The Great Northern Situation Lacks a Good Solution

Protracted preservation battles have become something of a cottage industry in these parts. In fact, you might just call it an industry for some.

The latest battle has centered around the Great Northern grain elevator after the building’s northern wall collapsed. The usual players have taken sides for and against demolition after it was announced Archer Daniels Midland planned to bring the building down.

News has been mostly good for those hoping to save the structure as they won another favorable ruling in court this week. Doug Jemal has also expressed interest in buying the structure in order to preserve it. What exactly his plans would be are unknown, but if there’s a developer in the area capable of actually saving the building, it would be Jemal.

Tim Tielman came out from under his bridge to get his obligatory quotes in The Buffalo News while other developers such as Rocco Termini and Paul Ciminelli have voiced their support in saving the structure. It’s a good sign for those who hope to keep the elevator intact that Jemal has shown the propensity to hit the ground running with projects he takes on. Something that the preservation community in Western New York has not done.

Whether or not that means the structure should be saved, I’m not sure. I think there are just as many good reasons to keep it as there are reasons to bring it down.

The sheer size of Buffalo’s grain elevators is something to behold. Whether you’re kayaking past them or walking through Silo City, the scale of the structures is truly astonishing. You wouldn’t think that a hulking concrete box would be attractive but there’s a unique beauty to Buffalo’s grain elevators. Particularly those in Silo City. I’ve had to drive past Great Northern a whole lot these last few months as the Ohio St. bridge is repaired, and it too has its own brand of dystopic beauty. It’s a cool structure, there’s no question about it.

However, I don’t look at the Great Northern elevator and see anything particularly notable or exceptional about it. I simply can’t imagine feeling any sort of remorse over its loss. I understand the basis for its local landmark status. But I don’t quite see the value in it either. Sure, it’s nice that it’s a brick box grain elevator, but it’s cousins up the river are far more interesting and unique. They also happen to be clustered in a way that can cultivate further redevelopment.

The ability to effectively redevelop the Great Northern is what should be the biggest hurdle in the fight to preserve the building. It’s boxed in by two very active industrial neighbors. There are multiple rail lines which run along the front of the entire property, making pedestrian access a high stakes game of chicken.

Now, if there’s suddenly a boom in grain production and storage, we might be in business. But the reuse opportunities we’re seeing at the American Malting Company site and the Perot Malthouse aren’t an option here. So far the only idea pitched for the Great Northern is from whatever fantasy land exists in Tim Tielman’s brain and calls for painting “Buffalo” on the side in order for the elevator to serve as a calling card for the city. When I think of calling cards, abandoned industrial relics are always my first thought.

So where does this leave us? We’re talking about a building that’s extremely limited in scope when it comes to redevelopment. The location is obviously the biggest challenge, as finding safe access for pedestrians, residents or patrons would require extensive infrastructure improvements. Even still, the active industrial sites surrounding it would remain. I can’t help but think if this fronted the river as opposed to the City Ship Canal there would be far more flexibility in how to approach the project.

I’m sure the structure is largely sound but what do we gain by stabilizing it and slapping a coat of paint on it? It’s still an empty husk of Buffalo’s lost industrial golden age. Are we going to remove the grain silos from inside of it to create usable space? How might that affect the structural integrity of the building? More importantly, how much would that alter the budget of any developer who wanted to tackle this project? It’s one thing to stabilize and secure the building so it doesn’t fall down. It’s an entirely different undertaking to convert it into some sort of mixed-use space.

It’s fun to spitball, for sure. Removing the grain storage and refitting the interior to accommodate offices, condos or other uses. Sounds incredible. It also sounds expensive. And the building is still on a proverbial island between ADM’s active facility and General Mills. Seems like an extremely tall order that even Douglas Jemal might struggle to fully wrap his head around.

By my count there are 15 other grain elevators dotting Buffalo’s river and waterfront. Nine sit in a cluster that is being actively redeveloped as you read this. It’s far easier, and safer, to access and has the potential for exponential growth. That’s where our time and energy should be devoted. There, or a mile down the road where the smith shop at 110 South Park is still in imminent danger of being lost.

There should be a steady and consistent full court press to get the buildings owned by Darryl Carr into the hands of a developer who can properly restore them. While we’re all wasting our time worrying about a relatively unspectacular grain elevator, a set of building with far more historic value are being allowed to rot. It’s time for the performative outrage from the preservation community to end so some actual progress can be made in securing truly valuable sites.

Instead, we’re stuck arguing the merits of saving a building that offers very little to the surrounding area or region as a whole. If it can be stabilized and saved, great. I don’t know if it’s going to be worth all the time, money and energy to execute. But if it can stay, let it stay. But let’s not pretend like it’s the foremost preservation issue facing the city today.

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