When Republican Chris Collins was still the Erie County Executive, the Democrats on the County Legislature railed against the administration and Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard for longstanding civil rights violations at the Erie County Holding Center. The legislators called for improvements to jail, which Collins and Howard publicly dismissed. In the media, they retorted that the Democrats wanted to turn the jail into a hotel.
Dozens of suicides and other jailhouse deaths later, the jail still sits with the same deplorable conditions. But calls on the administration for improvements to those facilities were largely silenced with the election of County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who has largely deflected blame for the jail’s condition on the Sheriff’s office.
But some on the County Legislature — including April Baskin and Howard Johnson — have been gently prodding the County Executive to make improvements to the Holding Center. Advocates in the community, however, would like to see a bolder plan: a new, more spacious facility designed for better hygiene and better mental health.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has renewed concerns over the jail’s unsanitary conditions. Some civil rights advocates have been calling for cell-specific bathrooms. It is thought that access to showers, enclosed toilets, and proper sinks will reduce rates of inmate infections and suicide while addressing basic mental health concerns in a way that will improve the jail’s overall operations.
Building an entirely new jail facility would allow for the inclusion of a suitable medical clinic, improved spaces for more thorough intake procedures, differentiated bloc and cell units based on inmate risk factors, and more efficient attorney and visitor access.
Of course, for any holding center to efficiently function, it must be located nearest the courthouse that is tasked with adjudicating those cases. That’s why the old Central Terminal would make for such a compelling adaptive reuse: the expansive complex could house both the holding center and the courthouse.
The Terminal’s 15-story office tower, excluding the main floor and mezzanine, could easily accommodate judicial chambers and administrative offices. The main and mezzanine floors can accommodate dozens of courtrooms, with the concourse restored to function as a grand public space.
The 5-story baggage building along Curtiss Street sits immediately adjacent to the Concourse, and could accommodate a far more spacious jailhouse than currently exists at 42 Delaware, the Holding Center’s current location. The Terminal has a two-level parking garage that could house police and jail transport vehicles below, while offering free parking above (something that is unavailable downtown).
Some public officials — like State Senator Chris Jacobs — have long called for relocating government services agencies from Downtown to the Broadway Fillmore neighborhood, which is among the City’s most structurally divested. The plan would free up valuable real estate downtown, where the market for residential real estate is strong, while creating a ‘services hub’ that anchors the neighborhood.
But Poloncarz rejected that strategy, and instead relocated Child Protective Services from its downtown location to a suburban office park in Cheektowaga, riling many in Buffalo who had hoped for an economic development catalyst on the Eastside. The decision was seen as being motivated, largely, as a snub to developer Carl Paladino, who held the department’s previous lease.