Preserve or Demolish: An Ongoing Impasse
By Anna Geronimo Hausmann
All photographs in this article © Jim Bush.
Last October, Jessie Schnell, an urban planner with Flynn Battaglia Architects, PC and a member of the Landmark Society and the New Millennium Group, started hearing from some friends in city hall that two buildings on Genesee Street were scheduled for demolition. “I kept hearing ‘they’re on the list, they’re coming down,’ but I couldn’t really confirm it, so finally I just called Joe Ryan’s office and he said, yes, they were to be demolished.” Joseph Ryan, Commissioner of Buffalo’s Office for Strategic Planning, basically told Schnell that if someone came up with a solid plan maybe the buildings could be saved. That’s when Schnell contacted the New Millennium Group and the National Trust for Historic Preservation and came up with a plan to finance an engineer’s study of the buildings’ condition. In response, Mayor Masiello stopped the demolitions and said he’d be thrilled to work with both groups to find a more creative use for the buildings, if possible.
Photograph of the Central Terminal
Sounds like a great example of city government working hard to save Buffalo’s historic buildings, right? Except that, in fact, the city had already saved these buildings. The buildings are already included in Buffalo’s downtown portion of the master plan. They were slated to be rehabbed as mixed use residential and retail. This master plan, in case you wondered, is the golden child of none other than the Office of Strategic Planning. So this is really an example of how completely dysfunctional Buffalo’s planning office ishow, in the words of Scot Fisher, president of Righteous Babe Records and personal manager for Ani DiFranco, “there is absolutely no plan in our city for preservation.”
“We Live in an Old Growth Forest”
Buffalo is a city with lots of beautiful, unique, old buildings. If you haven’t traveled much, this rather transparent observation may not mean much to you. We tend to take this fact of our existence for granted. We drive past the faded elegance of the houses, street after street of them, with their grand porches and leaded glass and eye-popping woodwork. If you don’t believe that this abundance of architectural riches is the exception rather than the rule, travel to any other city in the country. You’ll see some celebrated neighborhoods with beautiful old Victorian housesin Boston, San Francisco, even some neighborhoods of Pittsburgh or Chicago. Oh, you’ll find mid-eighteenth century streets in Boston’s North End, ante-bellum mansions in Charleston or Richmond, stunning southwest architecture in Santa Fe, nineteenth century row-houses in almost any old eastern city. In fact, there are small pockets of nice historic buildings in most old cities. But where in this country could you find such a concentration of architectural treasures, so many examples of design mastersFrank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, H.H. Richardson, E. B. Green, to name only the most famousso many instances of high Victorian architecture, each street a smorgasbord of treasures.
As Scot Fisher puts it, “We live in an old growth forest. It’s not any one tree that is so spectacular, it’s the fact that they’re all together, it’s the forest.” And, indeed, that is what makes Buffalo stand out. It’s not just the spectacular buildings, the Darwin Martin, the Richardson complex, the Guarantee Building, the Central Terminal; as Fisher notes, these are so obviously valuable that saving them is a no-brainer. Rather, it’s the abundance of quaint, charming, soaring, unique buildings that are also our regular, everyday buildings, the vernacular, as the preservationists say. “In Buffalo, even poor people get to live in beautiful houses,” says Fisher, and you can’t underestimate how much that contributes to a community.
Scot Fisher in front of the Asbury Methodist Church on Delaware and Tupper, a building his company, Righteous Babe Records, is saving.
This fact is at the heart of the current preservation debates. Right now, Buffalo is re-creating itself for the new century. Through the creation and implementation of its master plan, it is reifying its own image. What we will be. What we will look like. And what we value. Buffalo is engaged in a great debate about whether it can afford to maintain, regain, and integrate its architectural gems or whether it needs to sell the family jewels to pay the light bill. It is in the enviable position of having an embarrassment of architectural riches. But, unlike Manhattan or San Francisco, where every square inch of real estate is economically viable, we are lacking the need and the money to keep using these buildings. Some say we’ve contracted so much as a community, we just don’t need all these hundreds of wood frame houses and brick buildings. Some say today’s businesses just can’t use buildings with eleven-foot ceilingsthe design is wrong, they just aren’t functional.
