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The Esmonde Template

7 Oct

Sunday brought us a treat – the quintessential Donn Esmonde congratubatory piece. The foundational document. The template. The “we the columnist” from the tea party champion.

It has everything – Tim Tielman, “lighter, quicker, cheaper”, Mark Goldman, and a generalized thesis whereby the general public is populated by cretins who are just now awakening to the genius of the positions of Esmonde and friends. 

All in all, it reinforces the accuracy of some of my theories. For instance, the one where preservationist hero Tim Tielman is the capo of a local preservation racket. Just hire the right people, and suddenly preservationist opposition to whatever demolition or renovation project you’re proposing simply evaporates. The Neighborhood Workshop Thuggery.

I know Esmonde has recently written two concern-trolls regarding the Buffalo Schools – one whereby our self-hating, upper-middle class, elitist white guy hero feigns outrage at racism in the board of education, and another where he knows better than the school district’s superintendent, who quite literally has what amounts to an impossible job. I’m sure Buffalo School Superintendent Dr. Pamela Brown enjoys having a failing school district to run on the one hand, and racist assholes gunning for her removal every. few. weeks, on the other. Esmonde whitesplains all of this for our benefit, ignoring the fact that he voluntarily abandoned his education bona fides when he touted his business partner’s charter school chops, and decided that it would be perfectly swell if Clarence schools’ quality was degraded. 

Want to develop Canal Side? You’ll have a lot of problems from Mark Goldman & his crew unless you spend six figures of public money to hire Fred Kent & Partnership for Public Spaces to educate you on “placemaking” and benches. (Placemaking is the wholly unscientific theory that people will go where other people are. The thing it omits is what it was that attracted the “other people” in the first place.)

Want to develop the Larkin District? Hire a planner well-regarded in preservationist circles to promote the project, and retain Tielman’s company, too, while you’re at it. Suddenly, all your problems will disappear.

Someone explain to me how this is any different from paying protection money to the mob to prevent that same mob from blocking your project and seeking injunctive relief. Don’t want Tim Tielman organizing a picket of your project? Put him on the payroll.  You tell me what that’s called

Lighter, quicker, cheaper brought one restaurant and some Adirondack chairs to Canal Side. Everything else – everything – is temporary, slow, or transient. Go down there on a rainy Sunday and – if you’re not interested in getting wet, and you’ve already seen the Naval museum,  I challenge you to find something to do other than have a beer at Liberty Hound.  It should have shops, cafes, restaurants (plural), maybe a museum or gallery – things more compelling than a temporary stage and “flexible lawns”. Solar-powered carousels don’t count (this was a real suggestion – as if a kid gives a crap about the sustainability of a carousel’s propulsion fuel). 

The Cobblestone now has a restaurant, the Helium comedy club, a casino, and a bar or two. It’s walking distance from Canalside, but the Harbor Center construction makes it difficult to reach.

I wonder if Goldman or Tielman are partners with Esmonde in some business endeavor? Tielman has degrees from SUNY Binghamton in art history, political science, and geography. I don’t know what Tielman’s profession once was, but it looks like he took a hobby and parlayed it into a well-paid position as the community’s gatekeeper for preservation issues. Must be nice. 

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Erie Freight House: 8 Months Down

20 Jun

Remember the Erie Freight House? Let’s take a look at what’s been happening with this crumbling structure along Ohio Street. 

November 23, 2011: Erie Freight House Nominated for Landmark Status

“The Erie Freight House is an extremely significant building on the Buffalo River, a rare survivor of Buffalo’s early industrial heritage that is incredibly important to our city.”

March 20, 2012: Erie Freight House Purchased – Future Use Unknown

Last fall when word got out that demolition was being considered, an effort to landmark the building was launched, pushed by Breeser, Preservation Buffalo Niagara and others.  

The circa-1868 Erie Freight House is a two-story heavy timber frame structure of @ 110 feet wide and 550 feet long, sited on the edge of the Buffalo River. The exterior of the Erie Freight House is a rusted metal siding that likely covers the structure’s original clapboard.  A 20-foot wharf ran the length of the building along the Buffalo River but was removed in 1959.  

The new owners spoke out against the designation saying the landmark status would hinder reuse options for a property that is collapsing and is likely to require significant changes to change its use from industrial.  In January the Buffalo City Council approved the property as a local landmark.

