Rep. Brian Higgins made an important statement the other day, as he is apt to do. That is, to quote Higgins in The News, the job of building the new courthouse "isn't finished" until the old one is filled with other tenants.
Higgins is absolutely correct in his push for the reuse of the Michael J. Dillon Courthouse, which has been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places and was dedicated in 1936 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Nothing has been done, Higgins said, because of the "inertia of the federal bureaucracy," the General Services Administration (GSA) that operates federal buildings.
The new courthouse opened in November 2011 and since then there has been no movement toward filling the old one across Niagara Square in downtown Buffalo. Higgins has written the GSA in order to stir the public pot over this one. He is not alone in the effort.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer has called on the government to budget money to renovate the old courthouse to make it more desirable for new tenants.
He said earlier this year: "A federally owned building that is sitting unused is wasteful and does a disservice to taxpayers."
The GSA had several agencies in mind to occupy the building: the Department of Homeland Security, the Office of the U.S. Bankruptcy Trustee, the U.S. Tax Court and Buffalo Immigration Court.
So far those plans have gone nowhere, and that is the problem. Niagara Square - also home to City Hall and Statler City - is too important to the city to allow a historic building to sit vacant there for years. It is the place where Buffalo's past and future come together, and repurposing the old courthouse deserves fast-tracking by the GSA.
It will cost an estimated $23 million to reconfigure the building and update the heating and cooling systems for new tenants, but the payoff is virtually priceless.
The Michael J. Dillon Courthouse cannot sit idle. It is an anchor of Niagara Square and, moreover, contains valuable space that should be used by the federal government.
Higgins points out that its 113,800 square feet of available space could be used by government agencies that are currently leasing space in privately owned buildings.
Frequently, entities find it necessary to build when a large amount of space is needed. Here stands an opportunity for government to return home to its historic roots as soon as the building is rejuvenated.
It would be the height of folly for the GSA to have made a huge investment in a gleaming new structure in one part of Niagara Square while simply walking away from a neighboring building with plenty of life left in it.