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Imagining a future for Great Northern as its fate is back judge's hands

Great Northern Cover perspective A
The Campaign for Greater Buffalo released concepts of what the landmark Great Northern elevator could look like restored. In this late-day perspective, the elevator serves as a beacon on the City Ship Canal, with the city name proclaimed in three-story high letters visible from miles overland and on Lake Erie. It also proposes to restored the filled-in canal boat slip on the north side of the elevator, which recently suffered damage during a prolonged windstorm.

The Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture, the City of Buffalo, and Archer Daniels Midland Milling (ADM) are heading back to court after a court-directed mediation was concluded Thursday and referred back to State Supreme Court Justice Emilio Colaiacovo. The Campaign filed suit against the City and ADM on Friday, December 17 to block an emergency demolition order issued by the city late that day. The Campaign was granted a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) by State Supreme Court Justice Dennis Ward on December 19th. The case was assigned to Justice Emilio Colaiacovo, who heard arguments in the case on Monday December 27.

The Campaign is fighting to compel the City and ADM to act to preserve the 1897 elevator, while ADM, which has owned the elevator since 1993 and has not so much as replaced missing and damaged gutters and downspouts, wants to demolish the elevator. A section of brick cladding on the north side of the elevator tumbled down during a December 11 storm with historic wind gusts, precipitating the City's emergency demolition order.

This is the third time ADM has attempted to demolish the elevator, citing engineering reports it commissioned that detailed maintenance-related problems which it then failed to correct. Meanwhile, the Brown Administration in 16 years had never inspected the building, even after ADM presented Permits and Inspections Commissioner James Comerford with its data in recent years. There is no getting around the fact that Mayor Brown can direct Buffalo Permits & Inspections Commissioner James Comerford to rescind his order based on error and misrepresentations by ADM. He'd rather have someone else make the decision. Credit will be taken if the judge decides to save the Great Northern, blame will be spun onto the judge otherwise.

Judge Colaiacovo vowed that should the matter be referred back to him he would issue a decision in short order. He has called for an evidentiary hearing on Monday to gather information to help decide whether Comerford acted arbitrarily and capriciously in ordering the emergency demolition of the building.

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The Campaign also released renderings of what the Great Northern could look like if repaired and restored. It needn't cost ADM or any other owner to much to restore because of the various tax credits available. Ninety-four percent of such csts could be effectively reimbursed, according to an affidavit prepared by developer Rocco Termini.

These illustrations presume the current owner, ADM, or another private party repairs and adapts the building after being ordered to do so by court or by the city after a decision favoring preservation. Developer Rocco Termini provided the following scenario if ADM were compelled by the city and court to repair the building. 
Pick a number, say $20,000,000. That is up-front, out of pocket by ADM. It can claim 20% federal historic tax credit, 20% NYS historic tax credit, and 24% Brownfield tax credit, for a total of almost 2/3 of cost, or $12,800,000. Those are spread over the first five years. In the fifth year, ADM could donate the building to a non-profit (ADM could create its own non-profit expressly for this project) and claim another 30% tax credit. (ADM reports its most recent net income as over $16 billion) In all, 94% of clean-up, fix-up, and restoration, or $18,800,000.
While this may be interpreted as "taxpayer money" in an indirect sense, these are programs set up to encourage the recycling of sustainable older buildings. The public gets a preserved historic landmark, a clean site, a new recreation and employment hub, and much more tax revenue, directly and through spin-offs.

"The Great Northern has a huge ground floor—almost an acre—on the City Ship Canal that could conceivably house dozens of small enterprises and offices," said Campaign president and architect Paul McDonnell. "Not only is there a 400-foot wharf on the canal, there is also a filled-in canal boat slip that we'd like to see re-watered. Add that to the 4-story workhouse at the top, and you can begin to imagine the potential. We'd definitely like to see the word "BUFFALO" on it in letters three stories high. That would be the city's calling card."

The beauty is in the box

The ground floor of the Great Northern is almost one acre in size and accessible through a regularly spaced set of doors around the entire perimeter. The doors were designed to give onto a 400-foot long, 22-foot wide wharf on the City Ship Canal, a 400-foot long (as originally designed) wagon shed along Ganson Street, and its own canal boat slip. Adapting the ground floor alone could accommodate dozens of businesses. Maintaining the historic integrity of the brick box is important in facilitating historic investment tax credits and brownfield credits that could cover two-thirds of the costs of cleanup, repairs, and renovations. That brings other opportunities to leverage the unique structure.

