What Buffalo, Detroit, and Cincinnati can tell us about adaptive reuse

By Alexa C. Kurzius

Marilyn Rodgers could do just about anything with her Saturday off, but instead she chooses to vacuum a train terminal. The executive director of Buffalo’s Central Terminal Restoration Corporation (CTRC), a nonprofit that’s rehabilitating the city’s vacant train station, goes up and down yards of original Terrazzo flooring, sucking up dirt with an industrial-strength cleaner. “I have to clean my house,” she jokes  of the 523,000 square foot space where she frequently visits.

Keeping a national landmark clean isn’t easy or cheap, especially one this size. Typically, Rodgers gets in-kind help from local cleaning companies and other members of the CTRC. But on this particular day in May, she goes it alone, picking up after the 300 people she brought into the main concourse a few days earlier for a promotional video shoot that the CTRC plans to use in its fundraising efforts. Empty for over thirty years, the enormous edifice has endured vacancy, vandalism, and vicious Buffalo winters. The estimated cost for basic upgrades is around $65 million. The CTRC can use all the help it can get.

Such an ambitious project isn’t unique to Buffalo. The CTRC’s efforts are part of a larger phenomenon of rail station preservation occurring throughout the Rust Belt, including places such as Cincinnati’s Union Terminal, and Detroit’s Michigan Central Station. And while a geographic disadvantage and heavy rehabilitation costs make for an uphill battle, the Buffalo nonprofit and its ebullient members have high hopes for the future.

Volunteer preservationists work to restore Buffalo’s vacant Central Train Terminal [Image credit: Alexa C. Kurzius]

Volunteer preservationists work to restore Buffalo’s vacant Central Train Terminal [Image credit: Alexa C. Kurzius]

Massive art deco structures like Buffalo Central, and Cincinnati’s Union Terminal, were meant to reflect the social and financial progress of America in the early 20th century. In a time of rapid industrialization and modernization, building designers also “wanted to look forward,” says Dale Gyure, architecture historian at Lawrence Technological University in Detroit.

Commissioned by New York Central Railroad, the architects Fellheimer & Wagner designed the $15 million terminal replete with a stately grand concourse, a fifteen-floor office tower, underground parking, and a moving baggage claim. It was “truly ahead of its time,” says Kerry Traynor, an architecture historian at the University of Buffalo and preservation specialist.

But when construction on the building finally began in 1927, it was “almost at the end of an era,” says Traynor. The automobile was already displacing rail travel as America’s preferred form of transportation. Vehicle registrants almost tripled nationwide during the decade, and by 1929 there were already 23 million registered drivers.

[Image credit: Alexa C. Kurzius]

[Image credit: Alexa C. Kurzius]

Central Terminal had other problems, too. While train travel remained relatively stable throughout the 1920’s, the terminal site was located two miles from the city’s urban core, in the industrial Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood.

Beyond automobiles and accessibility, the opening of the new station was also marked by another significant event — the crash of the American stock market. In fact, Buffalo Central opened its doors in June 1929, “just as the bottom is falling out of the economy,” says Gyure.

Still, despite the Great Depression, CTRC preservationists write that “the building was extremely busy during its first two decades of operation,” especially during World War II. Buffalo Central served as the main transfer for American wartime troops between New York City and Chicago, shuttling tens of thousands of Americans from the East Coast to the Midwest, according to Brian Dadswell, volunteer director of the CTRC.

But like other Rust Belt terminals, the volume of rail passengers declined steadily after the war. The fabric of the city had changed significantly, too. Beginning in the late 1930’s, city leaders began encouraging construction in surrounding, undeveloped areas. As people increasingly bought homes in the newly constructed suburbs and began to rely on their cars to usher them to and from work in the city center, urban living and train travel were left behind.

As a consequence of their expansionist vision, city officials and urban planners “created an environment that encouraged the outmigration of people” — policies that began to devalue city properties in grittier industrial areas, says Henry Louis Taylor Jr., a professor and urban planner from the University at Buffalo.

Buffalo map from 1937. Neighborhoods in yellow, like Buffalo Central’s Broadway-Fillmore, were in decline, according to investors [Image credit: Henry Louis Taylor Jr.]

Buffalo map from 1937. Neighborhoods in yellow, like Buffalo Central’s Broadway-Fillmore, were in decline, according to investors [Image credit: Henry Louis Taylor Jr.]

