Long Story Short: Preservation fail; in defense of white vans
Oops, they did it again
It’s a story often heard in Buffalo. This time, the pill is particularly hard to swallow. Downtown lost a 130-year-old Italianate building at 435 Ellicott Street to the wrecker’s ball. The city allowed the structure to deteriorate until it was condemned as unsafe.
The building is one of several owned in and around the historically significant block by downstate resident, Bruce Adler. His company, Buffalo Properties Limited, holds another Ellicott Street property, and three more on North Oak and Genesee streets, all reportedly in disrepair.
Rocco Termini, a local developer who owns, among other things, the nearby Hotel@Lafayette, says he took Adler to housing court fifteen years ago, and nothing came of it, though the city claims they have nothing on record. Termini says he also tried to buy the building on Ellicott Street from Adler because neglect was causing damage to his nearby property at 437 Ellicott. Not long ago, 437 Ellicott was also condemned, but Termini restored it, and today it’s the home of the southern-style restaurant, Toutant. Termini says Adler could have done the same.
Demolition by neglect
Why does the city allow property owners—especially ones holding historically important structures—to let their buildings deteriorate until they have to be destroyed? “This route to demolition begins when an owner neglects basic maintenance on their building,” says preservationready.org, which tracks Buffalo buildings that are deteriorating. “Add to this a lack of proper code enforcement and, at some point, the owner applies for and is granted a permit to demolish the building because of its poor condition.” Preservation.org has a long list of buildings in danger of being lost.
With 435 Ellicott Street, there was plenty of warning. In August, the building’s chimney collapsed, and part of the façade fell. Tenants had to move out, but the city did little to pursue the situation. Lou Petrucci, deputy commissioner of permits and inspection services, cited Adler for multiple violations on August 22, and again in September, but his reports had not reached Housing Court Judge Patrick Carney by the time the roof fell in last week. Adler has been cited numerous times previously for building code violations.
After the August chimney collapse, a tenant, Two Wheel Bakery, had to move out, while their kitchen equipment was temporarily left behind. Owner Susan Adamucci planned to move it all to another location next week. Now the equipment is in some landfill, and Adamucci’s business is shut down.
Social media reaction
Not surprisingly, the preservation community is aghast at this needless loss. Some members believe that the city is too quick to condemn and demolish buildings. Virtually all agree that Housing Court is ineffective, and city leaders are inept. On the Facebook page Preservation-Ready Sites, Patty Macdonald says, in part, “Housing Court is a revolving door, where repeat offenders appear again and again, and consequences are nearly non-existent.” Some people think allowing buildings to be condemned is a local government conspiracy to gain more parking lots.
Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBA)
“I'm not like some of the Facebook commenters,” says Jessie Fisher, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBN), “I don't think there was a nefarious plan by people in City Hall to let this building be demolished.” Fisher says that dealing with these types of “bad actors” is complicated, and she would rather work to develop better systems and solutions for dealing with the problem than rail in the media. Her organization was onsite after the roof collapsed, in a futile effort to stave off demolition, but it was too late.
PBN is also advocating for a Demolition by Neglect Ordinance which, Fisher explains, would “separate out the poor homeowner who can't afford to make repairs from the speculative property purchaser looking to make a big payday at the community's expense. It would cite owners of historic properties under the Preservation Ordinance, which carries a $500-per-day fine rather than the $1500 per violation maximum under the regular building code process.”
Fisher sees Buffalo’s older building stock as an asset. Certainly, one component of the city’s so-called renaissance has been the restoration of many historic buildings (think Larkinville) that have become thriving businesses. PBN has also been working on a receivership program with the city, which would allow judges to put a third party (like PBN or some other mission-based non-profit), in charge of repairing buildings with code violations. It would collect rents to pay the cost.
In this scenario, Two Wheels Bakery could have stayed at 435 Ellicott, and a receiver would have been appointed to collect their rent and put it toward the cost of the repairs. “In 2005, the Common Council passed legislation to put a fund in place to help non-profits do this work,” says Fisher, “but then it never actually got funded.” PBN has hired an attorney, and they’re working on bringing this process back. “There are creative options,” Fisher says, “and preservationists are trying to be at the table offering solutions and are using our own resources to do so.”
