Proaction vs. Reaction (UPDATED)

That’s WGRZ’s report on last night’s protest of the demolition of the Bethlehem Steel administration building adjacent to a crushed stone and cement facility. It’s a shame to see a pretty building go, but as I wrote yesterday, I certainly think this ranks rather low on the priority scale for not just Lackawanna, but western New York at large. 

After so many decades of preservationist battles led by professional activists funded by Buffalo’s foundations – after so many decades of reactive grassroots planning-by-litigation, is anyone amazed that even lowly White Plains, with a population of less than 100,000, has a more modern, better-constructed, better-designed, and more walkable city core than Buffalo?  

Please don’t mistake my sentiment – I think it’s great that we have a treasure trove of gorgeous, architecturally significant buildings to show off here in town. I thank the people who worked/work to save and improve them.

But where does that end? We also have a community that reacts to the proposed demolition of, say, Trico Plant 1 by defaulting to “keep it”. When “architectural significance” isn’t going to fly, they rely instead on appeals to emotion about its personal significance, or the significance of what once took place within that building. Are we going to erect a windshield-wiper museum in Trico? Is it the first, or the best, or the prettiest example of that sort of factory? Is Trico 1 to be treated like it’s equivalent to the Darwin Martin House? 

And preservation shouldn’t be quite so reactive. 

After all, what palpable, positive results do we have to show for our civic fascination with planning-by-litigation, and our mysteriously funded preservation reactivist efforts? I know that the city is still haunted by the demolition of, e.g., the Erie County Savings Bank to make way for the execrable Main Place Tower and the empty, pitiful “mall” attached to it, and that the Larkin Administration Building was demolished, leaving only yet another surface parking lot. But after all these years, you’d think that there’d be a lobbying effort to codify actual rules and regulations. But whereas old Buffalo erred on the side of demolition, perhaps now we err too often on the side of preservation – even of buildings whose historical, cultural, or architectural significance is specious, at best. 

Look – I don’t want pretty buildings demolished any more than anyone else does. And I’m not “in favor” of demolishing the Bethlehem Steel building at issue here. By the same token, I think you should only interfere reactively to a landowner’s use of his privately owned property where there’s a compelling public reason to do so. Dismantle this Bethlehem Steel building and put it someplace else. They did it with the 1831 London Bridge. 

Where’s the push for a land-value tax? Where’s the push to create a binding, uniform set of rules and regulations for handling these things. All that money and influence that the preservationist community enjoys, and we don’t yet have a “do not touch” list of historically, architecturally, or culturally significant buildings for Erie County? We’re just going to back-handedly react to planned demolitions by equating an abandoned building in a concrete factory to Shea’s? 

Sometimes, I think Buffalo’s preservationist community secretly wants these sorts of battles. They don’t really want the problem to be solved through prospective action; with legislation and a binding, predictable set of rules. Tim Tielman’s name is synonymous with architectural preservation in Buffalo, and he wields a lot of influence and has many wealthy and powerful supporters. He’s uniquely positioned to parlay his influence into legislative action. 

But if the problem is solved, what would they do then? 

UPDATE: I’ve been debating regular commenter and BRO writer David Steele in a post at Rustwire, and we’ve been going back and forth, with his ultimate position being that an elimination or reversal of suburban sprawl in WNY would solve problems like this Lackawanna Administration Building. Here’s what I wrote him in reply: 

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Places Generally Matter

The city of Lackawanna is scheduled to demolish the Bethlehem Steel Administration Building, which is an objectively beautiful but neglected building. It wasn’t until the last few weeks that this structure became an important “must-save” for the Buffalo preservationist community, but it is now the subject of overnight vigils and earnest signage urging re-use of the property, and that “this place matters”. 