Neighborhoods like Broadway-Fillmore, where Buffalo Central is located, also became increasingly segregated. Up until around 1955, blacks and whites were residing in the same neighborhoods — even the same boarding houses. But once the reconfiguration of the Buffalo-Niagara region began in the 1950’s, white urban dwellers were “given opportunities to buy new housing units in other parts of the city where conditions were better,” Taylor says. Blacks, less so. And as the years passed, investments in city housing also decreased, leaving areas like the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood in states of disrepair.

Eventually Buffalo Central closed its doors, with the last train departing in October 1979. A local real estate investor, Anthony “Tony” Fedele, purchased the station for $75,000, and fashioned an apartment within the vacant structure where he was known to entertain. Yet it was all too good to be true for Fedele and his guests, at least in the eyes of the IRS. Fedele defaulted on his taxes, losing the property. The 1980’s and 1990’s brought a few more building owners, along with vandals and weather damage.

Derelict and downtrodden, Buffalo’s terminal lay vacant and vulnerable until 1997, when preservationist Scott Field bought it for $1 and $70,000 in back taxes. Following that, a group formed the CTRC, though it remained rather stagnant in its work until Rodgers took over in September 2012.

[Image credit: Alexa C. Kurzius]

[Image credit: Alexa C. Kurzius]

Having suffered decades of neglect, the building now needs at least $65 million worth of work. Rodgers says the terminal’s 4,000 windows need to be replaced, as do its roof drains. Weather damage is pervasive and visibly apparent, and the exterior brick and mortar must be repaired to prevent further water intrusion.

Currently, there’s only auxiliary power, which runs through the station in a slipshod web of extension cords. “It doesn’t take a blind man” to see the jerry-rigged wiring and the need for significant updates, says Brian Dadswell, volunteer coordinator of the CTRC. He joined Rodgers during her vacuuming Saturday in order to give a tour to a few University at Buffalo students.

So far, the organization has completed the first phase of roof repairs, partially weatherproofing the building, “One of the biggest successes of Marilyn’s tenure was stabilizing the roof over the concourse,” says Paul Lang, an architect at Carmina Woods in Buffalo and board member of the CTRC.

Next, the organization will install 200 solar panels leased from Solar Liberty, a Buffalo-based company that has provided green power to dozens of nonprofits, schools, and churches in the area. Capable of providing 50 kilowatts of electricity, the CTRC will be able to use the power as they continue with other repairs. National Grid designed a new transformer, though the overall project will cost much more than originally anticipated, around $40,000. It’s the CTRC’s goal to get the panels installed in 2015, though they need to procure grants and funding for it first.

Beyond immediate repairs, the volunteer board of the CTRC is also working on an adaptive reuse plan that aims to get the building up to code in order to attract potential developers. The nonprofit hopes to ride the coattails of other successful Buffalo reuse projects like Larkinville. The outdoor space with seating and eateries was built adjacent to the former Larkin Soap Company warehouses. Since opening in 2012, the privately owned space boasts a weekly summer concert series, an author series, and crowds of 2,500 for their Food Truck Tuesdays. “We’re showing how you can work together to create a place even with a business model,” says Lesley Zemsky, owner and manager of Larkin Square, in a Project for Public Spaces article.

Deciding on how to market the space to developers has been a major point of debate. As the building stands now, “no developer is going to just swoop in and buy it from us,” Lang says. Some board members propose selling off the tower and baggage building, while others prefer the CTRC maintain ownership of the whole complex, leasing space to tenants and developers instead. Either way, a decision is needed to move construction forward.

The other great dilemma is deciding what the building’s new use will be. Architecture experts affirm that the best way to reuse an old, abandoned train station is by refurbishing it into a working train terminal. “Typically if you have a building its historic function is usually the best solution,” Traynor says.

The terminal’s main switchboard [Image credit: Alexa C. Kurzius]

The terminal’s main switchboard [Image credit: Alexa C. Kurzius]

However, in this terminal’s case, trains haven’t traveled to the station in over thirty years. And a proposal by New York’s Department of Transportation to bring high-speed rail to the state doesn’t include the Buffalo Central, instead relying on its currently active downtown and Depew locations.

Because of its location away from the urban core, turning Buffalo Central into a desirable destination is difficult. The current state of the neighborhood doesn’t help either. Following decades of migration to the outer suburbs, Broadway-Fillmore currently has a 12% higher rate of poverty and 7% higher rate of unemployment compared to the rest of the city. “We need the neighborhood to be a success for us to be a success,” Lang says. Some investors are already buying in the neighborhood, with the hope that property value will increase along with the rest of the city. Also, recently proposed zoning changes that are part of Buffalo’s new Green Code promise to be more user-friendly and encouraging for urban development.

