Developing: Radle and Wilson
Preservationists Bernice Radle and Jason Wilson begin a new adventure
“If we really want to see our neighborhoods come back, we need a financing model that makes them more accessible.”
~ Bernice Radle
“The silver bullets aren’t going to do it. It’s going to be the slow organic growth happening in the neighborhoods.”
~ Jason Wilson
Nestled within a quiet residential neighborhood just south of Lafayette Avenue and east of Niagara Street is a cozy brick cottage that almost became a vacant lot. The house, located at 1029 West Avenue, was the subject of a demolition permit request brought before the Buffalo Preservation Board last January. The gutted structure had no architectural or historical significance; on the permit request, the bureaucratic “N/A” was written in the space indicating what year the house had been constructed. But thanks to a little detective work and the ambitious dream of a determined couple, the cottage was spared.
Bernice Radle and Jason Wilson now own the 1479-square-foot property, which reminds them of the brick bungalows on Little Summer Street. Active in Buffalo’s Young Preservationists and numerous other grassroots organizations, they recently cofounded Buffa-Love Development, which focuses on preservation and sustainability. In the past two years, the activists have helped with the rehab of five other neglected residential properties.
“This house is unique because we saved it from demolition,” explains Wilson, director of operations for Preservation Buffalo Niagara. The house is also special because they plan to make it their home. “We’d been longing for a cottage,” says Radle, who works as a project manager for Buffalo Energy, a consultant in green building initiatives. “Why would we spend money on a fixer-upper when we could save this one?” Wilson adds.
When he first found out about the proposed demolition last winter, Wilson looked up the property, marveled at the photos of a house with unpretentious charm and potential, and shared the information with Radle. The two tracked down the owner’s email address, sent him a message—and heard back right away. Upon learning that the man was about to pay fifteen thousand dollars for a demolition, they asked if he would consider donating or selling the property instead.
The owner (who has asked to remain anonymous) had previously installed new electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems, but was forced to abandon his renovation because of Buffalo Housing Court violations. When Wilson and Radle offered to buy the house, as well as pay off any back taxes and fees, he was immediately receptive. Terry
Robinson, the representative from Preservation Buffalo Niagara on the Buffalo Preservation Board, informed board members of the proposed transaction. The vote to table the demolition request was unanimous.
Radle and Wilson paid a final transaction amount of roughly six thousand dollars, which included the seller’s closing costs, back taxes, past contractor bills, and a one-dollar purchase price for the house. On August 5, after several months of administrative hurdles, the couple officially closed on 1029 West Avenue.
Over the next few months, they intend to clean up any lingering rodent carcasses and other debris, and transform the old house into an energy-efficient abode. Their timeline to complete an affordable green rehab that includes cathedral ceilings and solar panels is impressive. By late spring, they hope to be done with most of the work; they plan to be all moved in no later than June 1, 2014. (Spree will keep in touch with the couple and update readers on their progress in the coming months.)
Little is known about the exact history of the cottage, whose Eleventh Ward neighborhood was part of the original Village of Black Rock before it was annexed by the city of Buffalo. The Parcel Detail Report from City Hall indicates 1890 as the year that the house was built. A PDF on buffaloah.com entitled Intensive Level Historic Resources Survey that highlights the Grant-Forest-Ferry neighborhoods during the nineteenth century includes a photo of the West Avenue property and notes that it was built around 1860. (One-way West Avenue was originally named Washington, and Lafayette Avenue was named Bouck.) An 1872 map of the Eleventh Ward and city directories from the 1880s and early 1890s reveal that for a time, the cottage belonged to John Lewis, an insurance agent with the downtown Buffalo German Insurance Company.
As intrigued as Radle and Wilson are by local history—they’d love to know who the very first owner was, for one thing—they’re much more concerned about the future. It’s a concern that extends beyond the perimeters of the West Side neighborhood they’ve come to love. Several thousand In Rem foreclosures occur in Buffalo each year, and many of them are abandoned homes in low-income communities ripe for urban renewal. Radle and Wilson wonder why more can’t be done to connect forgotten properties with eager homebuyers, including immigrants who may only be able to pay cash? Why not make the information about houses on the demolition docket more accessible to the public? Why not establish a revolving loan fund that could help new homeowners fix up their properties, thereby reinforcing a mutual commitment to the community? “If there was money available to rehab houses like this, we would see more jobs created and more houses back on the tax roll,” Radle says emphatically.
Wilson says that Preservation Buffalo Niagara would like to partner with Buffalo Housing Court to ease the burden for busy city workers while opening up opportunities for aspiring homeowners. “We’re in the process of establishing a housing court liaison program to work with the court to identify similar properties in similar situations,” he explains. Though the concept is in its early stages, he is optimistic.
Bernice Radle and Jason Wilson, two millennials in love with Buffalo, are putting their money, time, and energy where their idealism is. They know firsthand that historic buildings and architectural masterpieces—not neighborhood homes—tend to garner the most interest, not to mention headlines. Even so, to anyone who cares about the future of a Rust Belt city, they’ll also point out the abandoned houses just down the street or around the corner. In the meantime, the young couple can’t wait to get started on the hard and wonderful work of renovating their brick cottage. And when their home is finally ready, Radle says with a puckish grin, the mayor is cordially invited to help them cut the ribbon.
Gwen Ito lives and works in the city of Buffalo.