Preservation Ready: Shopping the demo list
A dollar and a dream—is it possible that these two elements are all you need to rescue a potentially beautiful home from the city of Buffalo’s scrapheap? Maybe. If you know the right people and have the savvy and persistence it takes to negotiate the system, you could be a winner in the building salvage sweepstakes. Many of the vacant properties on the demolition list are there because they first fell into the hands of the city for non-payment of taxes, and then deteriorated further as they remained unoccupied.
Recently, we looked at two buildings that had been scheduled for demolition. As of press time, it looked like one of them was on the way to reuse.
550 7th Street
This frame Italianate was built around the mid-1870s, when A. M. Bruen owned the lot. According to Spree researcher Dana Saylor, Victorian additions were probably made between the late 1800s and 1910. The architect is unknown (no plans available at City Hall).
Preservation activist Bernice Radle, who works for Buffalo Energy, says, “This house should and can be saved. It has a great foundation, a dry basement, and a ton of character. It’s structurally sound. But if you buy a house like this from the city, they want proof that you have the funds to fix it. If a few caring people bought properties on 7th Street, it would greatly improve the neighborhood.”
Jason Wilson, who worked for Preservation Buffalo Niagara adds, “The city cannot provide a flow chart on how to purchase these properties, and it does not actively market them.”
1249 Niagara Street
Here’s a combined commercial and residential property that’s surrounded by Buffalo history. The two-story, federal-style brick structure features dentil molding, bands of transom windows (now covered), and classical supports. It’s located between Breckenridge and Auburn Avenues in the historic center of Black Rock. Directly across the street is the Old Union Meeting House, or Breckenridge Church, which is the oldest standing church in Buffalo, and diagonally across the street is the site of the home of Peter Porter. Porter was instrumental in the early growth of Buffalo and the procuring of federal aid for the Erie Canal; he was also a general during the War of 1812, and did his best to defend Buffalo and Black Rock.
In the late nineteenth century, this neighborhood was filled with saloon-keepers, firemen, millers, and other blue-collar citizens of the bustling city. In 1910, Christopher Shickluna, founder of the Shickluna bicycle store, operated his business here; it later moved to 1223 Niagara, and is now located on Hertel.
An informal process
How exactly can an interested buyer save a structure like 1249 Niagara from the demolition list? Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of the Office of Strategic Planning for the city of Buffalo, says it can be done rather easily—with caveats. Mehaffy explains that structures on the demolition list are there because they present a sliding scale of barriers to redevelopment. They are not publically listed because of those barriers, and a few other reasons, but if an interested party knows about a building slated for demolition, and wishes to buy it, he or she can call the city’s Division of Real Estate. The financial ability to renovate must be demonstrated. As Mehaffy explains, “We have a large inventory of buildings and often people take over a house and don’t follow through. Then the house sits there and continues to deteriorate.”
Mehaffy says that his office is very interested in preservation, but also states that not every structure can be saved.
A demolition frenzy
According to a well-reported series on vacancies and demolitions that recently appeared in the Buffalo News, it costs between $18,000 to $20,000 to knock down a house in Buffalo. Reporters Susan Schulman and Dan Herbeck also wrote that Buffalo now demolishes two to three times as many houses as Rochester and up to ten times as many as Syracuse. Finally, Buffalo demolitions are up twenty-nine percent since Anthony Masiello was mayor. Over $53 million dollars have been spent on demolitions under Mayor Byron Brown’s administration, which, at the time of the May 9 article, had completed 3,200 demolitions.
While there is no question that vacant and dilapidated buildings bring with them danger and the possibility of illegal activity, there is also no question that blocks of empty lots present an almost equally deleterious appearance of urban blight. Not all the vacant buildings on the demolition list need to be demolished. According to Bernice Radle, Jason Wilson, and many others, potential owners are ready to rehab and bring many of these buildings back to life—revitalizing at-risk neighborhoods in the process.
Elizabeth Licata is editor of Buffalo Spree.
Contact the city of Buffalo at 716-851-5277 regarding buildings on the demo list. This series is undertaken in collaboration with the Facebook groups Preservation Ready Sites and Buffalo’s Young Preservationists. Thanks to Bernice Radle, Jason Wilson, David Steele, and Frits Abell. Research assistant is provided by Dana Saylor, Old Time Roots. Articles referenced include Schulman, Susan and Herbeck, Dan, “The Wrecking Crew,” the Buffalo News, 5/9/12.