River Region businesses still STILL open for business, part III
Progress at Lewiston sites (though not all of it is visible)
By Joshua Maloni
As we conclude our series on Lewiston businesses operating during the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic, updates are presented on the Frontier House, the new plaza and the Brickyard Brewing Company.
Two of the largest construction projects underway in the Village of Lewiston are being spearheaded by Buffalo’s Ellicott Development, a self-described “full-service real estate, leasing, management and development firm,” that handles more than 7 million square-feet of office, retail, residential and hotel space.
Mortar work began in December on the Frontier House.
On Feb. 12, 2019, a then-195-year-old Frontier House was sold to a limited liability company operated by Ellicott Development CEO William Paladino and Lewiston developers Jeff and Jerry Williams, plus another partner, builder Bill Game.
The new owners expressed optimism about what the five-level structure could become. A packed Lewiston Public Library heard all about the Frontier House’s history, while the grounds around the former tenant’s (McDonald’s Restaurant) playground were cleaned up.
Of course, residents were eager to see continued progress in 2020. Like so many projects in Lewiston, however, visible work at the Frontier House stalled during the coronavirus pandemic.
In December, Grand Island’s award-winning Abraxas Inc. began stabilizing and weatherproofing the structure by removing old mortar and replacing missing pieces with a special blend to match what’s existing.
Last week, Paladino said, “I just want people to be understanding that the Frontier House, you're gonna see different things going on at different times. But just be a little more patient, because there's a lot more paperwork and T’s we’ve got to cross and I’s we’ve got to get dotted from government agencies before we can proceed here. And they have time frames that run for them to make decisions and, because of the pandemic, a lot of it’s been Zoom stuff and it wasn’t really in their office, so it's just taken a little longer.”
He added, “As we get each of these sort of things in the queue with these different agencies, we'll be able to give you guys in the village more of a full outline of expectations and time frames and construction schedules.”
Paladino added, “As soon as the cold weather pulls away, hopefully in another three, four weeks, we’ll be out there again doing work on the exterior of the building.
“In the meantime, we've been working with an architect; we’ve worked with (the State Historic Preservation Office – SHPO); we’ve worked with national parks; we've been looking at about 15 other different programs that deal with historically significant structures such as this; talking to different tenancies; and going over different concepts for what we want to do there.
“All this takes time, but a big part of the lag here has been just COVID. You know, for a good six months there, we dropped everything just to concentrate on our core business and keeping everything up and alive. Obviously, I have a lot of hotels in my portfolio and those have been decimated by this pandemic – and a very large financial cost to us. But that being said, hopefully things have stabilized to a point where we are starting to get into planning when we're going to start the majority of the work on some of these major developments that we do have – Frontier House being one.
“But all along, behind the scenes, yes, there's a ton of what’s called ‘back-of-the house’ paperwork to be done, and things to be submitted. Some, especially with the Frontier House, which is historically significant, until we get SHPO and (State) Parks on board, we don't necessarily want to proceed with any work. Because if we do so, they could – even if they make a recommendation – they can always change their mind if we don’t have it in writing.”
With regard to concept, the submission that's recently been given to the Village of Lewiston calls for a total of 10 living units spread across the second, third and fourth floors. There's also been talk of incorporating the Lewiston Council on the Arts, and/or a restaurant, on the first floor, to keep that part of the Frontier House open to the public.
“I think all those are options we are reviewing right now (as far as) best fit,” Paladino said. “The restaurant is definitely a viable idea that we wanted; unfortunately, every restaurant has just been hammered during this pandemic. So, any decision on that is not to be made in the near future.
“If something else does come along, we have some other ideas, which we are looking at. We might proceed in some different manners.”
Executive Director Irene Rykaszewski said the Lewiston Council on the Arts is open-minded and would listen to suggestions from the Village of Lewiston. Currently, the LCA operates out of the “Big Yellow House” on Ridge Street.
Before Paladino’s group bought the Frontier House, there was a legal issue with the former ownership with regard to the stability of the building.
“It's an old building,” he said. “You know, it's old; it's worn; it's seen better days. When moving into buildings like these, there are some significant things, which will need to change, and will need to happen.
“It's not to the point of falling down” as some have speculated, “but, at the end of the day, the big debate has been how much work do you put into it – and what risks you take in further trying to correct some of the current, very-large deficiencies.”
Paladino said a “practical approach” will be implemented, “where we don't think all the deficiencies have to be totally repaired to their original state, in terms of everything plumb, everything level, everything back to normal.”
The reason for this, he explained, is that, with older structures, “If you do go try to jack them up or put them back in their original places, you usually cause further damage to the structure itself.
“The best way to do it is usually just stabilize what you got, and work from there.”
He said, “At the end of day, the structure will be stable. It will be functional and operational and it will have a lot of historic character remaining with it” per SHPO standards, “and that’s the ultimate thing.”