Still, there’s no shortage of ideas for how to repurpose the building, including turning it into a casino, loft apartments, or a new Bills football stadium. Rodgers emphasizes the importance of creating a venue for education and the arts, hoping to bring in a charter school, a performance space, and a culinary school.

But the CTRC’s ambitions stretch far beyond the limits of its own capacity, especially financially. “A nonprofit is not going to be able to do that by themselves,” Taylor says. “Not without some sort of developer. A community space sounds great but you have to have an economic engine that can drive that.”

Though development and construction are moving slowly, the CTRC remains optimistic about its future. Fred LoFaso, a local real estate developer and volunteer board member, tells potential tenants to “use their imagination,” when he walks them through the space.

In order to garner support and funding, social media has become a growing component of the CTRC’s advocacy efforts. Rodgers is most proud of the video that was shot at the terminal in May. Produced by Paragon Advertising, the video showcases locals of all ages dancing to Pharrell Williams’ hit song, “Happy.” Publicized via Facebook, the event attracted over 300 people for the one-day shoot. According to the blog Buffalo Rising, “the video goes hand-in-hand with a fundraising effort.”

While fundraising always helps, the CRTC needs to raise at least $65 million in order to fund its most basic renovations. It’s an achievable goal, but not without interested investors and their crucial capital.

Detroit’s vacant Michigan Central Station is controversial [Image credit: Isaac Mathes]

Detroit’s vacant Michigan Central Station is controversial [Image credit: Isaac Mathes]

Vast, vacant, and very much in private hands — you can’t talk about abandoned Rust Belt train stations without mentioning Detroit. Empty for over 25 years, Michigan Central Station serves as everyone’s favorite eyesore, attracting gawkers and inspiring the genre of photography known as ruin porn. “It’s such a sad symbol of change,” says Gyure, architecture historian at Lawrence Technological University in Detroit.

Though they are sister stations in many respects, the situations in Buffalo and Detroit “are almost completely the opposite,” says Noah Resnick, director of the master’s architecture program at the University of Detroit Mercy. Unlike Buffalo, whose terminal has been in the hands of a nonprofit since the 1990’s, Detroit’s station “was never in public hands.” Rather, its fortunes and fate are entirely dictated by billionaire Matty Moroun*, a magnate in trucking, shipping, and insurance, who’s owned the building since 1996. So far, only minimal repairs have been made, though the recent installation of windows and plans for an elevator provide some hope.

The situation with Moroun is just the latest chapter in Michigan Central’s tragic tale. Following a fire at the city’s old train station, there was a rush to open the new eighteen-floor terminal, which was still in the midst of construction. Despite the fact that its office tower remained unfinished, the station opened its doors at the end of 1913, and around the same time that Henry Ford’s assembly line production of Model T cars was turning Detroit into a boomtown. Michigan Central soon found itself operating in a city with a “cars-first mentality,” Gyure says.

Initially, the railroad industry supported the growth of the automobile industry, along with the construction of America’s interstate highways. They believed that cars would be a compliment rather than a threat to their trade by transporting passengers and goods to main train lines, and thus reducing the amount of single track, unprofitable routes.

But the railroads underestimated the huge growth in popularity for the automobile, and the importance it would play in the future of American transportation. Their “lack of vision” later became their “fatal flaw,” says Matt Anderson, curator at The Henry Ford Museum in Detroit.

[Image credit: Isaac Mathes]

[Image credit: Isaac Mathes]

Built in the industrial, working-class neighborhood of Corktown, Michigan Central was plagued by location issues similar to those of Buffalo’s station. Initially, the hope was that industry and city life would follow the station to what is now known as “Detroit’s Oldest Neighborhood.” City planners also believed as much, which is why they constructed Roosevelt Park in front of the station.

Instead, as in Buffalo, Detroit’s residents largely moved out to the suburbs, where they also began to rely on the vast network of highways built shortly after World War II. “By the 1950’s the show’s basically over for passenger rail,” says Anderson.

Diurnal train travel into Michigan Central gradually decreased until the station shuttered in 1988. It’s been abandoned ever since.

Michigan Central casts an indelible impression (a slideshow by Detroiturbex, a website that documents Detroit’s blight, confirms this) on just about every passerby. Once grandiose and stately, the now hauntingly empty terminal towers over nearby a commercial thoroughfare and the plot of grass where Tiger Stadium once stood. Weekday lunch crowds line up outside Slows BBQ, a bustling business that juxtaposes the hollow stillness across the street.