But there are dissenting voices out there, voices that speak to the need to hang onto our past, to view our architectural heritage as a resource. These people believe fixing and using old buildings contributes to making neighborhoods safer, environments cleaner, and the community richer. They believe that restored old buildings play a much larger role in Buffalo’s dynamic future than just as large, three-dimensional art pieces.
“We’ve Chosen Demolition”
When it comes to preservation, there are two categories or classes of buildings to think aboutthe commercial buildings, which are generally large, possibly former factories, usually made of brick, and the basic eighty or hundred year old wood frame house in the neighborhood, the vernacular. And separate from these are the massive, landmark buildings such as the Central Terminal, the H. H Richardson complex, and the Asbury Methodist Church on Delaware Avenue. The three types are distinct, and they receive somewhat different treatment from the city entities responsible for dealing with themthe inspections department, the housing court, and the Office of Strategic Planning. But linking them all is an overall city administration attitude informed by the philosophy, bordering on a mantra, that we are a smaller and poorer city than we were fifty years ago, that we don’t have the money to fix them all, and that we don’t have the need for them all. In Commissioner Ryan’s words, “Preservation is a long-term commitment. When you enter late in the game, you have to triage your buildings. You have to be judicious about where you make your investments. So we’re constantly making these choices, these tradeoffs.... Let me ask you, where would you spend precious dollars? If you put historic preservation on the list, I can tell you what census tracks would rank it high. It’s not important enough to outrank something else on the list like a safe neighborhood, good schools, or a clean environment.”
Jason Yots, an attorney with Hodgson Russ and a member of the New Millennium Group, responds, “I’m sympathetic to that view, but our theory is that we should not be prioritizing and letting the least desirable things fall by the wayside. We understand the city doesn’t have the resources to handle everything, but we’re saying let us help you to do more. There are other groups in the city besides ours very willing to help. In other cities, non-governmental agencies have played a tremendous role in redeveloping urban cores, even taking on the implementation of policy. But here it seems to be a bit of a mindset issue.”
Housing court judge Diana Devlin in front of the Vernors building.
This “mindset” has led to a sort of tunnel vision in city hall. Boxed in by the huge numbers of buildings ending up on the city’s hands via owners who are unable or unwilling to maintain their properties, the city has turned to demolition as its solution. The Mayor has promised five thousand demolitions next year. There is a six-month backlog of demolition orders in the city’s housing court. The city has a $3.5 million budget line for demolitions but no budget at all for emergency repairs, even though the same law that gives the city the power to order demolitions and place a lien against a property owner also empowers it to order repairs and bill the owner. “We’ve chosen demolition over repair,” says Jessie Schnell, “but I’m not sure why.”
Demolition Policy or Preservation Policy?
Many people are disturbed by the city’s current practices, which they refer to as “demolition by neglect.” Right now, you can’t demolish a building without proper paperwork from the city, including, if it’s in a preservation district, permission from the city’s Preservation Boardexcept for an emergency demolition order. But it is pretty widely assumed by preservationists and city officials, including housing inspectors and housing court Judge Diane Y. Devlin, that building owners can and do work the system, ignoring court ordered repairs, and taking the fines until their building is in such a state of disrepair that it is a hazard and has to come down. “We call that ‘Sandorizing,’” explains chief housing inspector Lou Petrucci. “After Jimmy Sandora, the guy who owned a whole group of buildings, including the Maria Love House, the first day care center in the United States, that was demolished by the city as a safety hazard a few years ago.”