The immense volume of the Great Northern's brick box could accommodate, with interior modifications, any use that requires large sheltered windowless spaces—museums, galleries, theaters, waterparks, markets, retail—that would complement whatever ground-floor and workhouse (the 4-story cupola that tops the building) uses can be dreamed up. Buffalo is fortunate to have it. Rotterdam just spent over $200,000,000 to build a space similar in size to the great Northern to shelter a food hall and market.

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The Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern, London. The Great Northern is wider and taller.

The Tate museum in England has practically made raw industrial brick its international brand, with the Tate Modern housed in another former power station and the Tate Liverpool housed in an immense brick warehouse on the Albert Dock in Liverpool. The center of the Tate Modern, its immense Turbine Hall, has been visited by 20,000,000 people since it opened in 2002. The Great Northern is both wider and taller.

As a grain elevator, the Great Northern is unique in the world and an irreplaceable part of what makes Buffalo's collection of grain elevators a cultural landscape of national distinctiveness. If anything gives Buffalo a sense of place, it is the elevators.

As a building the Great Northern also stands in rare company in global architecture. Distinguished Professor of Art History Francis Kowsky has said of the Great Northern that experts "around the world see the Great Northern grain elevator as an incomparable asset. No other shed style grain elevator of this magnitude exists anywhere on earth. As a monument of the early industrial era, it ranks with the Stanley Dock tobacco warehouse in Liverpool and the Battersea Power Station  in London... The Great Northern, however, excels both of them for the sheer magnitude of its brick walls, surely among the largest expanse of brick surfaces on any structure in existence. Its monumental enclosed volume is a tribute to the skill and daring of a former generation of Buffalo brick craftsmen."  Both Battersea (a Grade II British Landmark) and the Stanley Dock (a World Heritage Unesco Site) have been saved and repurposed and helped revive entire districts.


The immense volume of the Great Northern's brick box could accommodate, with interior modifications, any use that requires large sheltered spaces—museums, galleries, theaters, waterparks, retail—that would complement whatever ground-floor and workhouse (the 4-story cupola that tops the building) uses can be dreamed up. As a brick building, The Great Northern has evoked favorable comparisons to a UNESCO World Heritage site in Liverpool and the Battersea Power Station in London.

Fighting to save landmark, Campaign for Greater Buffalo needs your help

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The Great Northern grain elevator is just one of the many important efforts The Campaign for Greater Buffalo is working on right now.

A letter from Campaign for Greater Buffalo Executive Director Tim Tielman:

Dear Friend in Preservation and Friend of Buffalo,
We are engaged in an epic battle to save the Great Northern grain elevator, a Buffalo icon which many of us worked to preserve and landmark over 30 years ago. Buffalo mayor Byron Brown made a classic Friday-afternoon-holiday-season emergency demolition declaration. We worked mightly from that moment to now, as I write these words, to block the demolition, get into court, and start planning for a renewed Great Northern.

This doesn’t happen by magic. The capacity to wage these battles comes from our members and donors combined with our knowledge and passion. When the rubber hits the road, it is The Campaign for Greater Buffalo that shows up. We need your help now in the form of an annual or monthly recurring membership to the Campaign, or a special donation that can reduce your taxable income by up to $600.

Our income has taken a big hit in the last two years, as we haven’t been able to operate our Open-Air Autobus and our LearnAboutBuffalo tours. But our work has not stopped:
•We are developing plans for a post-Thruway downtown, including “urban hamlets” on the East Side, West Side, and The Terrace.

Cloudwalk 1a from Central Wharf•We are advancing proposals to link the historic DL&W train shed with the Connecting Terminal Elevator via a pedestrian bridge OVER the Skyway (see our December newsletter).


Voelker's dusk Ed Healy• We put fighting to save Voelker's Lanes and put together the landmark application that is now before the Buffalo Common Council


•We are celebrating our work in saving the North Park Library from demolition for a strip plaza and the adaptation of the building into the Italian Heritage Center.

Meidenbauer House•We are urging the city to fix or give us the Fruit Belt’s Meidenbauer House, part of the High Street Historic District, which we created.


•We released the massive Big Picture plan in April, stretching from the foot of Main Street to Court Street behind City Hall.
•We are continuing our Green Book project to catalog all Buffalo Black-friendly business sites listed in the famous directories for Black travelers. published from the 1930s to 1960s, with the hopes of landmarking and restoring key buildings.

