Long Story Short: Historic buildings, classic cars
Long-delayed cultural center reaches tipping point
In the past, LSS has run stories on developers having their way with a city that seems incapable of saying no to anything smacking of economic growth. Buffalo’s nationally acclaimed Green Code has become an open joke among affordable housing advocates, preservationists, and neighborhood activists. But there’s a flip side to this story, in which a socially conscious individual investing in the cultural growth of her community is confronted by myriad obstacles to success.
In 2014, urban planner Rachel Heckl purchased the century-old Richmond Methodist Episcopal Church (shown above), which had sat idle for twenty years on Ferry Circle across from her house. She invested her own money and raised additional funds to turn the deteriorating landmark into what will eventually be called, the Rosana Elizabeth Visual & Performing Arts Campus, a cultural center and office complex focusing on dance. The plans include affordable residential apartments and an art gallery, which replaces a historically inconsequential garage in the back. The church is on the national registry of historic places and is being restored to SHPO and National Parks Service standards.
For three years, Heckl explored dozens of layout iterations to find a workable model. She conferred multiple times with neighbors, potential occupants, investors, foundations, planning experts, and banks. There were numerous appearances before Buffalo’s Preservation, Zoning, and Planning Boards. Deep pocket developers routinely do this sort of thing, but for someone new to the convoluted game, there’s a steep learning curve. Adaptive use developer Sam Savarino joined Heckl in 2017, bringing added experience, and a track record that unlocked funding.
Along the way, to gain Zoning Board approval and allay neighbor concerns, Heckl leased a parking lot on West Ferry near Grant Street for event parking. An adjacent building to the lot at 345 West Ferry was vacant, so she leased it and sublet space in what is now known as The Annex, a co-working space and kitchen.
The church project design was revised several times to accommodate neighbor and financing concerns. Partly to widen road access for existing fire codes, a dilapidated and mostly vacant house at 531 West Ferry Street was purchased, and permission was granted to raze these structures, after feedback from neighbors strongly supported the demolitions. This kind of thing happens regularly with big developers. Seven historic structures were demolished on Elmwood near Forest last year to make way for a large complex requiring numerous code variances.
One big hurdle
In November 2017, a lawsuit was filed by several parties—primarily neighbor Derek Bateman—seeking to rescind minor variances granted by Buffalo’s Zoning Board of Appeals. Though other bordering neighbors support the project, the issue for Bateman and his tenant Heather Connor is the height of the gallery and residential structure that will replace the dilapidated garage adjoining his property. The building height—though fully in compliance with the Green Code—would cast shade on Bateman’s back yard. Bateman also feels it’s too bulky for the neighborhood (though nobody seems to mind the massive church).
The gallery and eight apartments will be built on the exact footprint of the existing structure and are precisely what the Green Code strives to achieve: an urban fabric comprising houses and stacked units, punctuated with commercial and cultural buildings that generate activity. The code does not require sunny backyards for homeowners (it’s debatable how much shade will be cast anyway). Property owners have the right to build on their land. And that’s what the courts determined.
The Bateman et al suit was heard in Buffalo in February 2018 and was dismissed. In fall of 2018, the plaintiffs appealed the decision, and, on July 5, 2019, the NYS Supreme Court upheld the decision and denied the appeal. There is currently no other known court action. On August 21, a demolition permit was granted for the garage, and it was taken down later that day.
Heckl permitted the Buffalo Fire Department (BFD) to use the abandoned house at 531 West Ferry for training exercises, a common practice with structures slated for demolition. The BFD exercises have been publicly questioned by Heather Connor and Highland Avenue resident Hope Hoetzer-Cook. Complaints about the demolition and claims of an active lawsuit (which does not exist as of this writing) have reached the ears of Tim Ball, the lead attorney for the city, and Heckl fears this could cause further demolition delays.
John Wawrow and Mary Lou Shanks—who live at 533 West Ferry—believe a vocal few are dominating the conversation. In a letter sent Friday to city representatives, they write: “This latest delay in the demolition of the home is most troublesome for various reasons… We are more than in favor of 531 West Ferry coming down because it has sat vacant for nearly four years, and I can’t imagine it’s livable while dilapidating directly next to our home…should Ms. Heckl run out of money and or patience and drop the project entirely, what is our neighborhood stuck with then, but a crumbling home and a hole in the ground?” The homeowners have delayed work on their own house while waiting for the slated demolition to take place.
“We need the house gone to complete work on the alley side of the church,” says Heckl. And she asks the question: “Which is worse, letting an art center fail, to appease a few protestors, or demo a dilapidated structure to restore a historical church?”
The Buffalo News published an article Thursday, which included the inaccurate claim that there is an ongoing court case. Though the group’s attorney, Richard Lippes asserts that they are asking to have the case heard by the Court of Appeals (which he concedes is unlikely), nothing is filed. The article also states that Heckl is “seeking to knock down two houses,” which is also inaccurate. It’s one house, for which permission has already been granted and upheld by the courts.
In the News article, Lippes calls the city's position “regrettable, given that the State Office of Historic Preservation (SHPO) had recommended further review before approving a plan it said violated two state preservation laws and would adversely affect the environment of the district.” In a letter to Buffalo’s Director of Planning, SHPO did urge reconsideration of two aspects of the project in light of Preservation Law regulations (though these aspects had been reconsidered numerous times already), but the letter concludes with this very important sentence: “The dramatic adaptive reuse of this key historic building is a significant preservation benefit to the district. As such, we would encourage the Lead Agency to also take this into consideration as they weigh the negative and positive preservation impacts of the overall project.”