Petrucci explains that owners hope that by holding onto a building eventually someone will offer them a lot of money for it, just for the location. “Unfortunately, it has happened enough that they still hope. They have this feeling that something’s going to come, they think it’s still the 1960s or 1970s,” when whole blocks were leveled for big projects. Petrucci says that when inspectors cite buildings for code violations, the owners often come into court with a raft of blueprints and letters attesting that they are waiting for some big deal, they have to wait for federal funding or state funding, some complicated story, so the judge gives them an adjournment and another six months go by and the deal falls through; meanwhile the building is six months closer to being a safety hazard.
Preservationists point to a number of buildings that they feel are being “Sandorized”including the Vernors building, the Schmidt building, also known as the Pierce-Arrow garage, both in the 700 block of Main Street, and the Webb building, further downtown on Pearl Street, among others.
In the case of the Vernors building, Scot Fisher explains, “the owner had gotten an emergency demolition order and our company had to file a lawsuit against the city to stop the demolition. We hired an engineer who found that the building wasn’t a safety threat at all, but now the building just sits and I’m sure the owner is just waiting for it to get in worse shape.” Then there’s the Webb building, owned by Carl Paladino. That building, says Fisher, has a leaking roof and “you can guarantee that in another year or so he’ll be coming to the Preservation Board asking for an emergency demolition.” According to Petrucci, the building could well have a leaking roof, but he doesn’t know because he can’t go in to inspect without the owner’s consent. “People don’t want to let you through their buildings. If I can’t get in, or can’t get a lift or a helicopter onto an adjacent building, it becomes a very complex situation, someone’s word against the owner’s in court. The owner has been ordered to do some work, and he has done some exterior work, but the case is still active in court and we just don’t know if he’s done any interior work.”
Petrucci explains that the problem is not just that the city needs more inspectors or that they need to be proactive with owners. First, it’s virtually impossible to be proactive because unless there are code violations the city can’t force owners to do anything. And, second, even in the case of court ordered repairs, the city can’t make owners obey the court orders except through fines, community service, or jail time and, ultimately, demolition. But the city does have the power to get repairs done, it just won’t use it.
Like others, Petrucci points out that the city is empowered to make repairs to a building and bill the owner. “The city has historically not made repairs, I don’t know why. Other municipalities repair roofs and seal the buildings and sit on them until they get a use. That’s what Willard Gingrich, who owns buildings at Genesee and Oak, has done. They don’t look pretty from the outside, but those buildings are structurally fine. They don’t have water in them, they aren’t deteriorating; they’re just waiting for a new use and they can sit like that for a long time.”
But without a budget line for repairs, there isn’t much the housing judge can do. Judge Devlin says, “I know there used to be some type of receivership program that would take the properties and any income from rents would go toward repairs, I’m not sure why that ended. There’s also been some discussion of putting fine money in a fund for repairs instead of having it go into the general fund.” But, as Scot Fisher notes, “we put three and a half million dollars toward demolition and nothing toward repairs, there’s something wrong with that.” Jessie Schnell notes that Covington, Kentucky, a much smaller city than Buffalo, has spent $650,000 mothballing its old buildings and getting them ready for redevelopment. According to Petrucci, a completely new roof can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but a relatively small roof repair, fixing leaks, can avoid substantial damage. “Just resealing flashing and seams on a roof can be very, very inexpensive, less than a hundred dollars,” he says.
But as disturbing as it is to hear about owners sitting on buildings waiting for the big deal, it is even more disturbing to hear this about the city. According to Petrucci, this is essentially what is happening to several of the city-owned buildings in the block of Main Street between Allen and Virginia, in the Allentown Preservation District. On that block, the city owns the buildings at numbers 844, 848, 852 and the old mansion at 860; in addition, several other properties on the block are in various stages of distress and will likely go to the city for back taxes. Petrucci describes the buildings on that block as “each one a unique nightmare.” Petrucci tried to buy one property and after nearly a year of waiting and having to pay for his own assessment of the property, the city finally told him they were going to sit on it until someone came along with an interest in buying it. But the property he tried to buy, 844, now has severe water damage inside and is becoming a likely candidate for an emergency demolition. This is, by the way, the same block on which librarian and preservationist Cynthia Van Ness tried to buy a building and was similarly told that the city was waiting for the big deal to happen. Meanwhile, the buildings languish.
