The former United States Federal Courthouse has been vacant since the opening of the new Robert F. Jackson Courthouse built opposite its old location on Niagara Square. The General Services Administration has circulated a request for proposals and Congressman Brian Higgins has vocalized a desire to engage private developers in the building’s reuse.
But the most obvious and suitable use of the structure seems to make the most sense: to house the county’s judicial operations.
The county courts are currently located in a 1950s-style annex on the backend of County Hall, facing Delaware Avenue. That structure has become functionally obsolete. Courtrooms are small and don’t accommodate a sizable public attendance at large trials. The building lacks private conference spaces for lawyers and their clients to huddle during hearings and trials, as are available at modern facilities. Transporting defendants in and out of courtrooms requires use of common spaces, making for awkward operations.
Planners and architects have long decried the midcentury structure, which is considered by many as a blight on the city’s architectural legacy. Its construction destroyed the backside of the jewel that is County Hall. Removing the structure would allow a restoration of the backside of County Hall and its grounds. That would improve the spatial environment of downtown at the heart of the legal district.
The old federal courthouse — in stark contrast — is an impressive and stately building with wide lobbies, grand courtrooms, and laudable architecture from the city’s heyday. Reusing the federal courthouse at the county level would require only cosmetic renovations: new paint, carpeting, furnishings, and design finishes.
To build a new county courthouse from the ground up would cost many times more than recycling the federal building and it would take many years longer. Recycling the building would be an inexpensive and swift alternative.
The county’s fiscal predicament is getting worse, so new construction or costly renovations to the existing annex structure are unlikely. The county has taken on considerable new debt this year after a brutal winter left area roadways disheveled and needing irregularly expensive repairs. At the same time, the Canadian petro-dollar has fallen sharply against the US dollar since late last year. Canadian shoppers who once flocked to area malls have slowed to a trickle, which has shaken county finances because of a heavy reliance on sales tax revenues.
To allow Congressman Higgins and the General Services Administration to sell the structure to a private developer would be a disservice to the county, which would be left with no better option to improve the county’s judicial operations.
An adaptive reuse led by a private developer would be costly, given the design and structural challenges presented by a public building built in the 1930s. It would likely require hefty gap financing, property tax abatements, and other public subsidies.
“We are continuously telling people to recycle. Let’s use what we have. I urge all involved to support this idea to bring new life to our beautiful old federal courthouse,” says Eddie Egriu, the Buffalo businessman who is considering a run for Congress next year.