Paul Lang and the Central Terminal
You might call Paul Lang a romantic if he weren’t such a practical, detail-oriented guy. The young architect’s firm is Carmina Wood Morris PC, a heavy hitter in the historic preservation/renovation world—its portfolio boasts projects like Hotel @ the Lafayette, Remington Rand Lofts, and Bethune Lofts. Since returning to Buffalo after a decade away—years that included study and teaching in Rome and Panama—Lang has gotten married, become a father, and chaired the Central Terminal Restoration Corporation (CTRC), a labor of love that began as a volunteer stint—and still consumes much precious free time. This spring, he guided the not-for-profit CTRC’s request for proposal process; the group plans to announce a development partner for the iconic East Side structure very soon. Lang proposed to his future wife at the top of the Terminal’s tower, and would have had a wedding reception there if the space could have accommodated such an event at the time. He’s hoping that it will one day be a venue for nuptials, as well as a truly Grand Concourse. Perhaps he is a romantic after all.
Your architecture studies at Penn State included stints in exotic locales, and here you are back in Buffalo—what drew you back, and what’s with the Central Terminal fixation?
I’d been interested in architecture since middle school. I grew up in West Seneca, an only child, graduated from West Seneca East. When I went off to college in Pennsylvania, I had very little intention of coming back. But midway into my studies, I started realizing what I had grown up in, what I had been exposed to, the legacy architecture we have here. While a student, I interned at Carmina Wood Morris, and really got into historic preservation. I studied in Rome as an undergrad and a graduate student, and seeing the way Europeans view historic preservation had a huge impact on me. My thesis was on conservation, the balance of preservation and erasure—preserving identity through urban design. In America, it almost has to be a museum-piece: look at this restoration, but you can’t touch anything. In Rome, it seems every building is 300 years older than what we have here, but they reuse every space, and you see every layer of society’s impact through different eras. Pagan temples were reused as churches, for example, and repurposed again in modern times. Here our “ruins” are our industrial heritage, like grain elevators and a huge train station. We need to find new uses for them.
The Central Terminal, which hasn’t seen passenger rail service since 1979, is a beautiful behemoth in a faded neighborhood. Some think it’s too big to succeed as a reuse. Why persist?
The impact it’s had on Buffalo, which is bigger than I’d thought, justifies the importance of its reuse. We get tremendous grassroots support because everyone has some association with this structure—including family members who worked there, those who remember soldiers leaving and returning, and those who used its later Amtrak service. My maternal grandparents worked there, in the postal division of the Central Terminal; the Railway Express Agency was like UPS. My father’s family had a trucking company that made regular stops at the terminal for pick-up and delivery. In 1998, the building was reopened for tours, and I remember going on one when I was in high school. When I moved back to Buffalo, I began volunteering there. In the summer of 2008, I applied to be on the board of the not-for-profit restoration corporation, and I’ve been on it since, in one capacity or another. We looked at the Richardson master plan, and I put in place our own architecture committee with young professionals who did some renderings, wrote up a history, and released, in March 2011, a conceptual master plan. That fall was a high-water mark for us, with the National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference in Buffalo. There was great excitement and interest. It was all so successful that we were able to hire an executive director. The next few years were a bit slower, though, as we had some internal reorganization issues to work through. I got married and bought a house, and took my professional exams. The fact is the maintenance of the building is catching up with us, and it is time to develop. The city, Amtrak, and CSX still own much of the sixty-four-acre site, but we have about seventeen acres, the most iconic portions—the tower, the baggage building, and the Grand Concourse.
Is there a workable plan for such a huge redevelopment project?
This past winter we put out a request for proposals. There are two ways to go, selling off parts of the structure, or, my preference, a “master lease” model, which would be more in keeping with our mission. So while our board continues to work on internal development—like securing grants and getting the support of politicians—I spent part of this spring taking developers on tours of the facility and fielding dozens of phone calls from out-of-towners who were at least interested in kicking the tires. From loft apartments in the tower to private office space to shops and cafes in the Grand Concourse—which I do hope remains a public space—we have considered many plans. There is still a possible return to rail—we have talked to the NFTA and Amtrak. CSX freight still uses the Belt Line, which is part of the new city planning methodology, and an opportunity to incorporate some green design. All proposals were due in May, and we expect to announce a development partner this summer.
What about the area surrounding the Central Terminal?
Nobody seems to know what to do with the East Side/Polonia, with its layer upon layer of history and stories. The city has not stymied the Central Terminal Restoration Project at any point, but they haven’t exactly pushed us forward. There really needs to be a plan, a vision for the East Side. As the neighborhood goes, so goes the building, and the bones of this neighborhood are still good! There is momentum now. Social clubs at Corpus Christi and St. Stanislaus have been reinvigorated. Torn Space Theatre has taken up residence in the Adam Mickiewicz Library and Dramatic Circle. The Broadway Market is still going, as is the Clinton-Bailey Market. Look at the popularity of Dyngus Day every year—give people more reasons to come down. I think we have to change the perception of the neighborhood. If you talk about desirability in terms of walkability, cultural institutions and historic buildings, good private housing stock, entertainment destinations, and availability of fresh foods—it’s all here. I am not afraid of empty lots or abandoned buildings. It’s part of our architecture training, I guess. Going back to the drawing board is what we do.
Former Buffalo News reporter Maria Scrivani writes on local history and people who make a difference.