When she heard about the Genesee Street buildings, Jessie Schnell submitted to the city a sweeping, proactive demolition policy. Schnell proposed that the New Millennium Group partner with the city to “identify Downtown’s architectural and historical assets and develop a system whereby these resources will be protected until such time as their re-use becomes feasible.” Essentially, Schnell proposed a preservation policy to replace the current drive to demolition. The proposal contains three elements: to survey and catalogue downtown buildings, noting especially those on or eligible for the National Historic Register and those in imminent danger; to look at the city’s current demolition practices and laws and to survey “best practices” from cities around the country; and to make recommendations for demolition policies and mechanisms. Explains Jason Yots of the New Millennium Group, “we wanted to create a catalog of buildings and put in place a series of steps and public input that could be followed for an at-risk building before you get a call at six on a Friday night that the crane is pulling up.”
The idea for the New Millennium Group’s proposal was generated by this general crisis nature of preservation, but also by the demolition several months ago of the old Kittinger Furniture factory on Elmwood Avenue in North Buffalo. That factory came down with no notice and apparently not having received the proper permits. “We were very disturbed by the way that demolition occurred,” Yots says. “That just showed us that if it can happen there, it can happen in any building downtown with no one raising a fuss.” Lucy Cook, a resource development specialist in the Office of Strategic Planning, says that her office is in the process of “looking at how we do demolitions. We’re currently in the research stage of things. Our long range goal is to sit down with the preservation board, with our staff, with the National Trust, and with community preservation groups and evaluate what we do now and develop a process to allow us to protect and preserve our total urban fabric. Our goal is to integrate preservation into everything we do. We anticipate having this done within the next six months.”
For although the developers, and some city hall types, may try to tell you that money is the key ingredient, it’s not. What matters most is that the people want to save a building, and to foster that desire they need to be aware of the risk.
Cook notes that her office was recently chosen by the National Trust to participate in its Community Exchange Program, which funds fifteen people from Buffalo to travel to another city that’s had preservation success and gather information about their policies and practices. Cook says that they envision not only city hall staff participating, but people from the community, “bankers, developers, and preservation advocates as well.” On the charge that maybe her office should have developed such a comprehensive policy before now, Cook responds: “We recognize the value of a coordinated effort. But people have to understand that it’s not as simple as saying ‘wait, a minute, change this.’ It’s something we need to look at and the important thing is we’re making it a priority now.” Jason Yots questions whether the old way of getting things done will really get it done, “I’m afraid if they do a survey, it could just be one more project they complete and it sits on a shelf. It’s follow-through that’s key.”
This is a well-founded fear. As Tim Tielman, Executive Director of the Buffalo Preservation Coalition, points out, the city has already engaged in such a survey and it does, indeed, sit on a shelf. “Buffalo was surveyed by the National Historic Trust in the 1970’s; I’ve got a three inch file folder of it.” In addition, Tielman says the city has a list of a hundred or so at-risk buildings. Added to this multiplication of effort is the serious lack of communication regarding the much-vaunted, forthcoming master plan, as shown in the example of the Genesee Street buildings. Cook’s response to the mixed signals from the city regarding their intentions for those buildingsone office has them slated to be rehabbed, the same office okays their demolitionis “do things get missed? Sure. If people want to be part of the process and help, great. But if they just want to criticize, that’s not helpful.” As for her proposal, Jessie Schnell says “I’m really glad that the city recognizes that a demolition plan could be an important part of their master plan. Of course, the New Millennium Group remains ready to help in any way we can.”
