Ricchiazzi wants Poloncarz to sell Erie County’s convention center

Good government activist Matt Ricchiazzi is calling on Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz to issue a Request for Proposals for the adaptive reuse of Erie County’s dated Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.  

Poloncarz has proposed massive County borrowing of more than $500 million to construct a new convention center just north of the historic Statler Hotel building.  That project could cost $100 million more than that price tag, as current parcel owners of that site maneuver to inflate the value of land required to construct the 300,000 square foot, three-level structure.

But Ricchiazzi argues that the Buffalo Niagara region is not competitive in the national market for conventions.  The region is at a disadvantage because of its long cold season and national reputation as an unfun or unexciting destination.  The economics of a capital intensive venue that’s only going to be used at scale for three months of the year are prohibitive.

For years architects have been calling on the Poloncarz administration to repaint the exterior of the concrete structure, which can appear dark and dingy. A fresh coat of paint — whether black, maroon, or white — could make the structure appear new and modern.

“The economically rational thing to do would be for Erie County to exit the convention business, which requires millions of dollars a year to sustain while having a negligible economic impact in terms of attracted conventions,” Ricchiazzi argues.

“In fact, the convention center merely competes to host local events, in effect taking business away from private sector hotels and banquet centers — like the Hyatt Regency, Statler City, the Buffalo Grand Hotel, the Avant, Banchetti’s, Samuel’s Grand Manor, or Salvatore’s,” Ricchiazzi explains.  “County Executive Poloncarz should let our local business community have that business volume.”

Urban planners want the area around the convention center to become more ‘pedestrianized’, with automotive rights of way and on-street parking converted to inviting public spaces.  Others have called for the structure to be demolished in order to restore the Genesee Street right of way. 

Ricchiazzi sees value in the convention center as a physical structure ripe for adaptive reuse that could help quench the community’s thirst for innovative and aspirational civic projects.

The building boasts more than 110,000 square feet of large floor exhibit spaces, ballrooms, and banquet halls.  An adaptively reused structure could easily accommodate any range of public or private civic uses: a museum of art, history, or science; a University at Buffalo Law School; a niche hall of fame; or a destination athletic club.

Critics of the brutalist structure dislike the way that the convention center abuts Pearl Street — with a long, windowless, concrete wall that breaks only for loading docks. Those loading docks, storage spaces, and banquet kitchen facilities are likely to be removed in any adaptive reuse scheme. Doing so will allow the back wall of the convention center to be reconstructed in a more airy, glassy, and permeable style.
Urban planners believe Pearl Street could be transformed into a vibrant tree-lined plaza with fountains across the street from a series of historic storefront structures. 

Ricchiazzi wants to see Poloncarz issue an RFP that solicits innovative adaptive reuse concepts from the region’s most accomplished business leaders and our leading civic institutions.

“The economics of the situation plainly tells us that the convention business is a bad bet for taxpayers,” Ricchiazzi posits.  “So let’s ask the community for its ideas and recycle this building for something more aspirational and unique to the community.”

By many estimates, it would cost less than $20 million to convert the Convention Center into a 110,000 square foot museum of contemporary art.

Ricchiazzi wants the County to gift the structure to whichever of the region’s billionaires or civic institutions is willing to most wholeheartedly bestow their patronage and stewardship upon the structure.

He posits, for instance, that Roswell Park Cancer Institute could use the building for a ‘Museum of Cancer‘ that helps fulfill its public education mandate while helping the city build a destination educational attraction.

“Perhaps a Tom Golisano, Bob Rich, Carl Paladino, or a Jeremy Jacobs might see the legacy-value in building a namesake art museum to leave for future generations of Buffalonians?  Jeff Gundlach and Seymore Knox certainly did,” he postulates.

Architects can imagine removing the back section of the structure and converting the first floor’s main ballroom to allow the lobby to open to both Pearl and Franklin Streets.
The second level of the convention center includes an 80,000 square foot exhibition hall that can be configured into any number of gallery arrangements.  

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