Breeser and the development group discussed working together and had a handshake agreement that Breeser would purchase the LLC after the property was purchased.  As the scheduled closing date approached, Breeser backed off.  The development group decided to proceed with closing.

In coming weeks the new owners will clean-up the property, pick out the collapsed parts of the building, and shore up what’s left.  

“It’s a danger now, it’s falling in on itself,” says Sam Savarino, President and CEO of Savarino Companies.

October 3, 2012: Residential Project Proposed for Niagara River / Ohio Street

 

The historic Erie Freight House could be demolished and replaced with a residential development.  Property owner 441 Ohio Street LLC consisting of FFZ Holdings of Buffalo and Savarino Companies, have determined the condemned building cannot be feasibly restored and have reported this to the City of Buffalo.  In its place, the development team is proposing a four-story, 48 unit residential project with public access to the Buffalo River.

October 4, 2012: PBN Responds to Proposed Erie Freight House Demolition

The circa 1868 Erie Freight House located at 9 Ohio Street is considered to be the only extant freight warehouse building in the city associated with the Erie Canal and historic railway companies along the Buffalo River. Freight houses are a building type that once dominated the banks of the Buffalo River, and the Erie Freight House is the last surviving example.

October 16, 2012: Erie Freight House – An Alternative View

Think it can’t be done? Search Google images for “Renovated Freight Houses” and you’ll see “about 978,000” images of adaptive reuses of freight houses all around the country. It’s done all the time.

October 19, 2012: Freight House Owners to Apply for Demolition Permit

[Savarino] is also fully expecting to be sued which will delay any demolition for months despite, by virtue of the condemnation, the City has already determined that the building is a threat to life and safety. 

October 23, 2012: Seeking a Rational Discourse on the Erie Freight House

Preservationists don’t want to stop investment in South Buffalo, they just want investment that doesn’t sacrifice one of the last remaining parts of our history. The Freight House is the last of it’s kind. It’s true, “The Last of the Erie Canal Freight Houses,” isn’t the sexiest of titles, but this building represents a pivotal period in Buffalo’s history, and is embedded in one of the most important areas in the city. 

The preservation community would rather see this area go the way of Toronto’s Distillery District, where history and modernity go hand-in-hand. A new community growing within Buffalo’s oldest industrial area, highlighting our past in a way that promotes our future.

June 17, 2013: Plans Submitted for “Freight House Landing” Along Buffalo River

Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper (BNR) is part of the project team and their influence is evident. Green roof gardens and permeable asphalt pavement and walks effectively reduce the footprint of the building to collect and cleanse stormwater before it enters the river. There are also floating docks for tenants as well as a passive kayak/boat launch area and on site storage for small watercraft. Some of the existing piers from the former wharf will remain in place for the benefit of river fauna. The landscaping, which will be designed by BNR, will feature local indigenous species. Exterior building walls will be designed to allow for plant growth on them…

…Savarino’s Planning submission indicates that they have engaged preservation specialist Kerry Traynor of KTA Preservation Specialties and Preservation to catalog/photo archive the structure, conduct research and record the features and history of the property. Kerry Traynor authored the Landmark application for the property on behalf of Preservation Buffalo Niagara. KTA will oversee deconstruction of the building and the salvage of any usable remnants of the structure. KTA, along with Preservation Buffalo Niagara, will provide recommendations for reuse of the building’s elements that respect the property’s history and allow them to be suitably repurposed for a second life.

In just eight months, the Savarino project to build apartments on the grounds of the Erie Freight House has gone from Preservationist outrage to perfectly reasonable sign of progress. The difference? Putting the potential and real obstructionists on the project payroll. Traynor isn’t just a “preservation specialist” with a private company, she’s a professor at UB. To what degree does getting a project approved with preservationist imprimatur involve hiring the right people? If Savarino suddenly has a clear path to demolishing the Erie Freight House, where is the line separating preservationism and racketeering

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. 

Buffalo Central Terminal: Adopt a Tile

13 Dec

IMG_5855.JPG

Buffalo’s Central Terminal has come a long way in the last decade. Decommissioned in 1979, a dedicated and caring group of volunteers have nurtured it from a shuttered relic into Buffalo’s unofficial convention center. It now hosts myriad annual events and symbolizes a glorious past, an uncertain present, and a hopeful future; it is part icon, part metaphor.