Though she was not consulted for the News article, on Friday Heckl was preparing a public statement that starts out, “We are thrilled to begin substantial construction on the Rosana Elizabeth Visual & Performing Arts Campus, after overcoming two years of unfounded lawsuits against the project.” Heckl believes residents sometimes hide behind preservation issues to oppose added urban density and affordable housing in affluent neighborhoods. “I’m sick of hearing all of this ‘not in my backyard’ nonsense, talking about the importance of the neighborhood fabric,” says Heckl, “They are protecting their status quo.”
Forty-two years ago, my wife and I moved into a Queen Anne Victorian house on Auburn Avenue around the corner from the church. We restored the structure because we value historic architecture and the character of our West Side neighborhood. As an artist-member of the so-called “creative class,” I also value culture over condos, affordable housing over upscale apartments, dance studios over vape shops. That’s my bias. Which is why I want to see this project move forward. This is a woman-owned business attempting to build a community-based cultural resource, while rescuing a historic building that might otherwise have collapsed or been converted into even more apartments. This isn’t big development run amuck (there’s plenty of that to be found elsewhere).
Unfortunately, the resulting clash has pitted friend against friend and divided cultural allies (I know and like the parties on both sides of the dispute), and it has hurt the business of prospective tenants. Heckl has gained many partners at city hall along the way, but as she approaches the end of the marathon, new hurdles keep appearing.
This just in
The State Appeals Court upheld a ruling that clears the way for the Cellino versus Barnes case to move forward. Unless there is a further appeal, the feuding partners, who can still be seen stiffly smiling on TV commercials, must also set up a receiver to oversee their business affairs while the case goes to trial. Cellino says the two are irreconcilably pissed at each other, so the business can’t operate properly. Barnes says, hey, we’re still raking in a million dollars a month; what’s not to love? Cellino says the marriage is over.
Barnes lost the round.
Barnes’ attorney, Christopher Berloth, says they are weighing their options in the case, which will no doubt be studied in law schools around the country someday. Barnes could still appeal the ruling to the State Court of Appeals. Fine by us. The whole thing is just so entertaining, we hate to see it end.
Seymour and the first American Rolls-Royce
World War I had ended, and the British-based Rolls-Royce (RR) company knew that a factory in the US would help the company penetrate the booming American market. So, Rolls-Royce of America was incorporated in October 1919, and Springfield, Massachusetts was chosen as the site for the new factory. Indian Motorcycle was acquired by RR in 1920, and the company retooled for production.
The next year, Seymour Knox Jr. turned 23, and his mom thought a car would be just the right gift. The Springfield operation was not yet up to speed, but momma Knox was able to commission a one-of-a-kind RR model from them, using a chassis imported from England. This British-American hybrid turned out to be the prototype for a new class of car, the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost Runabout: Gentleman's Roadster. Knox Jr. had the first one ever made. Knox Jr. owned the car until his death in 1990. In his later years, he only drove it around his Aurora estate (now Knox Farm State Park). “It was his farm car,” says Buffalo automobile enthusiast Dave Corbett, who is planning a celebration at the former Knox estate for the centennial celebration of the US Rolls factory, as well as the Bentley Motor company, which was founded the same year. The car, which was christened Seymour after Knox's death, is no longer in WNY; its current owner is Scotts Valley, California resident Scott Kriens, chairman and former CEO of Juniper Networks, which controls about 30% of all internet routers. He bought it eleven years ago for $435,000.
Even though they won't see Seymour, there is a big treat in store for local car lovers on September 1, from 11 a.m.–4 p.m.. As part of Corbett’s centennial celebration for RR America and Bentley Motors, at least twenty vintage cars will be on view at Knox Farm State Park, during a day of croquet, picnic fare, mansion tours, and the opportunity to view some of Buffalo’s top artists working live. Corbett is encouraging “summer-whites or vintage wear.” Admission is $25. To RSVP, phone/text Dave Corbett 716-200-6269.
What’s the deal with Bentley?
“In 1919, W.O. Bentley founded his car company, specializing in superb handmade automobiles, famous for rugged durability, and excessive speed,” says Corbett. “The toys of the daring ‘Bentley Boys’ (obnoxious wealthy men who wiped oil and dirt off their goggles with expensive silk scarves) swept the twenty-four hours of LeMans in 1928 through 1930. Famed playboy racer, Wolfe Barnato bought the company and navigated its merger with Rolls-Royce in 1933.”
A Barnato/Bentley story
In 1930, Woolf Barnato, chairman of Bentley, bragged that his Bentley Speed Six could beat the famous "Le train bleu" express. He claimed he could drive from Cannes to his club in London before the train reached Calais. The bet was for £100. Barnato and his backup driver were met with heavy rain and fog, and, at one point, had trouble finding a refueling rendezvous. They also had a flat tire, which they changed with a spare. Yet, they still made it to the Conservative Club in London four minutes before the Blue Train reached Calais. French police then fined Barnato—for racing on public roads—far more than he won in the bet, and the Bentley company was excluded from the 1930 Paris Salon.
Artist and educator Bruce Adams is a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.
Get Long Story Short delivered directly to your mailbox as an enewsletter. Sign up today.