Pridgen gets tough on TV
Buffalo Common Council President Darius Pridgen is angry, though many social media commentators believe his vitriol is more photo-op performance than genuine. Too little, too late, they say. In any case, he’s publicly issued an ultimatum for Adler: repair your other properties or get out of town. “They’ve got properties that are boarded up; they have properties that are for sale; they have properties that are not well maintained. If you have money to go out and to hire an attorney,” says Pridgen, in a WIVB interview, “you have money to fix your building, and if you don’t, sell it.” Time will tell if Pridgen puts some teeth behind his threat, or whether his bluster is pure PR.
According to WIVB: “After seeing that Bruce Adler’s Ellicott Street property has been cited for housing court on several occasions without much effect, Pridgen now believes it might be time for the Common Council to make code violations more costly for negligent landlords.”
The accidental creep
I’m that guy in the creepy white van.
The first hint I had that I was driving a suspicious vehicle is when I parked my brand-new van in my daughter-in-law’s driveway. Seeing it, her first words were, “That kinda looks like a creepy child abduction van” (or words to that effect). Since then, others have said similar things. Last week, my wife commented ominously that there are white vans everywhere.
In recent months, a Facebook rumor spread fear of white vans, which are supposedly being used for sex or body-part trafficking, as if those professions would settle on a universal color theme for their abduction vehicles. The panic peaked when the not-so-bright Mayor of Baltimore endorsed the rumors, warning people not to park near white vans. I wholly endorse this, however, as I am dreading my first car door ding. Stay away.
The rumor is not confined to Baltimore. A Sacramento school system sent warning letters home about a creepy white van hanging around the elementary school, picking up kids. It turned out to be one of the student’s grandparents. In Detroit, a handyman reports that he has been followed by people who want to know if there are children in his van. In Conception Bay South, Newfoundland, a man caused a community stir as he drove through his childhood neighborhood sightseeing…in a “scary van.”
You want to know scary? This from Insider News: “The hysteria culminated in the driver of a white van being shot to death outside a Memphis, Tennessee shopping center on November 24, after he was falsely accused of trying to abduct a woman.”
You can’t keep a good rumor down
There have been numerous attempts to quash this urban legend. Facebook is posting a fact-check on some white van posts, warning that they are false. Plenty of news sources have exposed the rumors as untrue, even as they draw more attention to them. To make matters worse, an Australian man was traveling through suburban Sacramento recently on his way to the Burning Man festival in Nevada. He was driving a white van with the words FREE CANDY painted on the outside, accompanied by “bloody” handprints. This caused an uproar because, as everyone knows, homicidal child rapists advertise their hobby in blood on the sides of their creepy white vans. Turns out though, the van driver does give out free candy.
White van man
If this vehicle typecasting isn’t bad enough, beleaguered van drivers in the United Kingdom have another thing to worry about. The phrase “white van man” is an insult there. The phrase is slang for aggressive and inconsiderate drivers of small commercial vans, usually petit bourgeois tradesmen such as plumbers or locksmiths. They are typically fat, dumb, and fond of wolf-whistling and rude hand gestures. There was even a 2011 hit British TV show with that title.
The inside scoop
So, like I said, I’m the guy in the creepy white van. For ten years I drove a Honda Fit, which I loved. But as an artist, I need a means of transporting my work. I wanted something that was cost-efficient to buy, not a chore to drive, and reasonably good on gas mileage. My friend Jess Basil (yeah, that Basil) turned me on to the Ford Transit Connect, which, after I researched numerous other options, turned out to be the vehicle I chose. It comes with no side windows, because it’s not meant for passengers. It’s a commercial vehicle.
But why white? The reason you see so many white vans is because, unless they are special ordered, they’re all white! Asking why vans are white is like asking the same question about artist canvases. Commercial van owners usually add graphics or text on the side panels to advertise their business.
I don’t need any advertising. Thus, creepy white van.
Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.
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