Under the leadership of its new executive director Marilyn Rodgers, there is a push on now to raise money to help weatherproof a building that is in dire need of extensive work just to keep the roof sound. Because of its size and location, even the wealthiest local foundations are loath to provide the several million dollars needed to do all necessary work, so for the time being the Terminal is trying to raise upwards of $769,000 from the community, tile by tile. A recent online push to buy one of its original light fixtures was successful, but this beautiful terminal of the defunct New York Central line needs an angel to keep from deteriorating further.  

In the short term, you can be that angel.

For $150 – 98% of which is tax deductible – you can “adopt” one of the Central Terminal’s roof tiles and help fund the critically needed repairs to the structure. You can pay by check, credit card, or PayPal and you receive a certificate of adoption and a print depicting the Terminal, ready for framing

For once, this is a preservation effort that is completely without a hint of controversy. This is undoubtedly one of Buffalo’s crown architectural jewels, far enough removed from the downtown core that it sometimes gets lost in the built environment shuffle. Please consider adopting a tile today, whether for yourself or as a gift, and help save a building that is truly poised for renewed greatness. Someday

Terminal from Phil Cavuoto on Vimeo.

The Curiousness of Selective Preservationist Outrage

1 Nov

Earlier this year, Donn Esmonde applauded the fact that Howard Zemsky and Larkin Development had retained the services of preservationist Tim Tielman, and that the whole project served as a model for how development could work hand-in-hand with preservation.  My takeaway, however, was that Tielman’s involvement in that project amounted to Zemsky and Larkin paying Tielman off; essentially, paying protection money. As with Canalside’s retention of Fred Kent’s “placemaking” sideshow in order to placate an irascibly relentless Mark Goldman, what better way to silence your litigious critics than to co-opt them? 

Andrew Kulyk in the comments section of my post essentially laid out the theory in so many words, even though I didn’t get many other takers.  And without a test, a theory is just a theory, right?  

My theory may be tested this week. As it happens, a subsidiary of Larkin Development is applying to Buffalo’s preservation board for permission to demolish an entire row of houses on Seneca Street in the Larkin District on what appear, on their face, to be flimsy grounds.  More details on that below.

Buffalo without its relentless preservation and planning conflicts would be a better Buffalo; however, some developers have figured out ways to ingratiate themselves or join with the preservationist near-west side elites, and from that derive a real benefit.  For example, Buffalo Rising writers and commenters are not shy about criticizing developers for poor design; e.g.,  inveighing against Dry-Vit (modern stucco) facades.  Yet Karl Frizlen puts bland, Dry-Vit-heavy buildings on Elmwood and there’s nary a peep. Is it a coincidence that Frizlen also happens to be a favorite with that audience, having founded the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers Market, and collaborating with Buffalo Rising founder Newell Nussbaumer?

And aren’t Buffalo’s preservationist/New-Millennium types supposed to like businesses on Elmwood to be 2 stories or more?  They do, except when the owner of the Acropolis personally offends them by not asking their permission first before trying to expand to a second floor, and even co-opts their favorite tactic of appealing to blogs and social media.  The preservationist/planning elites came down on Pauly and Acropolis with downright viciousness

Then there’s developer Sam Savarino, who somehow has managed to get even individuals and blogs that normally display their preservationist street cred like badges of honor on his side, even as he plans to knock down buildings, or takes on the Elmwood Village in a cat fight over a charter school.  Then again, Buffalo Rising and its leadership were charter tenants at his Cobblestone District development; could that be the reason?

It all suggests that perhaps BNMC might have actually had some success with its plan to begin demolishing the Trico building this year, if only their leadership had hired a preservationist as a “consultant”. Sort of like how Tony Soprano was a consultant to the waste management industry. 

But Howard Zemsky may be far and away the savviest of all in this regard.  No one could begrudge a businessman – especially a developer – seeking to learn everything about how business “really” gets done in his city. He goes with what works, and avoids what doesn’t.  With that said, look what Zemsky has managed to do: 

In the broadest terms, he’s used old buildings to, essence, create a suburban office park in the city, right off an expressway, set far apart from the downtown core, and surrounded it with a sea of free surface parking and some landscaping, and he’s given people there something to do other than work, making it superficially attractive and rendering trips downtown for lunch moot. His biggest cheerleaders are the very people who are the most rabid enemies of expressways, suburban office parks, surface parking, free parking, etc.  The one thing the Preservationist/Hipster/New Millennium Group axis especially hates about suburban office parks is that they drain tenants away from historic downtowns.  Although Larkin has drawn some tenants in from outside the city, some of the most prominent ones moved out there from downtown.  But no worries; if you read the recent Buffalo Building Reuse Plan, overseen by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership at Mayor Brown’s behest to look at strategies to combat an expected glut of vacant office space downtown, it simply redefines downtown to include the Larkin District, despite its separation from it by over a half mile of post-industrial wasteland. 

At least Larkin has a free London cab service for tenants to use. 

And what else?  To do historic research for him, Zemsky hired a prominent preservationist who also happens to be one of City Hall’s top green code planners.  To design Larkin Square – the centerpiece of the district – he turned to Tim Tielman, who, as far as I can determine, hasn’t actually planned or designed a single other thing, anywhere, ever.  Despite that the Larkin District is home to several firms that do a combination of planning, preservation, and architecture.

To create a plan for the overall district, Zemsky several years ago turned to UB’s Urban Design Project, headed by Robert Shibley, an insider central to many planning and development issues in the city.  It turned out to be a good bet: Shibley is now dean of UB’s architecture and planning school, and played a major role in the development of the regional economic development plan that so far seems to be working to our benefit with the Cuomo administration.  Hey, if Howard Zemsky’s savvy insider knowledge about how to get things done in Buffalo, and his strategic creation of networks of allies can create positive results for the community, it’s no problem if  they also create positive results for him at the same time.

The icing on the cake: Zemsky and Larkin Development hosted a bash for preservationists last year.  Held in a reused church (the Montante Cultural Center at Canisius College), and promoted by Buffalo Rising, several major figures in the preservation community were invited to speak, and Tim Tielman’s plan for Larkin Square was unveiled.

But back to Seneca Street, and that overall plan for the Larkin District, and the threatened row of houses.

Not surprisingly, the plan talks a great deal about historic preservation, and even shows improvements to enhance Seneca Street where the houses are located.  Even a quick peek at the Google maps satellite imagery shows that the row of houses along both sides of Seneca in the Larkin District just west of Smith Street are the only set even remotely still intact from downtown all the way to the Seneca/Babcock neighborhood.  Isn’t “intact streetscape” something the planning and preservation community is supposed to value?  And what about real economic value, considering that just two years ago Larkin Development and their new anchor tenant First Niagara Bank invested millions of their own funds creating the very enhancements along Seneca Street that their master plan called for?

Doesn’t this place matter? 

Why would Larkin Development be looking to “de-enhance” this part of Seneca Street, which they recently invested in enhancing based on their own master plan, by creating a largely vacant block?  Even more pertinent to this theory, why are they proposing these demolitions in what seems to be a ham-handed way such that it looks sketchy to even a non-preservationist?  Could that be because they are expecting essentially no opposition from a preservation board they see as “friendly”? It’s the Buffalo version of wink, a nod, and some thick manila envelopes. 

As you can see for yourself from the November 1st (today’s) preservation board agenda, the demolition justification for the row of houses is copy/paste identical: “The foundation has shifted, and after years of water infiltration the floor has heaved. It has now been deemed unsafe.”  What, every single one?  Was there a localized earthquake there, or a flood?  According to City of Buffalo property records, these buildings are all owned by Mill Race Commons, LLC, a subsidiary of Larkin Development.  (COBIS).  Dan Reilly is Project Manager with CityView Construction Management (the construction arm affiliated with Larkin Development Group).

23. 866 Seneca St. ____________

DEMOLITION: The foundation has shifted, and after years of water infiltration the floor has heaved. It has now been deemed unsafe. Application received 10/25/2012. (Dan Reilly to appear @ 11/1/2012 03:00 PM 901 City Hall)

24. 860 Seneca St. ____________

DEMOLITION: The foundation has shifted, and after years of water infiltration the floor has heaved. It has now been deemed unsafe. Application received 10/25/2012. (Dan Reilly to appear @ 11/1/2012 03:00 PM 901 City Hall)

25. 870 Seneca St. ____________

DEMOLITION: The foundation has shifted, and after years of water infiltration the floor has heaved. It has now been deemed unsafe. Application received 10/25/2012. (Dan Reilly to appear @ 11/1/2012 03:00 PM 901 City Hall)

26. 872 Seneca St. ____________ 

DEMOLITION: The foundation has shifted, and after years of water infiltration the floor has heaved. It has now been deemed unsafe. Application received 10/25/2012. (Dan Reilly to appear @ 11/1/2012 03:00 PM 901 City Hall)

Beyond these four houses, according to preservation board meeting minutes, the same entity also received permission to demolish a non-residential building adjacent to these properties last spring, without even coming before the preservation board.  Instead, according to the preservation board minutes, Dan Reilly, Project Manager with CityView Construction Management (construction arm affiliated with Larkin Development Group) visited their offices, and (either on the spot, or subsequently – the minutes aren’t clear) the chair of the preservation board cleared the demolition.  Note that the chair of preservation board is also the board president of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo, of which Tim Tielman is executive director (Tim is also a preservation board member).  If this had actually come before the preservation board for discussion and decision, it would have been interesting to see if Tielman had recused himself, due to his consulting work with Larkin Development and the blatant conflict of interest.  That’s not to be overly suspicious of Tielman; as the preservation board members are mostly professionals who serve voluntarily, and Buffalo is a small town, it’s not unusual for volunteer members of all kinds of boards to be alert for potential conflicts of interested related to the work they or their firms are doing.

23. 840 Seneca St.

Mr. Dan Reilly appeared in our office on 4/12/12. Mr. Paul McDonnell – after reviewing this application deemed this building is non significant therefore the demolition was APPROVED. (Not an Historic Site / NO BLUE) (Dan Reilly to appeared @ 4/12/2012 09:30 AM 901 City Hall)

At the end of last year, the same entity apparently got no opposition (just “received & filed”) from the preservation board for the demolition of another building that, according to Google, until recently housed a sub shop on its ground floor.  Wait, I thought we were supposed to like street-level retail?

15. 763 Seneca St. RECEIVED & FILED

Demolish 2 1/2 story frame structure. (Dan Reilly to appear @ 12/15/2011 901 City Hall)

According to City property tax records (see below), Mill Race Commons, LLC, the entity that owns most of these now-vacant properties and perhaps-soon-to-be-vacant properties actually owns about 20 properties in and around the Larkin District.  Yet Mill Race Commons was announced as one of those projects that the preservationist elites gushed over, from the time it was first announced 6 years ago.  It had everything they would want: it borrowed styles from the industrial district nearby, and most of all didn’t (at least as it appeared at the time) involve demolishing any existing buildings.  In fact, its development would eliminate a bete noir: a massive surface parking lot.

Although it was thought the project would involve no demolitions, around the same time – using the Mill Race Commons LLC – Larkin Development went on a property-buying spree in the neighborhood, apparently buying properties for future development sites. In fact, in the half-dozen years since Mill Race Commons was announced (with construction to start when the building was 25% pre-leased, according to Larkin’s web site), the only activity Mill Race Commons, LLC, has engaged in seems to be purchasing other sites in and around the Larkin District.  And demolishing buildings.

SBL                             House Number       Street          Primary Owner

1222600001003000 696 EXCHANGE MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005020000 840 EXCHANGE MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222600004008000 44 ROSEVILLE MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222600003006000 106 ROSEVILLE MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1118200008004000 696 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222600002005000 763 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005003000 837 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700002006100 856 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700002011000 866 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005011000 867 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700002010000 870 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005012000 871 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700002009000 872 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700002008000 874 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005014000 877 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005015000 889 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005016000 891 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005017000 893 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005018300 470 SMITH MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1118200006005000 716 SWAN MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222600003016100 159 VAN RENSSELAER MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222600003017000 161 VAN RENSSELAER MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

And all their subsequent interaction with the preservation board, none of it to discuss landmarking or reusing any of the buildings, suggests their intent to be demolishing all or most of them.  In fact, taken together with other activity on Seneca Street in the Larkin District, it appears there is something of a demolition spree underway there, going back at least a year and with little fanfare and no apparent outcry.

Last year, for example, Larkin Development demolished a connected set of old industrial buildings at 111 Hydraulic Street (at Seneca Street) on the grounds that they were too environmentally contaminated to reuse, to construct a new building custom-designed for a single tenant – a collections firm.  That may sound not unlike the situation with the Trico Building that has led to great outcry in the preservation community, yet engendered not a peep when carried out in the Larkin District.  That’s despite the fact that the replacement building includes a large amount of surface parking, and isn’t even built to the curb.  

This year, on a block across Seneca, a large former industrial plant that closed just last year, was demolished.  According to their Brownfield Cleanup Program application at page 24: 

At this time, future development plans have not been defined for the Site, and future land use cannot be determined. The site is currently zoned for light manufacturing.

In other words, a former industrial plant with some environmental contamination issues was razed (with State aid) to create a shovel-ready parcel for, essentially, real estate speculation in a suddenly hot location.  Yet did preservationists rush to its defense as they did the Trico building this spring?  Nary a peep, except for photos of the demolition and a historic photo in activist David Torke’s Flickr photostream.

This despite that the preservation board denied permission to demolish the building at the December 15, 2011 meeting.

So attempting to tie all this together: in the recent case of the Bernstone Cigar Store downtown, a relatively non-descript building drew a howl of outrage from the preservation community when it was demolished by its Canadian owner.  The outcry over the planned Savarino demolition of the decrepit and nondescript, unused Erie Freight House to build an apartment block has also been quite vocal. The cry to save the Trico Building has been deafening, and led to, as always, stasis. Not to mention, preservationists are forever birddogging their arch-nemesis, Carl Paladino. The three things the city desperately needs are uniformity, predictability, and smart parking. Not a soul is pushing for proactivity, relying instead on reaction and litigation.

Yet a recent demolition tear in the beloved Larkin District has drawn nary a peep from the preservationists.  Is that because of some perhaps inherent east-side/west-side bias in preservation?  Or are the preservationists just too cozy with the folks doing the demolitions there?  How the preservation board handles these requests on Thursday afternoon may shed some light on that question.

 

Wield Your Influence

30 May

In light of a discussion that was generated by this post and this post, I attended a meeting of preservationists Tuesday morning. In an area where progress and action is unfortunately fueled by transactional politicking, I recommended that the preservationist community become more active in that world. There isn’t a problem plaguing WNY that doesn’t have a political cause and solution. 

For instance, one speaker related how Mayor Brown refused to write a simple letter in support of the Central Terminal master plan because it wasn’t a priority for him – downtown is. (If downtown is a priority for the Mayor who’s served since 2006, I’d say his list of accomplishments is horrifically microscopic.)

So, how does a preservationist community that is as sincere as it is factionalized become an effective political force?  Less reactive and more proactive? 

1. Unify. There are too many preservationist organizations in Buffalo. I can’t tell one from the other, and there seems to be little actual thought or reason behind it. Egos and ambition should be set aside to present a unified front to promote their issues and goals.

2. Start a PAC. By doing so, the preservationist community can advocate for ideas and for policies. They can draft proposed legislation that would create a city or regional “do not demolish under any circumstances” list, and an objective set of criteria for other buildings to be added to that list in the future.

3. Start a political club. Perhaps more effective, by doing this the preservation community can vet and endorse candidates. They can hold events that don’t just raise money for their cause, as with a PAC, but actually hold fundraisers for favored political figures. They can publicize their electoral choices among their membership and elicit detailed information from candidates for public office regarding their positions regarding preservationist issues. With promises of money, influence, and warm bodies to canvass, stuff envelopes, and make phone calls, the preservationist community can help do the dirty work of electing candidates friendly to their cause. 

4. Create a fusion party. While not my personal favorite, this is an option that’s available to the preservationists – a “Preservation Party,” which can not just endorse and raise money for candidates, but actually provide them with another party line, and actual votes. 

The people who make up the preservationist community are some of the best-connected in town, with existing access to media, elected officials, the regional apparatchik class, the money-rich foundations, and the moneyed elites. Yet instead of capitalizing on that, they reduce themselves to “this place matters” passive resistance and emergency leafletting or litigation. They’re often referred to as “obstructionist” specifically because of that. While they may not care about it, and rationalize it, it’s a perception that can be changed rather easily.