Would it be nice if the building could be saved and re-used? Absolutely.  It would be absolutely fantastic if there was enough wealth in the area and interest in that site to do something useful, valuable, and forward-thinking with it. But must we? Is this a “must-save”? Why? By what standard? It’s not even particularly persuasive that, e.g., FixBuffalo blogger David Torke has established that the building isn’t as structurally dangerous as the demolition contractor avers

Lackawanna has no preservationist group or community, mostly because it’s the type of city that doesn’t have a lot of time for things that don’t involve work. It’s a gritty, working-class place; not a place with a big architecture enthusiast community. That’s why most – if not all – of the protesters against the demolition of the Bethlehem Steel building come from Buffalo. It would be nice if we could save the building, but it’s not a civic priority. Not a “must do”. 

How would we know if it was a must-do, anyway? After so many years of these ad hoc battles every time an architecturally pretty building becomes endangered, we still don’t have an objective set of established rules, lists, regulations, and laws to govern what does and doesn’t get torn down, and the process to do so. After all these years, it still boils down to, “holy crap, [municipal or private entity] is going to demolish [building no one really thought much about until it became endangered]! Let’s react!”

And react they did. Twitter, Facebook, even Instagram all have emotional entreaties to save that building. Torke has written a series of blog posts, including his images of exploring the structure

One of the most common pleas to emotion regarding the Bethlehem Steel building and, earlier, the Trico Plant 1 is that “this place matters”. Well, of course. Everyplace matters. Of all the arguments against demolishing an old, pretty building, is the fact that it “matters” to people the most persuasive and insightful argument?

During the Trico debates, one person went so far as to say the building should be preserved because her parents met while working there. Under that standard, we’d effectively ban demolition of every building, everywhere. Why, I’ll bet someone’s parents met while working at the Donovan Building, but I don’t see anyone clamoring for preserving its facade. I’m sure Buffalo City Court – the ugliest building in Christendom – matters to someone, but if the state decided it needed to be replaced by something less fortress-like, I’d hold a parade. 

So, perhaps we should dispense with the emotion-driven “this place matters” nonsense. Of course “this” place matters, because all places “matter”. 

But what does all of this say about our civic priorities? Lackawanna is a city that was decimated by Bethlehem Steel’s closure. That entire waterfront is a monument, alright – a monument to a century of unregulated environmental destruction of what was once a gorgeous coastline. Just as Trico is a monument to an industrial exodus from WNY to places with palm trees, Bethlehem Steel is a headstone for a uniquely Buffalonian past – ecological crisis to serve a master hundreds of miles away. 

I flew over the site on Friday. Here are two images as I approached the building we’re talking about: 

Approach from the west

Site is indicated

Notice anything there? How about the acres and acres of brownfield that surrounds the site and would likely cost millions – if not tens of millions – to clean up and convert into something that didn’t just randomly poison people. Where’s the political or civic will to actually transform this lakefront into something remotely usable by people? It’s so contaminated that its highest and best use is as land for buildings supplies and really big – often stationary – windmills. Not apartments, or offices, or shops or parkland – it’s so dangerous that people aren’t even generally allowed there.  

A drive down Route 5 from about Gallagher Beach, south to Lackawanna is a tour of despair, decay, and rottenness. What are we going to do as a society – as a community – to right a massive and longstanding wrong? The land where this building is located is owned by Gateway Trade – an industrial park that houses a crushed stone company

We could reclaim that land for general use and public enjoyment, but we’re focused on one pretty building. 

I submit that preserving the pretty building is a nice sentiment, but not a civic priority. Appeals to emotion do not justification make. Cleaning up the lakefront and the contaminated land that once was home to the steel industry, so that it’s fit for human habitation? That’s the real outrage – that’s the real “must do.” And it doesn’t get any less expensive the longer we sit and wait. 

Perhaps we could set up a committee and hold a series of public hearings. 

Vote for the Central Terminal

Seldom a recipient of millions of federal or state dollars for renovation, and being carefully preserved – literally – by a dedicated group of loving volunteers, the Central Terminal is competing against other local historical architectural marvels for a $10,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Please click here and vote – and vote often – for the Central Terminal to receive this much-needed grant. All of the properties competing against the Central Terminal have been recent recipients of large grants from government sources and private foundations. The gorgeous old railroad station, however, has not been so lucky.

They really need this money.