I urge you—no, beg you—to act now. On a your phone, go to On your laptop or desktop, go to the sidebar on the left and click on the DONATE button to give any amount, one-time or monthly. Or choose a membership level and click ADD TO CART. You can or mail your check (dated Dec. 31 or earlier) or charge card information to us at Campaign for Greater Buffalo, 403 Main Street, suite 705, Buffalo, NY 14203. Finally, you can call me at 716-854-3749 (after hours or weekends leave a message) and I’ll take you charge information over the phone.

The new year promises new challenges. Spirit willing and resources ready, we can be prepared. For that, we’ll need your help. Please donate as generously as you can, today. 

Thank you in advance and best wishes for 2022,

Tim Tielman
Executive Director

Campaign for Greater Buffalo wins temporary reprieve of emergency demo of Great Northern

The Great Northern elevator suffered damage to its north wall on Dec. 11, prompting the Brown Administration to issue an emergency demolition order. Similar damage to its south wall in 1907, which was repaired

State Supreme Court Judge Dennis Ward this afternoon signed a temporary restraining order preventing the emergency demolition of the 1897 elevator. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo had filed suit against the City of Buffalo and the Archer Daniels Midland Milling (ADM) to block demolition of  the landmark Great Northern grain elevator. The city announced its demo order on late Friday afternoon. The judge’s prohibition of demolition extends at least to Wednesday, December 22, at which time the parties will appear before a yet to be assigned judge.

The city announced that it would permit emergency demolition of the elevator after a section of brick cladding on the north elevation was lost in a wind storm of historic fury on Saturday, December 11. One-hundred fourteen years earlier, the south side suffered almost mirror-image damage in another epic storm and was repaired.

Paul McDonnell, AIA, the chair of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo, who was broad and deep experience with historic structures, provided an affidavit for The Campaign in which he stated that the elevator was not in danger of collapse, nor would other sections of the brick curtain wall, were they to fall, pose any threat to the public that could not be mitigated, rather than demolishing the entire building.

Anthony Barker, President of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers union, Local 36G, also provided an affidavit.

Attorney Richard Lippes, representing The Campaign, said he was gratified with the TRO and the opportunity to argue the merits of the case. “Taking down the Great Northern would be akin to the demolition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building. You’d think we’d have learned our lesson.”The elevator has many claims to fame. It was the first elevator in the world to be designed to run on electricity (together with the demolished Electric elevator formerly on Childs Street), the largest grain elevator in the world upon completion, the first to employ the ranks of tall, slim cylindrical grain bins that gave the building type its distinctive look familiar around the world, and the last "brick box" grain elevator in North America (and probably the world).

The Great Northern is an invaluable piece of Buffalo's architectural and cultural heritage and has been a designated city landmark since 1990. According to the sccopers' and millers' unions engaged at the elevator and the adjacent flour mill, the Great Northern has used by either ADM or previous owner Pillsbury since 1981 to thwart union employment. Pillsbury bought the Standard elevator a short grain-truck ride away and equipped it with a vacuum to siphon grain out of ships, eliminating the need to employ scoopers, who were part of the Longshoreman's union. ADM has continued that practice and has not maintained the building to code during its entire history of ownership. According to James Comerford, Commissioner of Permits and Inspection Services, ADM sought him out for an emergency demo last year. Comerford claims he refused, but did not otherwise act to even inspect the building despite being notified of possibly dangerous conditions.

The emergency demolition order was another Friday Afternoon Holiday Special, made public by the Mayor via the media late on Friday afternoon, after he notified ADM on Thursday that the Administration would be granting the emergency demo order. That raised the specters of the Harbor Inn demolition by Carl Paladino, the Samuel Wilkeson House and other Prospect Hill houses, the Scottish Rite Cathedral on Colvin Avenue, and, most of all, the attempted demolition of the Squier Mansion on Main Street days before Christmas in 2001. The Wilkeson House was, and the Great Northern is, a designated city landmark.

It does not make the saving of endangered city landmarks any easier when the city issues demo permits and emergency orders on that day and at that time. The Campaign and its dedicated network of volunteers mounted a great effort simply to overcome the barriers the city put in its way. Citizens will be asked to do further work to assure the survival and restoration of another irreplaceable landmark.

The only thing that is structually deficient at the Great Northern is ADM's plea for emergency demo

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ADM must be pretty certain it will get it 30-year record of malignant neglect at the landmark Great Northern grain elevator rewarded with an emergency demolition order from the Brown Administration: It didn't even bother filling out the standard application to request demolition, but submitted a custom request for an emergency demolition to Commissioner of Permits and Inspection Services James Comerford.
This is, of course, to evade public review, rodent baiting, asbestos removal and a Preservation Board hearing and review by
independent experts. And who wouldn't want to avoid public review of the slipshod logic and demonstrably untrue assertions that litter ADM's papers? ADM offers, among other things, the results of its 30-year neglect as reason for the demo.
 Buffalo News reporter Mark Sommer writes that Congressman Brian Higgins immediately responded that the city "should hold firm" against ADM's shirking of responsibility for the historic landmark, calling Saturday's storm damage a pretext "to allow ADM to do what they have wanted to do for three decades."