All told, the building is expected to remain closed until 2022.
“I would say that's probably likely – though I think we'll be significantly further ahead by that time,” Paladino said. “As we start to move, it's going to get to a point here where it's going to be more process, which is going to dictate our schedule here more than how quickly we want to move or not. We're into that part of the project at this point.”
Portions of plaza buildings one and two (above) are open to the public, while building three (below) is still under construction.
In late 2012, Ellicott Development purchased 756, 784-790 Center St., and adjacent vacant land on Onondaga Street (bordering North Eighth Street). Tenants at that time included The Country Doctor, Grandpaws Pet Emporium and Smith Brothers Pizza.
As project reps worked to find compromise with the Village Board, those businesses left – and almost five years passed before the structures were demolished and the field was cleared.
Anne Welch was sworn in as mayor in June 2018 and, three months later, ground broke at the three-building plaza site.
Quest Diagnostics (building No. 2) opened in early 2020, while Tim Hortons (building No. 1) welcomed its first guests in December.
Paladino said it's been difficult to get materials and labor over the course of the pandemic, and that’s particularly why the largest structure, building No. 3, remains unfinished.
“Doors and frames are taking three times as long as they used to take to get to site. We've had some issues with a couple of contractors, and we’ve got some issues with money, on financing,” he said. “When we lost all our tenancies originally, we financed this thing out of our own cash. To date, we’re probably $8-$9 million into it already. But we do finally have financing to finish the project.
“But that really hasn't been what has caused the ultimate delays there. It's more just been talking to some different tenancies.”
“There’s been a lot of stops and starts. What we need here that’s gonna help us, in terms of my whole business, is just for people to be careful; for people to be safe with this pandemic. But for the government to keep things open,” Paladino said. “Close, continuous start and stops, has caused us to lose probably three or four different tenancies – again, just because they're like, ‘No, I can't go through this. I can't open it and then have them shut everything down again. It's just gonna kill us.’
“The timing is one of the things that we've tried to work with the tenancies now. Things that we know are doing well in this pandemic, if we work with one of those tenancies, we'll try and push them as quickly as we can – like a Quest and a Tim Hortons.”
“But other retailers that we're talking to, they’re sort of like, ‘At this point, we wouldn’t want to open anything until the fall, when we think there won't be masks at all and when we can open fully; and we're not at risk of absorbing all our upfront costs and then not be able to recapture any significant revenue in the interim,’ ” he said.
Paladino noted there isn’t a preferred style or grouping of tenants he would want to see in these buildings.
“What I try not to do is put people in there that are just gonna compete with one another. I think that just hurts your plazas,” he said. “We have the Tim Hortons in there; that's good; we probably would like to see another restaurant in there. Probably somebody like a sit-down restaurant of some sort, similar to some of the ones you have in town, like Brickyard. … We'd like to see something like that. We are talking some different concepts. … We've had some other smaller (tenant ideas), just like hamburger/hot dog-type place; pizzerias we've talked to. You know, maybe one other person like that. And then definitely some general retail, and then maybe some medical in there also. We are talking to all those different sectors right now.”
Paladino said the response from his first two tenants has been favorable.
“Everyone seems happy to date,” he said. “I got real positive feedback about the look of everything. I think people are surprised at how it's turned out. I don't think, when they saw it on paper and they saw renderings, they really envisioned what it actually was going to look like, in terms of what it looks like now. That’s been a real good positive for us.
“We're just looking forward to really just completing this project and moving on to other stuff. The village lately, in recent years, has been very good to work with. And I think they want to see it completed as quickly as we want to get it completed – and filled up, obviously.”
Village of Lewiston Mayor Anne Welch said, “Unfortunately, the pandemic has delayed two of the great projects in Lewiston along with the other construction projects. I am excited to see the construction at Eighth and Center Street resume and the restoration of the Frontier House begin. I am especially excited about the Frontier House. It has been a long time coming, but I know Bill Paladino will do a great job restoring our ‘crown jewel’ of the village.”
A look at some of the work taking place inside the Brickyard Brewing Company. (Photos courtesy of Steve Matthews)
When the Brickyard Brewing Company opened in the late spring of 2017, the majestic, two-story building quickly stole the Frontier House’s title as “Crown Jewel of Lewiston.” With its carved-out ceiling, brewery windows, murals and hand-fired tables – not to mention a spacious second-floor banquet room – the BBC was the place to go for events of all sizes.
Of course, village residents know the BBC caught fire last May and had to be rebuilt. Many watched in horror as Ken Bryan and Eric Matthews’ second Brickyard property burned into the night. The original barbecue restaurant also was damaged. As folks observed the work of first-responders in battling the blaze, they pledged to be first in line to support the restaurateurs when the eateries reopened.
As the owners and Chief Operating Officer Steve Matthews welcomed patrons back to the Brickyard a few months later, they began work on the BBC – and (believe it or not) realized they could improve upon the “Crown Jewel.”
