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I've probably driven past the Great Lakes Paper Fibers building almost 10,000 times over the last two decades on my way to and from work, and not once did I look at the steel-clad warehouse as either historic or worth preserving.
Ugly, yes.
Even crumbling, especially after part of the roof caved in, leaving a gaping hole in the back of the warehouse, facing the Buffalo River.
Developer Sam Savarino and his partners, FFZ Holdings, don't see much value in the Great Lakes Paper Fiber building either, but they do see potential in the Ohio Street site, especially after the opening of the Buffalo Riverfest Park in June. They want to tear down the Great Lakes Paper Fibers building and invest $15 million to construct a new five-story building with 48 riverfront apartments in a neighborhood that has been starved for investment.
“We recognized the potential of the area,” Savarino said.
But nothing is easy in the Buffalo Niagara region.
It turns out the Great Lakes Paper Fibers building has a past, and preservationists say that, beneath the rusting steel siding of the “ugly monster” is the shell of a historic gem that once was known as the Erie Freight House. The structure, which dates to the 1860s, was one of the freight houses that once lined the banks of the river, back when Buffalo was a hub for commerce between the urban East Coast and the frontier lands to the west.
“It's the only one left from that era,” said Tom Yots, the director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara, which is leading a push by preservationists to block Savarino from tearing down the building and had the condemned structure designated as a local landmark earlier this year.
“It's amazing what steel siding can cover up,” Yots said. “Underneath that is the original wooden structure. It's incomparable.”
So a project that could turn a blighted part of the riverfront into a magnet for residents is likely headed to court. Savarino expects to apply for a demolition permit on Monday, and he expects the preservationists to sue in an attempt to stop him.
“It's in deplorable condition,” he said. “There's not much left there to work with.”
Savarino, a history major himself, said he would have liked to save the building from the wrecking ball, but it's just too far gone. He noted that the second story previously was removed from the north end of the building, while loading docks were added.
“As a historical building, it's been compromised beyond redemption,” said Savarino, who will use the existing foundation and thinks the old timbers could be preserved for use on other projects. “It's beyond salvation.”
Yots, who toured the site on Tuesday, disagrees. “What we saw in there were wonderful open spaces that you could do a variety of things with,” such as a market or a fitness center, he said. “It could be a feeder building” for housing that could be built elsewhere along the waterfront.
Preservationists constantly have to make choices about what buildings are worth saving. The Erie Freight House, because of its place in the city's economic history and because it's salvageable, is one of those places, he said.
“You can't look at that building and judge it by its steel siding, because that's not what the building is,” Yots said. “If you put a really baggy coat over Marilyn Monroe, she wouldn't show any interesting architectural characteristics either.”
But there's also a difference between being a preservationist and an obstructionist. The Erie Freight House is crumbling. It's been altered. It took 150 years to recognized it as a landmark.
It's not the United Office Building in Niagara Falls, or the Central Terminal or even the old Trico plant on Goodell Street. It's not enough of a landmark to jeopardize an appealing project that would be a key step forward in the revival of the long-struggling Ohio Street corridor.
“A third of the building has been compromised beyond recognition,” Savarino said. “You can't be blind to the reality of what's there now.”
Perhaps there's a compromise here. Maybe Savarino can incorporate a few timbers into the new building to give it a taste of the Erie Freight House's historic character.
“We tried to design a new building that has some kind of homage to the buildings along the river,” he said.
Savarino expects the project to be held up in court through the winter, but hopes the challenge can be resolved in time to start construction this spring.
“I don't think it's a make or break thing,” he said.
“I think it's a good conversation to have as long as it stops short of delaying us in the spring,” Savarino said. “If there was anybody else involved with this, they would have thrown up their arms and run away.”
email: drobinson@buffnews.com