This Place Mattered

7 Jan

With news of a new Bills head coach and an end to the NHL lockout yesterday, anything I write here will just get lost in the clutter. 

So instead, this; on Friday, demolition commenced on a 100 year-old church on Colvin near Tacoma in North Buffalo

The site is completely surrounded by residential properties. Local preservationists are in full building-mourning over it. 

Another church is being demolished in the Queen City. This one was special, it graced a strong neighborhood with stable property values. It lived in an area that could have supported a creative reuse project.

No longer does this neighborhood have this historic gem to provide quality community space, jobs and cultural events. What is sad is, this one isn’t caving in like others still standing across the city. This one is stable, it is strong and reusable. Yet, it gets demolished because the owner neglected it’s property and the City gave in. Surprise!The owner was given a golden demolition ticket from the City of Buffalo, despite the fact that it qualifies to be a local landmark.

The problem with this is that the building wasn’t a “historic gem” anymore. It was vacant – had been vacant since 2006 when a Korean methodist congregation last used what had once been a Baptist church. That’s six (6) years during which the building didn’t act as an historic gem, but as a public nuisance – attracting kids hanging out and, in April, an arsonist. That’s six, going on seven, years during which nothing happened with this building. Right? Well, not so fast. 

RaChaCha at Buffalo Rising repurposed a Preservation Buffalo Niagara press release that was issued with respect to this building

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: January 5, 2013

In April of 2012, the former North Park Baptist Church on Colvin Avenue was damaged by a three-alarm arson fire. No one was harmed during the incident, thankfully, since the North Buffalo church had been vacant for a number of years after the owner, the Korean United Methodist Church, vacated the property for unknown reasons. Late last November, the owner applied for a demolition permit from the City of Buffalo citing, in large part, the damage caused by that fire.

Earlier this week, the City of Buffalo Preservation Board announced their intention to nominate the former church for local landmark designation, given the property’s high architecturally design, rich history, and physical presence in the neighborhood. The demolition of the former North Park Baptist Church began yesterday (Friday) afternoon at 3pm. The now-familiar manner in which we neglect and sequentially dispose of our city has, unfortunately, begun to define the City of Good Neighbors as much as our actual architecture does.

As we begin to debate the true culprit of yet another Friday-afternoon demolition, whether it is an irresponsible property owner, an utter lack of vision from elected officials, or a general absence of appreciation of our unique architectural gems like this former Italian Renaissance Revival church — or a combination of all of the above — we can’t help but share a critical piece of dialogue that is missing from this familiar conversation. This piece is the incompatibility of the otherwise overwhelmingly successful Historic Tax Credit program, and the economic and design realities related to rehabilitating and repurposing a vacant religious space.

The decline of the neighborhood church building type during the last 40-plus years is very similar to that of the decline of the industrial and commercial buildings in the downtown cores of our cities — as well as the decline of our cities’ neighborhoods themselves. This trend was caused in large part by the movement patterns of our country’s population from established, urban neighborhoods to newly formed communities in the suburbs surrounding our cities. Unfortunately, the recent sequential story of the gradual renaissance of our cities rarely includes the successful repurposing of neighborhood religious spaces. With the aid of the Historic Tax Credit program, once-idle manufacturing buildings are being converted into trendy downtown living lofts, and homeowners in at-risk neighborhoods are provided incentives for renovation work on their historic homes. But almost all vacant churches and other religious spaces are left vacant — many neglected to the point of demolition.

The primary reason why more religious spaces aren’t repurposed as part of the Historic Tax Credit program is that the majority of the prospective buyers’ rehabilitation plans are currently incompatible with the design standards which govern the incentive program. These Standards (known as the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards) mandate that the congregation space or sanctuary, typically a large, rectangular basilica space, which is often two-stories or more in height, cannot be easily subdivided into smaller spaces. The Standards applied in these cases expect those congregation spaces to be reused in a way that respects and reflects the original historic use. This presents an obvious problem for potential developers and owners of these properties, because, typically, every available square foot needs to be leveraged in order for the project to be financially feasible.

The former North Park Baptist Church is an example of such a failed attempt to use Historic Tax Credits in a proposed rehabilitation project. In 2010, while working at Preservation Studios (a local historic preservation consulting firm), we [Tom Yots and Jason Wilson] participated in a walkthrough of this property with local architect and developer Karl Frizlen of the Frizlen Group. We ultimately partnered with The Frizlen Group in proposing a design that would have placed residential units into the congregation space. The proposed design called for keeping the original interior wall surfaces and stained glass windows, and inserted an independent structure within the open space of the sanctuary (see renderings below). 

The New York State Historic Preservation Office was supportive, and presented the project for informal review to the National Park Service who oversees the historic tax credit program. But the National Park Service eventually rejected the design, primarily because the openness of the congregation space would be lost. With their proposed project being ruled ineligible for the Historic Tax Credit program, the Frizlen Group decided to not move forward with purchasing and repurposing the church. It was determined that Historic Tax Credits were essential in making the proposed project financially feasible.  
 
The former North Park Baptist Church is an example of such a failed attempt to use Historic Tax Credits in a proposed rehabilitation project. In 2010, while working at Preservation Studios (a local historic preservation consulting firm), we [Tom Yots and Jason Wilson] participated in a walkthrough of this property with local architect and developer Karl Frizlen of the Frizlen Group. We ultimately partnered with The Frizlen Group in proposing a design that would have placed residential units into the congregation space. The proposed design called for keeping the original interior wall surfaces and stained glass windows, and inserted an independent structure within the open space of the sanctuary (see renderings below). 
 
