1. Pauldub November 10, 2010 at 10:34 pm #

    I would not donate one thin dime to finance the welding of the Statler to that gawdawful bunker. Do these idiots actually think that a monstrosity like that would generate approval from the conventioneers?

  2. STEEL November 10, 2010 at 11:54 pm #

    The Detroit Statler cost $7M to demolish 2 years ago (that was after two rounds of toxic waste removal that cost several million dollars done years earlier in anticipation of a never realized renovation and reuse).  the Detroit Statler was only about 1/2 the size of the Buffalo Statler.  $15M for demo is probably on the low side in Buffalo.  The Detroit Staler is now a prominently sited weedy lot – shovel ready of course.

    The Detroit Statler never gained a constituancy along with several dozen other very large empty buildings in downtwon Detroit.  Building awareness and a constituency in Buffalo is a good first step.  This is a building that cannot be lost!

    • Christopher Smith November 11, 2010 at 12:26 am #

      Now that Bashar Issa is done nearly destroying it, estimates at full renovation of the Statler are in the neighborhood of $80-100MM. So, what possible business model is there to support such a price tag? A full renovation would be the largest development project in the city that I can remember…all done without a potential use or tenant. I agree that the building must be saved, but it seems as if the market forces (both public and private) are not there to support that price tag. It’s a horrible quandary.

      Also, I’m interested in your thoughts about connecting the Statler and the abhorrent Convention Center with not just a skybridge, but a block long overhang. The CC is, according to many local preservationists, the worst planning mistake in the history of the city. Does it not seem odd to permanently attach the “scar of the radial street grid” to the Statler thus creating a permanence to the CC?

      This is such a bizarre twist of fate for this building that has been looking for a savior for nearly twenty years. The alignment of the preservation community around an underfunded, poorly thought-out and frankly, half-assed plan is striking. I’d seriously like to know what you make of it, David.

  3. ethan November 11, 2010 at 12:46 am #

    Hear, hear, @chrissmith- steel, how does that suit you? It’s a travesty imo. Yet, like The Richardson, the Central Terminal, &c, here is a site of real importance that is a bear for viable reuse scenarios. I fear greatly for its future! Nice reporting, Brian.

  4. Peter A Reese November 11, 2010 at 6:36 am #

    How about rehab of the Statler with and eye towards using it to eventually replace the CC?

  5. Jesse November 11, 2010 at 9:20 am #

    80-100 mil seems like a lot to me. But how much would it cost to create a similar building of similar size? (read: brick, with some actual architectural interest, not the shitty glass-enclosed skyscrapers you get when you build today – see Arlington, VA…)

    My guess is it’d be more than 80-100 mil.

  6. Brian Castner November 11, 2010 at 9:29 am #

    Let me rise to the defense of Croce and Knoer, for a moment, who strike me as generally well meaning, pragmatic individuals. They said over and over again that refering to this as an $80-$100M project is crazy. There is not demand, nor investors, for such a project. However, after $10 million the project is self-sustaining, and if other opportunities arise (housing, verizon back office for their new data center) then over some long time frame $80 million eventually gets invested. But that is a decade out.

  7. STEEL November 11, 2010 at 11:03 am #

    The proposed link that I have seen is not very good architecturally. The concept of linking is a good idea that could make a big chunk of the Statler economically viable and make the convention center more functional. The irony of the convention center site location is that it was crammed into that site to appease the owner of the Statler Hilton. He insisted the hotel was only viable with the convention center at that location. Soon after the convention center opened the Hilton chain moved their name to what is now the Adams Mark ( a government subsidized project. It was called the Waterfront Hilton! I am not sure the current developers have the ability to pull this off but they are thinking right when they talk about phased renovation as demand materializes. I think if the buildings are linked the link should be below Franklin. I don’t see how you could ever do a successful link overhead.

    As for removal of the convention center? You don’t take on cosmetic surgery in a triage situation.

  8. Derek J. Punaro November 11, 2010 at 11:42 am #

    I think some of the criticism of Preservation Buffalo Niagara could really be viewed as a net positive. By supporting the proposed bridge, and thus modification of the Statler, they’re promoting adaptive preservation over historic preservation. That is to say, it’s better to save the building by making some changes to it rather than ensure it never changes, and thus limit its reuse possibilities.