Nearly all the windows lack glass; at one time, intrepid onlookers could slip inside the terminal into the looted concourse, even climbing the building’s crumbling stairs. More recently, Moroun has secured the building, encircling the edifice with a metal chain link fence and razor wires. Overgrown grass billowed under the July sky, when I visited, with a “no trespassing” sign stating the obvious.


Inside Michigan Central Station in 2007 [Image Credit: Colleen McGinn]

Inside Michigan Central Station in 2007 [Image Credit: Colleen McGinn]

Though Moroun hasn’t been the only private owner of Michigan Central, is certainly is the most talked about. As the only person to own a major American border crossing — Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge — the busiest commercial crossing in North America brings “in more than $150,000 day in revenue,” in tolls on cars and trucks alone, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. When it comes to Michigan Central, Moroun gained ownership of the building for sentimental reasons, according to a 2009 article in Corp! magazine.

Since he’s become owner, some Detroit residents have become resentful towards his stagnant behavior towards rebuilding the terminal. He “resists calls to demolish it, but has no immediate plans to reopen it,” wrote The Detroit Free Press in December 2013.

Beginning in 2008, Slows BBQ owner Phil Cooley spearheaded an effort to revitalize Roosevelt Park. Resnick worked with Cooley and other volunteers, putting together a master redevelopment plan. Following the park’s improvement, Moroun’s company responded by cleaning graffiti off the building’s façade. “It’s a small thing but a positive response,” says Resnick.

Since then, Cooley has continued work on the park with local university and high school students using reclaimed shipping containers and wood from abandoned Detroit houses to create a community space that compliments the station. As for Michigan Central, some new windows have been installed and so will a service elevator, according to Curbed Detroit. In June 2014, The Detroit News also reported that Mayor Mike Duggan “was in talks with Moroun about bringing the train station back to life.”

But the city hasn’t always been a proponent of restoring Michigan Station. “Detroit loves to tear down old buildings,” says Resnick, and past mayoral administrations have been big proponents of this. In fact, in 2009, city council ordered that the building be demolished.

In response, a small nonprofit formed and worked with Moroun to convince the city to reverse its plans. Using Buffalo’s CTRC as a model, engineer-by-day John Mohyi began the Michigan Central Preservation Society with the hope of preserving and restoring the station. For a time, he worked with a number of people, including Moroun and his wife Nora, to keep the structure standing.

While the Society boasts only a handful of members, it hopes to play a more active role in further cultivating community support and raising the funds to so do. Moving forward, “we’d like to be a voice box for what’s going on at the station,” says Gina Aylward, a Society member.

For now, the Society has little power. Improving Michigan Central requires Moroun’s support, and his money. Without public ownership, any change to the building is solely Moroun’s decision, and one he rarely shares with the media.

Cincinnati’s Union Terminal turned their abandoned train terminal into a museum complex in 1990 [Image credit: Cincinnati Museum Center]

Cincinnati’s Union Terminal turned their abandoned train terminal into a museum complex in 1990 [Image credit: Cincinnati Museum Center]

Ask anyone who knows anything about repurposing train stations in the Rust Belt, and they’ll mention Cincinnati. The city’s adaptive reuse project has turned its once-abandoned Union Terminal into a vibrant community destination that includes not only a working Amtrak station, but also three museums and a movie theater.

Designed by the same architects that designed Buffalo Central and built a few years after in 1933, the elaborate art deco structure embodies both the social and economic status of the country during the early 20th century. Union Terminal boasts the largest half dome in the Western hemisphere and at one time, numerous mosaic murals of industries in the city, some of which have been moved to Cincinnati’s airport.

Akin to Buffalo and Detroit, passenger train travel in Cincinnati declined until the station shuttered in 1972. The building sat vacant until 1979, when a Columbus, Ohio-based developer tried, unsuccessfully, to turn it into a mall. Following the failed venture, a group of residents along with local government officials formed The Union Terminal Association in 1986. Together with the city and the Museum of Natural History, the groups collaborated to preserve and reuse the space.

Having raised $33 million in a bond levy voted on by county residents, developers transformed the station, “reawakening it as a place for learning and excitement,” says Elizabeth Pierce, a spokesperson for the terminal. In 1990, the space reopened as home to six organizations, including a science museum, a natural history museum, and a children’s museum. Amtrak too returned its service to the terminal the same year.

Despite its success, the station is still an old building, and more renovations are necessary in order to address its eighty years of structural wear and tear. Like many buildings of its era that are standing today, its joints, especially near the roof, are worn out, which makes them now more susceptible to water and weather.