Peg Overdorf, Old First Ward resident and Valley Community Association Executive Director also voiced strong objections to any demolition.

The Campaign for Greater Buffalo, whose members submitted the original city landmark application in 1990 and have fought off several previous attempts at demolition by ADM, would fight to the utmost to save it from the greatest threat the landmark has yet faced. Paul McDonnell, Chair of the Campaign, said he "saw nothing that would conclude that the elevator cannot be restored and adaptively reused." The elevator was phased out by previous owner Pillsbury and remained closed by ADM as a way to eliminate union jobs at the elevator and in the unloading of grain ships, according to union officials.
Mayor Brown will make the ultimate decision on whether his inspections department submits to ADM's structurally deficient logic and demands or allows the normal public review process to take place. The mayor's office has said it would decide today, Thursday.

Buffalo suffers yet another collapse. Will mayor act?

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Part of the north wall of the Great Northern grain elevator was lost Saturday in a gale, 114 years after another storm caused nearly a mirror image of damage to the south wall. Will Mayor Brown follow up on his pledge "not to allow problem properties to exist" or will powerful agri-giant ADM be granted its wish to demolish a property it has wanted to demolish for decades?

The Great Northern grain elevator, a City of Buffalo landmark since 1990, for the second time in its history suffered extensive damage to its north brick curtain wall in a windstorm late Saturday afternoon. The resulting opening has the effect of a giant cutaway model, revealing a secret of the historically important elevator—the brick cladding is merely a curtain covering ranks of giant steel grain bins inside. The mammoth cylindrical bins—there are 30, each of which can hold 74,000 bushels of grain—were an important advance over the prevalent 5,000-bushel wooden bins of the time. The bins, including smaller interstitial bins between, stand on a steel frame and themselves support a steel platform on which sits a steel 4-story work house. The brick curtain wall was completed after everything else. It was thought by the designer that the brick cladding would guarantee that the steel bins would not be effected by solar exposure or weathering.

A storm in 1907 caused a failure of  Great Northern's south wall that was mirror image of Saturday's failure

The Great Northern has been owned by the agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) since the early 1990s. ADM, with revenues of $64.6 billion in 2019, with net income of $16.3 billion (for comparison, Buffalo's most recent budget was about $740 million). ADM has wanted to demolish the Great Northern since the day it bought it during the Masiello Administration. Preservationists, led by Sue McCartney of the Preservation Coalition and the Grain Shovelers Union, fought off demolition in a long battle in the mid-1990s. Despite the landmark designation and obvious water damage to the brick envelope, neither the Masiello or Brown administrations has ever compelled ADM to so much as fix a gutter or downspout. The Preservation Coalition and The Campaign for Greater Buffalo repeatedly urged city officials over the years to address the building code violations.

Perhaps ADM, caught rigging the corn-sweetener market at the same time as it was trying to first demo the Great Northern, is too intimidating for the city to take on. Not many companies can pay $400 million settlements and $100 million fines for price-fixing, tax dodging, bribery, polluting, and violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act ( Not many companies have books written about them called "Rats in the Grain: The Dirty Tricks and Trials of Archer Daniels Midland, the Supermarket to the World "

The cladding failure at the Great Northern is just the latest in a series of high-profile collapses or flagrant and consequence-lite building code violations during the last few years, including 435 Ellicott Street (the City performed a quick emergency demolition itself after the roof collapsed on the occupied building in December of 2019), 324 Oak Street (catastrophic structural collapse last July). In addition, two other local landmarks are endangered through malignant neglect, the Meidenbauer House at 204 High Street in the Fruit Belt and the iconic buildings of the Cobblestone Historic District, 110 and 118-120 South Park Avenue. The Meidenbauer house was seized by the city in 2005, shortly before Mayor Brown took office and has been left to rot as the city entertains a series of developers who only want to demolish the building for the land.

