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Preservation / Checking in with PBN

The future of the Crosby buildings seems assured.

Photo by Nancy J. Parisi


In Buffalo, a preservationist’s work is never done. Despite the heartening series of historic renovation and reuse projects that the city has seen over the past decade, there are still a troubling number of endangered structures and neighborhoods throughout Western New York. Preservation Buffalo Niagara’s (PBN) executive director Jessie Fisher tries to remain upbeat as she assesses the current situation and discusses PBN’s priorities and plans. We caught up with her in late July to discuss a few hot topics.


PBN's executive director, Jesse Fisher

Photo by kc kratt


What about the endangered churches?

We lost a heartbreaking one this week. The First German Baptist church, built in 1869 and one of the ten oldest in Buffalo, was finally taken down a couple weeks ago. We tried to work with the owners, but they were determined. There are at least a dozen churches that are in similar condition—and that’s just within the city of Buffalo. We need to take a comprehensive approach to conserving religious architecture in Western New York. St. Ann’s and St. Gerard’s are still in limbo. There is actually a congregation that wants to use St. Matthew’s on East Ferry, but they will need to do a lot of work there. We’re trying to work with them. We’re trying to document all the at-risk structures and come up with an approach to essentially triage them. We want this church we just lost to be the last. Churches are more than  just beautiful architecture. They tell the story of Buffalo and its ethnic communities. We would like to be able to identify emergency loans and grants that could help save these structures.


Is there a comprehensive list of everything that needs to be protected, including churches?

It’s a tall order because it seems like everything could be historic. We love Buffalo because of the collection of historic buildings and neighborhoods. We’re trying to do more survey work, but there are very few resources available to do the survey work. We’re working with two neighborhoods right now: the Fruit Belt and Broadway-Fillmore. We’ve applied for grants to do surveys in both these neighborhoods. In Broadway-Fillmore, the city did a survey in 2003, but thirteen years is a long time, so we’re updating that and looking into creating an historic district there. Redeveloping the Central Terminal becomes a much stronger project if the neighborhood surrounding it is stronger. 


Is there news on the at-risk properties from our last discussion in March?

They’re all still standing, so that’s good! The Crosby family has put their demolition plans on hold and they’re working on stabilizing the building and figuring out a long-term use. Housing and other traditional uses might not be compatible, so it will take a while. The city has rereleased an RFP for the North Park Library, but it does not contain a stipulation that the building has to stay. Hopefully, they will not select a developer that will tear those buildings down. Then, the Bachelor is the most endangered of the three. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo has launched a lawsuit. We support the principle of that action—when the board that has been delegated the authority to say whether something is a landmark can be overruled by the Common Council with no real explanation as to why, that is very problematic for preservation in Buffalo. 


Any updates on the potential demolitions on Elmwood Avenue?

At Bidwell and Elmwood, Ciminelli has had a series of public meetings, but no plans have been released. We know that those buildings are contributing structures in a National Register historic district and they could be individually nominated as well. We also know that the neighborhood is pretty staunchly opposed to losing those buildings. 


The larger issue on Elmwood is the debate about community character. You can look at these projects as individual projects or you can ask what will be the cumulative effect of losing all these older spaces and getting all these new ones. Older, affordable housing and storefronts are being replaced with upscale development; you have to ponder what the future of the community will be. The argument is that the development would make the community denser, which many find to be positive. I would argue that money is like water—it flows in the easiest direction. If all the money goes to developments where you can charge $1400 a month for rent, then that capitol won’t go to developments where you can charge less. We could radically alter the density of the Elmwood neighborhood, or we could say that the current density, on every score of walkability, mass transportation, etc., is very, very, good, and that there are other communities in Buffalo that could really use increases in density. If we allow all the development to happen in one neighborhood, we’re really writing off all the neighborhoods that have low density.


Buildings like these have long provided affordable storefront and residential rental space, but those metrics are changing. 


As for the proposed Elmwood/Forest development, it will add density, but, again, it depends on whether you believe that all density is good density. It’s a very upscale market that they’re targeting with those condo units. It doesn’t meet the exiting zoning or the proposed Green Code zoning. The community there has spent decades trying to articulate a vision for its future, and to have it blatantly ignored by developers with no word from the city in terms of upholding the law is troubling. This is another wait-and-see. 


The problem is that there is no more affordable housing or storefronts on Elmwood; buildings like these (at Forest) are rundown and not spectacular architecturally, but that makes them affordable to the college student, to the waiter, to the struggling artist. Is it OK that we’re saying Elmwood will no longer have the economic diversity that it has had? We’re rounding a corner.


What about the high-rise development planned for the site where the old Freezer Queen building is now?

This is really a battle for the soul of how we develop the Outer Harbor.  Every warehouse and loft building in Buffalo has been declared an eyesore by somebody who said it needed to be demolished and replaced with something new, including 500 Seneca. This is what makes Buffalo special, these places. It’s hard to look at Freezer Queen right now and get excited, but that building, cleaned out and with public uses, could be our Navy Pier. And if you don’t care about this building, you might care about the next National Register-eligible building that gets ignored by the planning board when someone wants to demolish it. It’s the culture that’s at issue. 


One way to look at it is that once all the historic buildings are torn down, no more tax credit money will flow into Buffalo from the federal and state governments.


Changing the culture about how Buffalo regards historic preservation is a task that is at the heart of Preservation Buffalo Niagara’s mission. This month, PBN celebrates and affirms that mission with its annual awards presentation and reception on October 13, 6–9 p.m., in the atrium at 500 Seneca. Call 852-3300 or visit preservationbuffaloniagara.org for more information.    



Elizabeth Licata is editor of Spree

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