So far, water has infiltrated the brick stone façade, causing the steel in the structure to rust. Because rusted steel expands, the brick and stone have been pushed out of line with the facade. “We need to take care of this,” says Steve Kenat, an architect at GBBN in Cincinnati who is working on the Union Terminal project. “Mother nature will catch up with you if you don’t maintain your building.”

In June, the building’s structural issues received national attention when it was listed among the year’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The hope is that the endangered designation will bring attention to the work that needs to be done. “Buildings can’t speak for themselves,” says Jason Clement, a community outreach director for the organization.

Creative approaches like the National Trust’s endangered list “get people to see why these places are important,” says Clement. Unlike Buffalo or Michigan’s terminal, “it’s much easier to engage people about a building when it’s in active use for the community,” he says.

Union Terminal — alongside Cincinnati’s Music Hall (also featured on the National Trusts’ endangered list) — is advocating for its own preservation, too, with the Save Our Icons initiative.

These renovations are expensive, and together, the two Cincinnati structures are proposing a quarter-cent increase in Hamilton county sales tax to pay for the $331 million combined project cost. Hamilton County commissioners voted in early August to only support Union Terminal, covering $170 million of the station’s $208 million in renovation costs, according an article in the Cincinnati Inquirer. “Obviously this has changed our campaign quite a bit,” says Clement in an email.

Despite the recent outcome, the organization is continuing with its efforts to drum up local support, asking people to share their memories and experiences of the historic buildings on their website. So far, the campaign received 10,000 signatures for their petition to the commissioners. “This community is rallying around both of these buildings,” Pierce says.

And even though the Initiative called the vote “the worst possible outcome” for both buildings, they remain advocates for their comprehensive restoration plan, according to a statement on their website.

Of course, leadership is crucial to the advancement of any project, too. And as far as repurposing train stations go, the ongoing issues in Buffalo, Detroit, and Cincinnati are prefect examples of how leadership — or a lack thereof — can make all the difference.

Cincinnati’s terminal is a shining example of a successful public-private partnership, anchored in the building’s history of private funding and philanthropy, and a public reverence for maintaining the space. Even with the recent renovation issues, it remains “incredibly central to downtown Cincinnati, and still very vibrant for the community,” says the National Trust’s Jason Clement.

Detroit, on the other hand, shows how complex city politics and single-minded private ownership can stymie the advancement and preservation of a historically important structure. “The longer the building stays like this, the more expensive it gets to rehab,” says Resnick.

Buffalo Central from balcony 2 [credit Alexa C. Kurzius]

Buffalo Central from balcony 2 [credit Alexa C. Kurzius]

And in the case of Buffalo, recent changes in leadership will no doubt affect the future direction of the nonprofit and the terminal. In June, Rodgers told the board she wouldn’t seek an extension to her yearly contract, which ended August 31. Furthermore, without the support of grants, the CTRC cannot pay any full-time staff, and must rely on the volunteer work of the board. “Obviously we all have to step up,” says Paul Lang, board member of the CTRC, in response to Rodgers’ departure.

Within the last year, the board partnered with the Oishei Foundation, a Buffalo-based nonprofit funder brought on to help the CTRC refocus its development goals. As a result, the group elected a new board in June, including individuals with more development, management, and operations expertise. Jim Hycner, facilities supervisor of New Era Cap Company, is the CTRC’s new board president. He’s already “taking the bull by the horns,” Lang says.

Growing up two blocks from the terminal, it was a tour Hycner took in 2013 that inspired him to take action on behalf of the building. Buffalo Central “got under my skin,” he says, and he couldn’t shake the desire to help change for the space. “You really feel the history,” when you’re there, he says, and “bringing the terminal back will spur investment in the surrounding neighborhood.”

Since the turnover, Hycner points out that the organization feels “more focused and with a clear sense of direction.” They’re in the process of bringing in architects, engineers, electricians, and people with real-world project management along with a pool of knowledgeable volunteers.

For now, Rodgers’ executive director position will remain vacant, until the organization can procure proper funding.

In the meantime, the CTRC is also working with the city of Buffalo on their Green Code plan, which is meant to address the city’s outdated zoning codes and building ordinances — ones that currently promote suburban-style construction, Lang says. The CTRC hopes the Green Code and the work the board is doing will encourage the sort of investment and development in the neighborhood that is necessary for making Buffalo’s Central Terminal a success.

Presently, they’re putting the finishing touches on an RFP (request for proposal), which they hope to open up to potential investors and developers within the next few months, Hycner says eagerly. “This is the tipping point,” he says. “Everything is coming together.”

*an earlier version of this story misidentified Moroun as Canadan.

Alexa C. Kurzius is a Buffalo-bred writer living in New York City.

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