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The embarrassing Ellicott Street collapse and demo prompted Brown to institute an inspection blitz to take on neglected commercial properties. Announcing the effort in February 2020, Brown said "We simply will not allow problem properties to exist." Commissioner of Permits and Inspection Services James Comerford added "We're not going to put up with it anymore." Having put up with it for 14 years, the Administration was going to put it foot down. Here is the chance to deal with a very big problem and save a city landmark from a very unpleasant and irresponsible multi-national enterprise that has demonstrated contempt for the city.

Great Northern UC 1897 Sci Amer
Merry Christmas, America. The front cover of the December 25, 1897 Scientific American featured this drawing of the Great Northern elevator under construction in the summer of 1897. The bins and working house were completed first, and the non-load-bearing brick curtain wall went up last. The elevator was the largest in the world and designed to run on AC power from Tesla-designed dynamos at Niagara Falls

At the Great Northern, it is clear from construction documents and the 1907 incident, that the mere failure of cladding, spectacular though it seems, does not dictate demolition, nor is it a danger to the public. It lies far from the public way and the City Ship Canal exposure can be controlled by a buoy line. ADM should be compelled to fix it (insurance would pay for most of it), as well as to, finally, install the gutters and downspouts that you and I would have to do on our houses. Thirty years is long enough to have put up with it.

Campaign for Greater Buffalo proposes to bridge access gap on waterfront

Cloudwalk from Wharf
The Campaign for Greater Buffalo is proposing that a new type of pedestrian bridge is the solution to a problem hiding in plain site: The Buffalo Outer Harbor is practicably inaccessible to people using public transit or simply walking or riding their bikes. As the crow flies (or cars speed across the Skyway), only 1000 feet separate Central Wharf and downtown Buffalo from the opposite shore of the Buffalo River, yet this becomes 3.8 miles on the ground for walkers, bikers and transit users, who must, if they can, make due with existing roadways. The problem will only become more glaring as the hundreds of millions of dollars proposed to be spent on Outer Harbor parks and other improvements forge ahead.

Members of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo have advocated for preserving, restoring, and appreciating the historic assets of the Buffalo River since the 1980s. This includes creating the Cobblestone Historic District and waging a federal court battle to save and restore the Commercial Slip, Central Wharf, and the Canal District’s historic streets.

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The Campaign for Greater Buffalo's proposal for a pedestrian Cloudwalk is detailed in its December newsletter. Download Greater Buffalo Cloudwalk 1a

Those goals are more important than ever to the success of both the Inner Harbor, Outer Harbor, and social justice. Recently, the Empire State Development Corporation's Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation approved controversial plans for spending millions of dollars on an outdoor concert facility at the far south end of its Outer Harbor lands. The plan is to take the decades-old summer concert series from downtown, where it is accessible to everyone, and place it where it is only practically accessible by car.

Congressman Brian Higgins has unveiled proposals for expanding a public park along the south bank of the Buffalo River from the Buffalo Light upstream to the head of Fuhrmann Boulevard and a proposed boardwalk and park connecting stretching to the Connecting Terminal Elevator. Public transit, bicycle, and, pedestrian access are overlooked, other than as an adjunct to existing roadways. Those impose an almost eight-mile roundtrip barrier from Central Wharf on walkers, bike riders, and transit users.

The tremendous unspoken success of the Canal District and Central Wharf is their accessibility and use by all classes of residents and visitors. That springs directly from the fact that they are directly on Metrorail at the base of downtown. We must extend that success to the Outer Harbor. Especially in light of the vision set forth in the 2004 masterplan mandated by the federal district court, wherein the Canal District is to be built-out in the manner the neighborhood was before being demolished for, among other things, the Skyway and Memorial Auditorium. The  Canal District and Outer Harbor would be two mutually supportive parts of a livable whole. The Canal District being historically dense, complex, and full of urban recreational opportunity, and the Outer Harbor offering open-space recreation and learning.

But the livable whole can only exist if everyone can benefit. Access must not be denied by distance, cost, or season, but must be convenient, comfortable, abundant, and free. A pedestrian bridge is essential. It makes the downtown and the Old First Ward livability index go up. Soaring over social, mobility, and equity barriers, it points toward a sustainable future. And actually, it is not a new type of bridge type, but one that is thousands of years old. It only is just now becoming used in new ways, primarily in the rugged, windy, and wintry mountains of central Europe.

Bridging the access gap on the Buffalo waterfront is just the beginning. Regionally, long-span low-cost pedestrian bridges  solve a lot of access problems particular to Western New York and nearby Canada. Think of spanning the Niagara River between Prospect Park and Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls. Connecting Youngstown with Niagara-on-the-Lake. Crossing the Erie Canal below the Flight of Five in Lockport. Economically useful all. That they’d be fun is a bonus.

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