    The likelihood of the convention center being demolished any time soon after just going through renovations is extremely slim, and reconnecting Genesee St. even less likely. So are PBN being “bad preservationists” by suggesting this is a way to save the Statler? I tend to think they’re moving towards the middle ground people are always looking for from the preservation community.

    *I haven’t seen any renderings of the proposed connection, and I’m not sure how they’re going marry up these two completely different buildings in a way that looks at all cohesive. The architects will have a real challenge on their hands if this goes forward.

  9. Brian Castner November 11, 2010 at 12:20 pm #

    @ STEEL: “As for removal of the convention center? You don’t take on cosmetic surgery in a triage situation.” That’s exactly how I feel about the 33, 198 and 190. As for the overhead expansion (link or skybridge doesn’t begin to connote the correct scale), I heard the underground argument almost immediately. If I were a convention goer, would I rather view exhibits in a dingy tunnel, or an airy, naturally lit new space. I say the latter.

    @ Derek: Don’t get me wrong – for this article, at least, I tried to stay in the reporter/uninterested analyst role. Personally, I would love for Buffalo to have a vocal pragmatic preservationist community. At least publically, the loudest voices seem to only belong to true believers. So I was predicting a Hatfield-McCoy skirmish, not hoping for one. So far, though, its like all the preservationists got the same secret memo – “You may hate this, but time to get on board.” If PBN can be that for the city, its a big win.

  10. STEEL November 11, 2010 at 12:35 pm #

    Brian except that we are poised to spend millions maintain those roads locking them in place for another 50 years. They are not needed and they are part of the problem. You don’t keep adding bandaids to a gushing wound.

    And most exhibitors do not want natural light they want enclosed controllable space. Underground is not the same as dingy tunnel.

    Derek – renderings here

  11. STEEL November 11, 2010 at 12:48 pm #

    There is a way to do the overhead scheme that is not too bad though. This scheme is all wrong because it puts such a giant oppressive mass over the street. If you do a light architecturally elegant and transparent bridge that connects to an major addition on that back of the Statler you could create a great new facility. The back of the Statler was designed fro a big addition and it also already has lots of meeting rooms. It would be natural to tie the Statler to the convention center as a viable option to save the old building

  12. Brian Castner November 11, 2010 at 12:48 pm #

    I take back what I said about the secret memo – just read the BRO comments.

  13. lefty November 11, 2010 at 1:22 pm #

    Couple of questions….

    What would be the cost of making the bridge look like the Statler with brick and terra cotta ribbon? The reason I ask is this could eventually lead to two things.

    1 – The current convention center could be reskinned to match the connecting Statler and Hyatt Regency. After all, they have a similar look. Right?

    2 – The lot north of the Statler along is home to a more modern 5 story building in 135 Delaware (not sure of the building name), a historic brick home (not sure of the name again), 2 non significant 1 story structures and a whole hell of surface parking.

    The long term plan could be to demo 135 Delaware and the two other buildings, move the historic brick up 1 block north to another surface lot and then convert that 2.2 acre half block into a second convention center, with parking below and possibly above the meeting spaces on floors 1-3. Once again matching the brick and terra cotta ribbon.

    This would create a much larger overall convention center space connected to two hotels and the Avant and the proposed boutique hotel at the former Curtiss Building would be a stones throw from the new addition.

    This would solve the parking needs for the Statler and the Curtiss and create a convention ‘campus’ spanning several blocks.

    I know this adds to the costs but you could move the funding from the proposed parking ramp the city wants to give Croce at the corner of S. Elmwood Avenue and W. Huron Street and shift it here.

    I know it sounds like SimCity but it is going to take the orchestration of multiple moving parts to pull off anything IMO.

  14. Brian November 11, 2010 at 3:19 pm #

    Another 800,000 square feet of potential office space, etc., will do wonders for downtown buffalo, eh?

  15. Brad November 12, 2010 at 12:03 am #

    This is an actual, bona fide, good idea proposed by intelligent, creative people with a vision that is both progressive and pragmatic. This is how progress needs to get done around here. This is an objectively good idea – a “best practices” kind of idea. If you oppose it, you are part of the problem. Not Byron Brown. Not Chris Collins. Not “preservationists.” Not “obstructionists.” Not “Palinists.” Not “Democrats.” Not “Spaulding Lake.” Not “Transit Road.” Not “UB.” Not “welfare.” You. Look in the mirror, Buffalo. To quote Radiohead – you do it to yourself.

