Tag Archives: Preservation Buffalo Niagara

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?