BuffaloRising: Trico Plant #1 @ a Crossroads

BuffaloRising: Trico Plant #1 @ a Crossroads – By Eric Lander

Last fall historic preservationists from around the country and beyond descended on Buffalo to marvel at our history and architectural treasures, and left with a new, more positive image of the city.  Did we not learn anything from their praises?  Our city’s stock of historic buildings serves to create a sense of unique place not easily recreated.  Economic benefits include job creation, rising property values, stable tax base and an influx of cultural tourism.

Unfortunately, it seems every historic preservation victory in Buffalo (i.e., redevelopment of the Lafayette Hotel and many others) is offset by a regrettable, and many times avoidable, misfortune.  The Trico Plant #1 is the latest preservation battleground with a possible fate that mirrors so many past historic buildings.  The building is now at a crossroads, with one path leading to demolition and a surface parking lot and the other path involving redevelopment and reuse as a vibrant mixed-use project in the ever expanding Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

The Trico Plant #1, a once proud symbol of Buffalo’s industrial heritage and strength, has since closing fallen to neglect, ill fate and mismanagement to the point of near extinction. The building has gone from listing on the National Register of Historic Places, to public auction and purchased by the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (“BNMC”) to eventual transfer of title to the Buffalo Brownfield Restoration Corporation (“BBRC”), a subsidiary of the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation. BUDC is the City of Buffalo’s not-for-profit development agency, reclaiming distressed land for future development.

The Mission Statement of the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation, the City of Buffalo’s not-for-profit development agency, is to reclaim distressed land for future development. The agency seeks to create an environment conducive to private investment, provide oversight and visioning for projects of regional significance, serve as a liaison among various public and private stakeholders, serve as a conduit for public funding of significant projects and serve as a real estate holding company for certain public-sector projects.

What has transpired since the BBRC has taken title to the Trico Plant #1 seems to contradict the organization’s own Mission Statement.  From the casual observer the only investment in the property has been the erection of a perimeter fence for the purpose of public safety.  The roof membrane, removed in 2001 by the then owner Steve McGarvey, has remained unrepaired allowing water to penetrate and damage the building.  The granting and extension of exclusive development rights to the BBRC (the very organization that deeded ownership in the Trico property and whose representative has stated has no plans for development) doesn’t give the impression of creating an environment conducive for private development or providing visioning for projects of regional significance.

The actions of the BBRC don’t give the appearance of stabilizing a valued asset for the purpose of facilitating future redevelopment, but rather the initial step in demolition by neglect.  Both the BNMC and BBRC should be held accountable for allowing the Trico Plant #1 to continue on a path of eventual demise.  If the property was in private ownership such neglect would certainly warrant code violations and court action by the City.  At the very least building repairs should be made to satisfy the City of Buffalo’s own building code and stabilize the building.

As a real estate consultant for over 25 years I’ve worked as a team member on the redevelopment and reuse of dozens of historic properties.  Aside from the property’s historic context, successful reuse must be functional and financially feasible.  The evaluation process includes, but is not limited to: 1) document property characteristics, both assets and liabilities; 2) quantify market demand for potential reuses; 3) identification of viable redevelopment plan and 4) evaluate financial feasibility by estimating acquisition and redevelopment costs, potential rental income and operating expenses.  In the case of the Trico Plant #1, if evaluation concludes that redevelopment is feasible, a disposition plan must be established that effectively transfers ownership into appropriate private hands.

Property Assets & Liabilities

As a redevelopment site for reuse the Trico Plant #1 possesses many favorable characteristics.  First, the building’s nearly 90,000 square foot floorplate is the largest of any downtown property and nearly three times the size of the HSBC Tower.  This large span of space allows for the potential to support a large tenant on a single floor as well as small startups.  A large floorplate is one of the assets the Larkin at Exchange has leveraged in filling 600,000 square feet of space in a down economy and real estate market.  Additional property assets offered by the Trico Building #1 include:

• The building location offers excellent access to Route 33 and the Buffalo Niagara International Airport;

• The building possesses excellent exposure via frontage on Goodell Street.  The building’s mass and height also affords visibility from downtown and adjoining neighborhoods;

• The building’s large size is suitable for supporting a mix of uses;

• The building’s location at the periphery of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus allows for synergy and the potential to capitalize on future growth of this expanding employment center;

• The building’s high ceilings and open floorplates may result in reduced redevelopment costs and improved space planning and design; and

• The eligibility for federal and state historic tax credits will improve the financial feasibility of redeveloping the property for adaptive reuse.

The primary deficiencies of the Trico Plant #1 include the presence of contamination and building decay as well as the lack of on-site parking.  Historic tax credits will assist in defraying additional project costs and the potential of creating secured parking inside the building is an option worth exploring.

The large number of assets afforded by the Trico Plant #1 as well as the availability of historic tax credits warrants a detailed evaluation into all reuse options.  Demolition should be a plan of last resort after all potential reuse options have been exhausted.

Market Demand and Potential Reuse Options

As has been evidenced, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is a major real estate demand generator.  The Trico Plant #1 is located at the periphery of the medical campus and well positioned to capitalize on future growth and expansion.  Review of other similar urban growth cores suggests a wide range of real estate opportunities may evolve, including:

• Student and conventional housing;

• Incubator medical and lab space;

• Classrooms;

• Professional office;

• Light manufacturing;

• Hotel and conference center; and

• Ground floor retail

Tax Credits 

The BNMC claims that redevelopment of the Trico Building #1 is estimated to cost north of $400 per square foot.  While the cost of redeveloping historic properties generally exceeds that of new construction, it has been my experience that actual costs typically run half or less of that stated by the BNMC.  In addition, redevelopment of the Trico Plant #1 by private interests may involve less intense use than that of the BNMC, and, thus come at a lower cost.

Federal (20% of eligible project costs) and state historic tax credits can help defray additional project costs.  The current state tax credit for commercial properties is capped at $5 million.  Approval of Bill 6134 would increase the cap to $12 million and assist in improving the viability of such large-scale projects as the Trico Plant #1.  Cities like Buffalo with a large stock of vacant buildings should lobby for an increased historic tax credit cap, as additional sources of funding would help stimulate increased historic preservation efforts.

Property Disposition

The Trico Plant #1 is an iconic building associated with an industrial pioneer whose legacy continues to improve Buffalo’s quality of life through a generous foundation.  The loss of such a prominent building with so much reuse potential without exhausting every possible avenue of redevelopment would be unjust.  If the BNMC is not interested in reuse of the building it should relinquish its exclusive development rights in favor of disposition to a capable private developer or user.  Potential methods of property transfer include issuing an RFP, negotiation of an out-right sale or some form of partnership between BBRC and a qualified developer/user.

Another option would be for the BNMC to assign its preferred developer rights that expire in 2013, giving a qualified developer time to create a redevelopment plan, market the property and secure the necessary financing.  This seems to be a more appropriate scenario than simply letting the building continue to rot until which time the BNMC development rights expire or the building is razed.

The Trico Plant #1 offers the potential to house a vibrant mixed-use project that is both an asset to the region and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.  Saving such an important building will tell the world Buffalo values its heritage and provide another asset in the building blocks of an economic renaissance for the city and region.

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