    • Alan Bedenko November 12, 2010 at 6:21 am #

      It occurs to me that the Statler has no dedicated parking for its out-of-town guests. It occurs to me that urbanists in Buffalo are so focused on expelling cars from downtown Buffalo, and the world in general, they aren’t concentrating on the reality that people use cars, especially in Buffalo, where our transit network is dilapidated and substandard. So, it would be great if there was an effort to compromise on this issue and formulate a way in which parking in downtown Buffalo could be made adequate and less ugly. Some municipal lots in town are crumbling and small, others are reserved-spot heavy. Most ramps, except maybe two, date to the 60s, and look every day of it. None of them take debit or plastic. None of them utilize smart parking systems. We rely too heavily on profitable private surface lots, which are a blight. Perhaps there might be a way to plot out a smart way to provide parking to downtown users, and this might be beneficial to the city in general. For God’s sake, we don’t even have a park & ride lot at South Campus Metro stop.

  16. Peter-usrt November 12, 2010 at 6:37 am #

    Huh? Then what is that big parking lot next to the South Campus Metro station for? I use it to park my car quite a bit to ride the train downtown.

  17. STEEL November 12, 2010 at 11:01 am #

    Actually Alan most ramps in downtown date to the last 15 years. There might be only one left from the 60’s. The reason the Statler has no parking is because a previous owner sold it off for short term profit. Contrary to your Fox News style argument there is no evil cabal of Muslim urbanists trying to ban cars and to assert otherwise in the face of actual facts is silly. Parking quantity has increased substantially in Downtown Buffalo over the last 2 decades.

    If we spent as much time and money on our public transit system as we do on our personal transit system you might find that the public transit would not be substandard.

    • Alan Bedenko November 12, 2010 at 11:25 am #

      Steel, your “Fox News” and “Muslim urbanists” quips are offensive and needless. There is a parking shortage downtown mostly because there’s no coherent and unified parking plan or policy in place. It’s a 50s throwback cobbled together to maximize political clout.

  18. Brad November 12, 2010 at 11:24 am #

    University Station is listed as a park & ride location on the map you linked to above.

  19. STEEL November 12, 2010 at 12:50 pm #

    Blah blah blah Alan Be offended if you want but your recent arguments are more and more FOX like in style (i am not talking about content). You seem to see no nuance in any of your contentions. Its all bombast and extremist argument from you all the time. “Urbanists are out to take away our cars!!!!” Change it to ‘guns” and you can put your arguments right into Glen Beck’s mouth. Anyone interested in creating an improved urban environment in the city would be FOR any of the improvements you propose. But you give people a label and then falsely suggest that “those” people will not compromise!. I am sorry if you are offended but that debate tactic is right out of the Limboough EIB playbook.

    • Alan Bedenko November 12, 2010 at 4:11 pm #

      Steel, how many times do I have to read some nonsense about the abolition of cars from downtown or the world before I become exasperated with people who demand the abolition of cars from downtown or the world?

  20. STEEL November 12, 2010 at 4:32 pm #

    See what I mean? One person talks about a successful situation where a road was changed to a park and you make it into abolishing cars world wide. Any argument that says our society is anti car is just silly nonsense. It really would not hurt to start leaning in a more sane sustainable direction when it comes to transportation and how we move forward.

  21. Peter G November 12, 2010 at 6:23 pm #

    (1) I’m most concerned about the “question mark” that is the cost of asbestos abatement. I happen to know that to abate a typical residential basement in Buffalo costs $8-10k. I can’t imagine what it will cost to abate an 800,000 sq ft building…..(2) This building would be a focal point in any other city in this country…….(3) Am I the only one who thinks that the Benderson’s, Montante’s, and Paladino’s of our fair city are hoping that the Statler is obliterated so they can build a multi-level parking garage?? Because that’s what we need in a downtown that has an ever-shrinking populace visiting it??….(4) I’m less concerned about the historic aspects and more interested in getting use out of a beautiful building in the heart of our downtown……..(5) The Statler has over 1,100 guest rooms. The Adam’s Mark, the largest hotel outside of NYC, has 486 rooms. Think about it……………..

  22. STEEL November 13, 2010 at 4:08 pm #

    Asbestos abatement when discussing saving v demoing historic buildings is a moot point – It needs to be done wither way.  No building can be torn down without abatement – as a matter of fact abatement can be less of a problem in a restoration than in demo becasue in certain circumstances asbestos can be left in place.  That is not true for a demo job


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