Today, it's looking like the Erie Freight House could stand as a shining example of how a developer and local preservationists can work together to make a project better.
“It shows what coming together and having an open and honest dialogue can do,” said Jill Spisiak Jedlicka, the executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper.
What that dialogue yielded is apparent in the revised plans that the developers, led by Savarino Cos., filed recently with the city, incorporating design changes that Riverkeeper sought to move the apartment project 25 feet back from the edge of the Buffalo River and mollifying preservationists by agreeing to help preserve anything from the building that's worth saving.
“Our plan has evolved,” said developer Samuel J. Savarino. “We've listened to what people have had to say.”
The compromise doesn't save the Erie Freight House, but it preserves pieces of it in hopes that a historically-minded developer will come along some day. And it allows an apartment project that will help revitalize the Ohio Street corridor to move forward.
“I believe this process will serve as a model for the preservation and development of historic sites across our region,” said Thomas Yots, the executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara, which initially fought Savarino's plans to tear down the building.
The agreement with local preservationists would allow the developers to tear down the dilapidated building but preserve as much of the original materials from the structure as possible so they may be reused later on other projects. The Buffalo Planning Board and the city's preservation board still must approve the plans, but Savarino hopes to start construction before the end of the year.
“We're taking measures so that whatever can be saved over there can be re-purposed and put back to use,” Savarino said.
Setting the building back from the river allows for a walkway along the waterway. While the walkway, for now, will be accessible only to the project's tenants, there's the possibility that could change if, years from now, the revamped Ohio Street corridor includes waterfront access all along the river. That wouldn't even be a consideration if the 78-unit apartment building were right up against the river.
The walkway will be made from permeable paving materials, which Jedlicka said will reduce the amount of dirty storm water that runs off into the river. And Savarino agreed to work with Riverkeeper's Habitat Restoration Program to landscape a portion of the property with native plants that will fit in with the riverside environment.
There's no disputing that the Erie Freight House is historic. 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.
“The freight house is an example of what used to be on the waterfront. In fact, it's the only example,” said Jason Wilson, Preservation Buffalo Niagara's director of operations.
But over the years, it went through significant structural changes and fell into serious disrepair. Its last occupant, Great Lakes Paper Fibres Corp., moved out in 2011 after part of the roof, foundation and walls collapsed, exposing parts of the interior to the elements. The building was condemned by the city, which sent preservationists scrambling to obtain landmark status for the structure to try to ward off an emergency demolition.
Savarino, who bought the building early last year, produced an analysis from its hired expert saying the building couldn't be saved. The preservationists had their own expert analysis saying it could.
It looked like the two sides were headed to court when they started talking.
After a few visits to the property, Wilson said the preservation group came to see Savarino's point about the impracticality of preserving a building that's already partially collapsed, no matter its historic significance.
“This is a case where compromise is the only solution because, unfortunately, the building is falling in on itself,” he said.
And compromise they did. Savarino, who got public input on the project at a community meeting in late February, made further changes. Instead of 48 two-bedroom units, the revised plan calls for up to 78 apartments, ranging from 62 one-bedroom units with 900 square feet of space aimed at urban professionals, to the 16 two-bedroom flats with 1,800 square feet that filled the entire five-story building in the original plan.
The building also won't turn its back on Ohio Street, with the revised plan adding balconies and lights on the side of the building facing the soon-to-be reconstructed parkway.
“If there had been an emergency demolition, none of that could be saved,” Savarino said. “Now, at least, there's the chance part of the materials can be saved and resurrected somewhere else.”