The New York State Historic Preservation Office was supportive, and presented the project for informal review to the National Park Service who oversees the historic tax credit program. But the National Park Service eventually rejected the design, primarily because the openness of the congregation space would be lost. With their proposed project being ruled ineligible for the Historic Tax Credit program, the Frizlen Group decided to not move forward with purchasing and repurposing the church. It was determined that Historic Tax Credits were essential in making the proposed project financially feasible.  
 
Like many religious buildings in our communities, the former North Park Baptist Church was located in a residential neighborhood, and anchored the blocks that surrounded it. The character of a neighborhood is often highlighted by the religious buildings that serve as these anchors. The “village” feel of the Elmwood Village comes not just from the small shops and supporting residential blocks, but also from churches like Lafayette Presbyterian on Elmwood at Lafayette, and the Unitarian-Universalist Church on Elmwood at West Ferry. These beautiful and imposing buildings are integral to the neighborhood they serve, and that integration goes well beyond their religious and social activities to include an important physical presence of architecture and landscape.

North Buffalo has lost an important neighborhood landmark today, and it is PBN’s intent to pursue every available avenue to making the rehabilitation of our communities’ vacant religious spaces more of a reality than it was today.

See, this would usually be the point at which I criticize the reactionary nature of Buffalo’s preservationist community, and how its distaste for quickly-approved, Friday afternoon demolition permits is matched only bit its 11th hour efforts to prevent the inevitable, usually with emotional pleas about how much a place matters. 
 
But we can’t do that here – with this property, there was a proactive effort by members of the PBN to promote this building for an adaptive reuse project, but the public money and incentives that make these sorts of projects economically possible in Buffalo can’t be used effectively with former churches. Of course, there are several former churches in town that have been turned into apartments or an art space, so the question I have is, if the project was so great, why didn’t Frizlen go ahead with it without applying for the tax credit program. 
 
Note this: when rattling off the list of “culprits” for this demolition, the PBN omitted a critical actor. 
As we begin to debate the true culprit of yet another Friday-afternoon demolition, whether it is an irresponsible property owner, an utter lack of vision from elected officials, or a general absence of appreciation of our unique architectural gems like this former Italian Renaissance Revival church — or a combination of all of the above…
or a reactive, too-late, preservationist community. But here, at least, Buffalo’s preservationists have identified a specific legislative problem and called for action on it. But calling for action ≠ action, nor does standing around with placards about love and how much a place matters. Good luck. 
Advertisements

9 Responses to “This Place Mattered”

  1. Christopher Smith January 7, 2013 at 11:27 am #

    Doesn’t Frizlen’s inability to get the project done underscore the case for demolition? If the property cannot qualify for the tax credit programs and it is not economically feasible to rehab the it without them, what use is there?

    Unless the City of Buffalo is going to take ownership, properly mothball the building, and wait for an investor…what are our choices?

  2. Tony Maggiotto, Jr. January 7, 2013 at 12:16 pm #

    information is a valuable resource …… did the “package of info” get into the hands of any other developers with means?  … or did the Preservers give up after Karl moved on?

  3. Prava1 January 7, 2013 at 5:59 pm #

    There could have been a tougher response from the second floor.  This could have been easily held up.   For instance, there was scrapping done before the permit was issued, i.e. work without a permit… 

    • Pauldub January 7, 2013 at 10:13 pm #

       Stall tactics. Doesn’t change the fact that there is no investor.

      • Prava1 January 7, 2013 at 10:37 pm #

         So we should tear every significant structure down unless an investor quickly appears?

      • Pauldub January 8, 2013 at 10:12 pm #

         No but have a plan in place that includes some type of caretaker for the structure while the battle continues….

      • Prava1 January 9, 2013 at 9:04 am #

         You mean the way the Central Terminal has been saved?

  4. Cynthia Van Ness January 10, 2013 at 5:59 pm #

    Criticizing citizens for being reactive is a clever way to shift blame from neglectful owners and look-the-other-way inspectors onto ordinary people who, unlike owners and inspectors, cannot trespass in order to inspect buildings for hazards;  usually lack the expertise to properly diagnose hazards, and have families, day jobs, and their own needy houses to fix like everyone else.  They do the best they can with the limited tools at their disposal.

    It reminds me of blaming the fire department for “always being reactive” and never preventing fires.  Well, they do both, and I have no desire to sacrifice the former just because we’d all prefer the latter.  Demolition-by-neglect is akin to slow-motion arson.

    One of those preventive tools is landmarking.  For example, the Trico Building was added to the National Register over 10 years ago, when it was still happily occupied.  It therefore qualifies for local landmark status.  Yet this pro-active effort, to identify what is valuable before there is a crisis, has been egregiously disregarded in the rush to demolish.

    The Allentown neighborhood is both a National Register district and a locally-designated district, but ask anyone active in neighborhood affairs: if you want to be rid of a building in Allentown, you can be rid of a building.  Your councilmember will usually oblige.  Allentown has suffered 4-5 demolitions in about as many years.

    Okay, so how about trying to recruit buyers & investors?  Well, we have a licensed profession for that.  How come the real estate profession, whose salaries depend on exactly this kind of matchmaking, is  always AWOL during demolition crises?

    Blaming citizens (who don’t necessarily identify as “preservationists!”)  shooting the messenger.

Contribute To The Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: