Historic Preservation: We'll take a cup of kindness yet
By Christopher N. Brown —January 12, 2008
Buildings in Buffalo certainly don't have an easy life. As soon as a building is constructed or an improvement project completed, nature starts its process of breaking down materials and reclaiming them. Wind, rain, dampness, snow and wildly fluctuating temperatures from extreme cold to heat constantly work to break down buildings.
Yet preservation of old buildings is still something that is valued for its physical and visible connection to our collective past and a reminder of an organic and hand-crafted building process that is indigenous and unique to a region that would otherwise be forgotten. In that way, old buildings become part of a neighborhood’s identity and help to define its personality.
When boiled down to its core, historic preservation of antique structures requires two basic ingredients: 1.) a receptive owner and 2.) resources. The Allentown Association attempts to cultivate the first ingredient through advocacy and education. It sponsors educational historic preservation seminars with experts, walking tours of successfully preserved neighborhood streets and its “Secrets of Allentown” tour of historic homes. In this way, ultimately, historic preservation is cultivated through the metaphoric “carrot” rather than its painful compliment, the “stick.”
It is hoped that the carrot will be more successful than the stick, because the stick approach is a slippery slope that sometimes backfires. Four years ago, the Allentown Association reported that there were four properties at risk for immediate demolition in Allentown: 32 St. John's Place, 7 Wadsworth Street, 382 Maryland Street and 359 Hudson Street. Since that time only 32 St. John’s Place has been preserved.
32 St. John's Place
Of course, the process for advocacy is long and tedious. There are many meetings that must be attended, phone calls to make and letters to write. All this is done by volunteers within the community. And that’s just one side of the story. On the other side are neighbors who are not rallied behind the preservation cause and complain to City of Buffalo officials about falling bricks, buildings that are an eyesore and havens for derelicts, addicts and dealers.
Those complaints made to the City of Buffalo in the hopes of getting something done is also a dangerous slope to traverse because the City of Buffalo is in the demolition business, not the preservation business. In the case of 359 Hudson Street, the owners did not have the money to demolish the house, so the City of Buffalo agreed to pay for the demolition and the owners made payments. Yes, the City of Buffalo actually finances demolitions! Yet it does not have the capability to put on a new roof and finance that.
With all these forces working to tear down properties, with at-risk or severely deteriorated properties, preservation is the exception and not the rule – even in a historic district.
Even with these challenges, there are examples of remarkable success stories. No. 591 Delaware Avenue, through a miracle performed by Matt Moscati, was saved from the wrecking ball after a disastrous fire. The Birge Mansion, facing an uncertain future, has been gloriously restored by the law firm of Spadafora & Verrastro. These restorations were also performed by willing owners who had the resources to make the restorations happen.
A tenser situation occurs when the City of Buffalo is the unwilling owner of a property in danger of demolition. The City of Buffalo is both a long-term and short-term owner of property. Examples of long-term ownership include such landmarks as City Hall, the Historical Society Museum, the Museum of Science and Kleinhans Music Hall. The City also owns hundreds, if not thousands, of properties on a short-term basis, typically acquired when they were “struck” to the City during its annual In Rem tax foreclosure sale. They stay in the City’s ownership until they can be re-sold. Typically, the City will not invest public funds in any building that falls within its short-term ownership inventory.
In cases where government entities are the short-term owners of properties in the City of Buffalo, the stick approach has shown to be more effective. The approach to big public entities is necessarily different than the approach to properties owned by private individuals.
One example of a successful government-stick approach to preservation efforts stemmed from the Allentown Association’s putting pressure on the City to perform remedial repairs to the “Metzger Building” on the northwest corner of Main and Virginia Streets after a fire. The Metzger Building was owned by the City of Buffalo, but fell into its short-term inventory; therefore, the city was reluctant to expend funds to repair the building and instead issued an emergency demolition order. The effort to halt the demolition turned into one of the Association’s greatest preservation triumphs. This was without question an example of the "stick" approach, as the Allentown Association ended up suing the City of Buffalo to force its hand. As a result, the roof was stabilized and now the building is the cornerstone to the very successful GraniteWorks complex.
After four years, those buildings on the 2004 Allentown critical list have a 1-3 win/loss record. And keep in mind: this article deals only with structural preservation issues, not superficial issues like siding and windows. When evaluating the probability of a building’s chances for making a successful preservation comeback, the most critical component of a building is its roof and gutter system. They must be fully functional. Other than perhaps a fire, nothing is more destructive to a building than a leaky roof and gutters/downspouts that don’t function.916 Main Street, a three story brick building and to the north is the Red Jacket apartment building.
Volunteers from the Allentown Association have met with the City of Buffalo and the Allentown Association even commissioned an independent engineering study in hopes of preserving the façade, similar to what was done with the old gas works, now incorporated into the HealthNow building. Preservation of the façade would keep the streetscape intact and allow for development of a new building behind it that would keep the historic face of the building.
There are two serious obstacles in the way to achieving this goal. First, in order to preserve the façade, demolition/stabilization of the structure must be done from North Pearl Street, trespassing on private property and demolishing a garage behind the structure for access. The owner of the parcel behind it must agree with those terms and conditions and want to help preserve the building. Eminent domain does not seem likely since demolition of the building can also be done from Main Street, but in that case, the façade could not be saved.
Secondly, if the owner of the lot on North Pearl Street behind the building consents to the access for demolition, funds must be found to preserve the façade. Initial estimates have come in at between $150,000-$200,000.
If the first obstacle can be resolved, it is hoped that a combination of public/private/nonprofit funds can be found to pay for the façade preservation so that the building site can be redeveloped in the future.
All this information is meant to share the inherent complexity with demolition issues in historic districts and that each case requires a significant amount of time and attention. No two cases are exactly the same. Some efforts are won and some are lost. It is hoped that four years from now, the most recent buildings on the critical list will have a 2-0 win/loss record instead of the 1-3 record from properties identified four years ago.
However, when it comes to historic preservation, often a cup of kindness is more effective than ill-planned attempts to force building owners into historic preservation actions. A look at past losses shows clearly that this simply does not work!