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A bunch of bees is inspiring what seems to escape so many people in Buffalo: waterfront development.

With the help of a group of University at Buffalo architecture students, a local entrepreneur hopes to build on a giant bee hive he discovered in an abandoned office and turn a portion of Buffalo's historic waterfront into a design campus where manufacturers, architects and others will collaborate and mastermind new ways to use locally made materials.

This weekend, weather permitting, a crew of young architects will install a 22-foot, stainless steel tower, in the hexagon shape of a honeycomb cell, on a gravel patch in view of Ohio Street. Then, sometime soon, the bees will move from the giant hive they have called home for at least six years since Rick Smith discovered them.

Smith, president and CEO of Rigidized Metals and the accidental beekeeper, calls the giant hive the "Empire State Building" of hives. The bee's new tower home is part of a bigger plan, evolving slowly at some of the Buffalo River grain elevators.

Smith, who is funding the $16,000 tower hive and supplied the textured steel, wants to turn his 14 acres, which are home to the elevators and assorted buildings, into a design "theater."

"It's Buffalo 'Bauhaus,' " Smith said, citing a famous German school, known for its pre-WWII-era modern designs of buildings, furniture and objects. "It's getting artisans, craftsman and design professionals and students together to innovate new ways to work with materials."

Smith has dropped his controversial $80 million plan to build an ethanol plant on the site. ("It's a very long story," he said.)

But near the weedy lots and ghost townlike emptiness where grain was stored, wheat milled into flour and beer malt first roasted a century ago, Smith still sees lots of promise for Buffalo.

"If we can get the creative class to help drive what happens in Silo City," he said, "we can resurrect ourselves."

Smith said he has wanted to protect and move the bees since he first noticed the hive stretching up six feet of a window on the second floor office when he bought the elevators from the ConAgra food company six years ago.

As his idea developed, the UB school of architecture brought classes down for studios and seminars in recent semesters. Architecture buffs, professors and students all were so interested in visiting that Smith started to think about a "design theater" instead of ethanol.

Then in February, the Hive City design contest began there as a brainstorming-style "charrette" with a 24-hour deadline. About 40 architecture students came, divided into 10 teams and submitted preliminary proposals.

As contenders were winnowed to four final teams, the hexagon tower stood out from the others -- which included an arch, an earth covered mound, a wooden pavilion.

Smith, who was a judge along with some architecture professors, liked the way people had to tilt their heads to see the hive. Looking up is the first thing most do when they walk into a grain elevator.

The serendipitous way design develops and morphs into something else is part of Smith's new ambition. Gradually, with one project after another, he expects the design theater will take root.

This approach seems better than the last.

"The ethanol idea would have basically kept it closed to the public, and you can't enjoy the site and some of the iconic architecture," Smith said. "It's a one-of-a-kind site, and it's really what makes Buffalo unique, which is more important than to cordon it off for industrial use."

Access to the elevators was a draw for the students who decided to compete: Architects-in-training study the historic silos in class and are captivated by the massive, yet mostly empty and abandoned waterfront landmarks.

"Most people were just, like, really awestruck," said Courtney Creenan, who helped manage the winning team's project.

>Silos provided inspiration

The silos, together with the grandeur of the bees' window-pane architecture, provided inspiration.

"It's really intimidating to stand in front of it," Creenan said of the original hive.

Collaboration at Silo City is something UB is eager for more of. "It just blows my mind that something like this is available to students here," said Joyce Hwang, one of the coordinating professors.

Next, Smith wants to build studios and renovate the windowed two-story 1930s-era office building that must have been settled by the bees sometime after it was last used in the late 1980s by a flour milling company.

The bees will be moved out sometime after their tower goes up this week: A beekeeper has been enlisted to dislodge the hive in a process that includes sucking up the bees with a retro-fitted Shop-Vac, tilting the honeycomb away from the window and moving it in pieces.

"I've never seen anything that big," said Philip Barr, a hobbyist, who has moved hives five or six times before. "It's gorgeous." He estimates that the hive has between 5,000 and 8,000 bees and 10 to 25 pounds of honey.

While it's hard to know if the bees will survive the winter in their new home, Barr said, trying to save local bees with a history of getting through the winter is one good reason to go to the trouble of relocating them.

In recent years, a problem called "colony collapse disorder" has been applied to what Barr described as the mysterious, "just plain disappearance of bees."

"Anything that can be saved, from a genetic point of view, is good," he said. "If I go in and slowly remove the comb, there's a really good chance of survival."

He will install parts of the hive into a special glass-bottomed container dubbed a "bee cab." It will be suspended, and raised and lowered, with pulleys and a winch from the inside the hollow, 4-foot diameter tower.

Scott Selin, who was part of Creenan's team, said Hive City confirmed that his new graduate degree was the right move.

>Power in revision

The tower they named "Elevator B," is twice as tall, at 22 feet, as it was in the original plans. Professors urged students to make it more visible. "If it's going to be a tower, make it a tower," he remembers someone saying.

"Designing something is really exciting. Constantly revising something is kind of powerful," Selin said. "You end up with something that is really great."

He spoke by phone on a recent afternoon from the top of a Silo City elevator. He, Creenan and another team member were taking in the view of the lake, Buffalo's buildings and distant mist from Niagara Falls.

One of the next thrills will be to see how people, and bees, respond to the tower on the ground, where there are plans to add a walking trail.

Creenan feels fortunate to be getting a building up within a month of graduation. Their shimmering tower near a stand of trees and a view of the massive, enduring cement elevators will be one of the first new things people see at Silo City.

"It's starting to hit me," she said.

email: mkearns@buffnews.com