The LandmarksSeduced and Abandoned
When there are successes in preserving and restoring old buildings, it happens because of the alignment of a number of elementsawareness, commitment to the building and to the community, a future use for the building, and money. In that order. For although the developers, and some city hall types, may try to tell you that money is the key ingredient, it’s not. What matters most is that the people want to save a building, and to foster that desire they need to be aware of the risk. Take the example of the old New York Central Terminal on Buffalo’s east side. Nestled in the heart of a close-knit residential neighborhood, the Terminal is perhaps the most dramatic case of “sandorization” locally. In 1979, Conrail sold the Terminal for $75,000. For the next eighteen years, the Terminal went through a series of owners, some who were naive about what it would take to make the building economically viable, some who just looted it. During this time the building was owned by a west side contractor who stripped the interior elements and allowed the building to decline. Finally, in order to avoid a jail sentence for failing to maintain the building, the new ownerwho had bought the building from the contractortransferred the property in 1997 to the Central Terminal Restoration Corporation. But by that time the building was a mere shadow of its former glorious self. According to Tim Tielman, “everything that was metallic is gone. The restaurant lunch counter, the ceiling lights, every single doorknob. This wasn’t vandalism; those ceilings are eighty-five feet high, you’d need scaffolding to get the fixtures down. This was deliberate, planned stripping of the building.”
Though this kind of internal destruction is not illegal, it is, all agree, unethical. For although the Terminal is on the preservation list, only exteriors of buildings are protected, not interiors. But the things that were taken are also the easiest to replicate. In addition, the building is actually in very good shape, despite the years of vandalism and looting. “The steel frame is in excellent condition; in fact, it’s so solid, it would cost $16 million to demolish it. And since we’ve acquired it, the building has been sealed, there is a protective roof over the concourse, and motion detectors have been installed. So incidences of casual trespass and vandalism have been vastly reduced.”
Now, the building is fenced. They have used a $1 million county grant to install temporary windows to prevent water in the building and the clocks have been restored and lighted. The rear access road to the property is blocked so people can’t dump on the property. “A few years ago, we had 500 people out to clean up the property. We removed thousands and thousands of tires,” says Tielman. It hasn’t been money saving the building; it’s the involvement of volunteers helping to clean it up and serving on the Restoration Corporation Board, finding a way to make it happen. Although there is currently no plan in place for future use, the building will be ready for redevelopment when one emerges. Tielman thinks the Terminal could well borrow the Richardson complex plan and be turned into a school, especially since the new plan for school construction calls for a new school in that area.
The Richardson complex is another success story of local preservation. Unlike the Central Terminal, the Richardson buildingessentially just the main building with its twin towersdidn’t have to fall into disrepair before finding its way into the public’s consciousness. The complex, which is still owned by the state but has been vacant and, save for the administration building, unused for nearly thirty years, has maintained its viability just as its looming presence over Forest Avenue has maintained its hold on the public’s imagination. The grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, and, according to Tielman, both the grounds and buildings were designed in the Romantic style in accordance with the belief of the period that soothing surroundings might help cure the mentally ill. All but the administration building was closed in the early 1970s, as part of the policy of de-institutionalization that came into effect at that time. At that time, the eastern half of the complex was demolished and the low, modern, brick buildings which are still there were built. Now, there is a plan for putting a Buffalo school in the complex, which looks like it is moving forward.
Preservation as Development/Development as Preservation
The problem for old buildings in Buffalo is sometimes not the lack of a comprehensive policy for dealing with them, or the lack of money for repairs. It’s also money in the shape of developers who want parcels of landoccupied by rundown old buildingsto build their new buildings, such as in the case of the Kittinger situation. Says Ryan of the questionable demolition, “on Kittinger, we did not do our due diligence. I don’t fault the purists for saying that demolition should not have happened. But, whether or not it was torn down properly, if the end result is economic vitality and they pay taxes and generate jobs, it’s very hard for me to be against them because that’s what we need.” Tielman’s response to that is that “we need people in power who know that the best posture to be in negotiations is not on your knees. It seems like they were in an awful hurry to put up a cinder block bank.”
Says Ryan of the questionable demolition, “on Kittinger, we did not do our due diligence. I don’t fault the purists for saying that demolition should not have happened...