“We've had, obviously, a couple of years to reflect on things that didn't work as well, as far as workflow,” Steve Matthews said. “No. 1 being we raised the floor up in the front of the banquet facility. If you remember the top of the stairs, that was sort of a structural issue that, in the beginning when we added on the back of the building, was just sort of an extra step – no pun intended. It wasn't 100% necessary.”
He explained, “We're like, ‘OK, let’s go back to the drawing board on this one, since we have a blank slate. Let's raise the floor up and figure out how we can make it a little more efficient, so we can minimize that.”
The floor is now level, and “You're going to see the chandelier will come back – that design element,” Matthews said. “This time around, aesthetically, we went for more of a classic, upscale sort of approach to our banquet facility rather than the rustic look that we had before. So, you're gonna notice, obviously, the coffers. The conference ceiling has stayed the same in the banquet room, but we basically took a different angle on it.
“The colors, etc., will be very pleasing. It's going to be less eclectic and more of a coherent vibe, I would say.
“As far as businesswise, menu, that's still TBD; that's probably something we will work out much, much closer to opening day.”
A second-floor bar, formerly situated in front of an outdoor patio overlooking Center Street, was moved to the far wall so as to serve both the terrace crowd and people inside the banquet room.
“That was another major design change. For business flow purposes, the bar up front we felt was sort of a limiting factor,” Matthews said. “As far as the opening, it’s still there. What we just elected to do is make that just a giant garage door opening.”
That look will mirror the ground-level entrance.
“I feel like approaching this, this time around, one of the things that we noticed that there wasn't a ton of (natural light) because of our proximity and the way the building was built. … So, we opened up the front,” Matthews said. “One of the assets to the building next door was the giant garage door that you could come and go from the inside to the outside at will, and it just had a nice open-air vibe to it. So, that's kind of the direction that we took, moving forward with the construction this time. Let's open up the front of the building.
“It wasn't something that we came at out of the gate with the planning stages. After the fire, we were shoring up some of the support beams and we had to take out the front of the building to get in there and do that. And looking in from the street, you could stand on the sidewalk with the big opening in the front, and you could literally see almost all the way back. … It just opened up the restaurant.”
The stained-glass mural above the staircase remains almost completely intact. Interior walls will feature more BBC/Brickyard branding, as well homages to popular brewery labels and the Niagara River.
“The old brewing facility, that was probably our biggest feature change,” Matthews said. “If you remember when you walked in on the left, the brewhouse was readily visible and the guys would work out of there. That brewing system, you know, three-and-a-half years of business and growing the brand, we sort of outgrew that system as it was. The space that the guys had to work in was sort of also a limiting factor moving forward.
“So, like I said, we had a blank slate. All that equipment, everything had to come out anyway. We elected to put an addition on the back of our barrel-aging facility. The new brewing system replaced the current one that was damaged in the fire. Everything got moved out there and production is now fully contained out back.
“And we elected to take that space and make it into more of a private dining area.”
The former brewing room can now potentially seat up to 25 people. Matthews said it would replace a similar setup on the Brickyard side, which was lost when bathrooms were remodeled.
As patrons see progress at the BBC, they eagerly anticipate returning for a meal or a craft beer.
Matthews said, “There's a lot of loose ends. I feel like the major projects are all pretty much accomplished that we have to finish up but, unfortunately, the devils in the details as they were before. You know, it's painting, trim work, caulking – things like that that take forever.”
Accordingly, a summer reopening is expected.
Despite the pandemic, Brickyard customers have come from Cheektowaga, Blasdell and all over Western New York. Ultimately, though, Matthews said Lewiston residents – true to their word – have kept the restaurant, kitchen and brewery staffs bustling.
“We couldn't have done it without the support of the community. It continues to still be almost overwhelming,” he said.
“It's not like we weren't worried about things failing, of course, because that goes through everybody's mind that owned a business in Lewiston. And especially, you know, Ken and Eric, I know for a fact there were sleepless nights for both those guys. They were anxiety-ridden over keeping the ship afloat, so to speak, and keeping people employed. But I will say that the support has been overwhelming,” Matthews said. “It still is fantastic. It's just been nothing short of great.”
Village of Lewiston Mayor Anne Welch and the committee overseeing completion of the inclusive playground at Marilyn Toohey Park met Monday to discuss final preplanning stages. Welch is targeting a mid-May groundbreaking.
The playground equipment is purchased and ready to be assembled under the guidance of Mark Cerrone Inc. and Parkitects. When that process begins, the crew will look to solicit 20 or so community volunteers.
Welch said the municipality is still roughly $100,000 short of its goal. Without additional donations, items that might not make the final cut include a splash pad and pavilion.
Those looking to make a financial contribution can send payment to the clerk’s office at the Red Brick Municipal Building, 145 N. Fourth St.