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The cavernous space above Metro Rail’s shops in the former Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad terminal has a new champion – Rep. Brian Higgins.

The Buffalo Democrat wants downtown developer Rocco Termini to tackle the 1917 architectural gem as his next restoration project. And the man behind resurrecting the Hotel @ the Lafayette and other downtown buildings says he’s more than intrigued about the potential for a public market at the site – if $10 million to $15 million in government money becomes available.

“The view of the river and everything else there is spectacular,” Termini said. “There’s a uniqueness to it.”

New interest in the DL&W stems from recent waterfront construction that duplicates what Termini calls “old stuff,” and he notes the old station’s train shed is already “authentic.”

Nearby on the waterfront, at least four other projects are well under way or getting started, including Canalside, Erie Canal Harbor and the Sabres hotel, hockey and retail complex.

Termini sees the 80,000 square feet of indoor space at the DL&W as an ideal venue for a public market similar to train shed developments at Union Station in St. Louis or the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.

Higgins, meanwhile, believes it could also prove a mecca for boaters throughout the Great Lakes.

“I think Buffalo could be the recreational destination on the Great Lakes,” he said, “and the DL&W offers a great destination because of its history and location. You could expand Canalside to include the DL&W, not only for pedestrians seeking access to the water, but boaters too.”

Higgins also expressed faith in Termini as both a friend and developer with a track record.

“It’s only brainstorming right now,” he said, “but Rocco has experience in adaptive re-use, and we should benefit from his experience on that.

“In my discussions with him, he’s pretty bullish on this,” he added.

Since DL&W successor Erie-Lackawanna ended passenger service in 1962, the terminal’s upper floor has remained essentially vacant even after the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority in 1984 established its Metro Rail maintenance facility on the ground floor. The authority has entertained a handful of proposals (such as an unsuccessful idea for a museum and even a Seneca casino) since then, but has never encountered real interest.

But now Higgins points to a surge of construction activity in the neighborhood. With plenty of parking already in place around First Niagara Center and easy access via Metro Rail, the congressman said it is time to focus on a significant historical landmark he calls an ideal complement to the new pace of activity.

“The DL&W is obviously a huge piece to that whole puzzle down there,” he said. “Everything is more valuable.”

Termini in recent years has emerged as a specialist in restoring historic downtown structures. In addition to his new Hotel @ the Lafayette, he is converting the old FWS furniture store on Elmwood Avenue into apartments, offices and a restaurant; he has proposed redevelopment of the former AM&A’s department store, and already turned its former warehouse into downtown loft space.

While Higgins has been a critic of the NFTA’s half-century stewardship of 384 acres of outer harbor land, he says he is encouraged by new ways of thinking under Chairman Howard A. Zemsky.

“I’m going to urge them to do something in the context of a lot of development around there,” he said.

Peter G. Demakos, an NFTA commissioner who is chairman of its Property and Risk Management Committee, said the authority has tried for years to attract a developer but only now is nearby development creating a new demand.

“Think of every Friday or Saturday night there along the waterfront,” he said. “It has amazing potential.”

Demakos also said that because the authority has been marketing the terminal for more than 20 years, it may be exempt from subjecting a developer to the normal request for proposals.

“If someone wants to do it and be fair and equitable to the NFTA, we can negotiate,” he said, adding he envisions a long-term lease that would maintain the authority only as owner and not manager.

Still, Termini views the NFTA as the main impediment to the project. A former authority official himself, Termini says he doubts it will move quickly enough to make the idea work.

“Who wants to deal with the NFTA?” he asked. “I only have about 20 years left, and I don’t want to spend it dealing with the NFTA.”

Termini said he proposed a public market concept for the building 30 years ago while working for the authority but now hopes neighboring development and Higgins’ involvement will prove a catalyst.

“Brian and I have been talking,” he said. “He needs to take the lead.”

The developer said the NFTA has successfully maintained the building, and it is as structurally sound as when it supported six trains at a time under its roof.

But he also said millions of dollars in public money would be needed for his vision of a market and dining facility. He said he is encouraged that such money would be available but sees it as key to keeping rents low enough to attract the kind of merchants needed.

Neither he nor Higgins has identified any specific pot of money to finance the plumbing and ventilating infrastructure needed for a public market operation. But in a letter Friday to the heads of the NFTA and Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp., Higgins urged the two agencies to “work together to make investments to public improvements in the facility.”

Beyond the market concept, Higgins joins Termini in envisioning the terminal on the Buffalo River hosting docks for recreational boaters. He sees a public market with food specialists and ethnic stands attracting Western New Yorkers and visitors alike, with the huge terrace area opened up for summer use.

And Termini and Higgins see the presence of a working rail shop below and adjacent General Mills plant (complete with the sweet smell of baking Cheerios) as unique and genuine attractions to the complex.

“It’s probably the nicest and most authentic building down there,” Termini said.

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com