But that appears to be precisely Buffalo’s position. Commissioner Ryan says, quite unapologetically, “Buffalo is not a city where real estate values are high enough to do historic deals, to make historic preservation economically viable. Small scale preservation projects, such as the University Club and the Victor Hugo, these are working. But the big projects are prohibitively expensive.” Paul Ciminelli, president of Ciminelli Development Company, echoes Ryan’s view. Ciminelli says his company looks at developing historic properties from time to time, but says the difficulties are manifold. “The costs for restoration can be exorbitant; it’s like restoring a vintage carthey’re hard to find parts for, they’re expensive to operatethe demand has to override the high operating expenses.” For this reason, Ciminelli says, the smaller the project the more cost-prohibitive.
Ryan claims that, “no one has yet made a compelling argument that historic preservation in and of itself is the generator of wealth in a community that, say, casino gambling isnot that I’m advocating gambling.” Jessie Schnell completely disagrees with this, “the reason I got on the preservation bandwagon is because I saw that preservation is the one economic tool that works in revitalizing cities.” Schnell points to a book by Donovan D. Rypkema, The Economics of Historic Preservation: A Community Leader’s Guide, which is filled with statistics and examples of the efficacy of historic preservation as a force for economic revitalization. In his book, Rypkema explains that historic preservation not only creates more jobs than new construction, it also has “significant and ongoing economic impact beyond the project itself” in the form of new businesses formed and new jobs created, increased property and sales taxes, tourism and private investment stimulated, and enhanced quality of lifewhich itself has been proven to be a factor in new business site selection. Rypkema demonstrates that, time and again, investing in a community’s historic buildings is more economical than building new. He also notes that, “there is probably no more singularly fiscally irresponsible action local governments authorize than the demolition of a historic building for a surface parking lot.”
Rypkema makes the point that when people move back into cities, it is almost always into a historic neighborhood: “it is not just the city that draws people but the unique quality and character of a particular neighborhood that is the magnet.” We’ve already seen this at work in Buffalo. Allentown and the Delaware District, largely composed of restored and maintained historic homes and buildings, are thriving.
The people of Buffalo have already become better at making demands of developers than the city has. It was sustained public outcry that stopped developers in both the building of a twin for the Peace Bridge and the decision to build a replica of the Erie Canal, rather than unearth the original. In both cases, it took grass-roots activism to convince city officials to stop giving developers the keys to the city. Tielman notes that the city sits back and waits for developers to bring them proposals and then advocates for those. There’s no room for public input and any dissent is seen as obstructionist. “The public has a legitimate right to discuss the public impact of development and until this is recognized and incorporated into the process you’ll continue to have situations where the city goes in one direction, following the developers, and is brought up short by public opinion that won’t be suppressed.”
Paul Ciminelli says that, in terms of redeveloping old buildings, “the developers and lenders will determine if it will be done. The community should focus on the quality of the restoration.” But Scot Fisher thinks it doesn’t always have to be about money. “I don’t buy that argument that development is just business, as if you can separate your business from the fabric of the community you’re in. Our company is making a commitment to this community in the way we do business and restoring the Asbury Church is a part of that. Everything we do is manufactured here, so much income is generated by Ani. The Goo Goo Dolls sell way more albums and generate nothing for Buffalo.”
Tielman speaks of the Central Terminal’s monumental civic function: “every neighborhood needs something that gives people the feeling that they participate in something larger than themselves. For the east side, including Cheektowaga and Sloan, this is it. It’s the Washington Monument of Buffalo. It would be unthinkable to remove this symbol of greatness from this neighborhood.” Scot Fisher agrees, saying that he believes that even if a building doesn’t have economic value, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value and that money shouldn’t be spent to save it. “We’re all so used to thinking of everything as a commodity, every building, every entity, every thought and utterance has a logo on it. Having beautiful buildings around you has a financially incalculable value and maintaining them teaches us all that there are values besides money.”
Anna Geronimo Hausmann is a writer and teacher living in Buffalo.
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