Donn Esmonde Looks at things Backwards

Donn Esmonde is an Ass” is the name of the series, and he seldom, if ever disappoints. In Friday’s column, he devoted about 550 words to talking about how lame Byron Brown is and how Bernie Tolbert sure is swell for trying.

Bernie Tolbert doesn’t need or want my sympathy. But I can’t help feeling sorry for the guy. Taking on Byron Brown is like trying to grab a puff of smoke or lasso a shadow. Nothing sticks to the Teflon Mayor.

On Brown’s two-term watch, Buffalo lost another 20,000 people. Schools went deeper into the dumpster, while he watched the charter school revolution from the sidelines. His anti-poverty “plan” for America’s third-poorest city was a lame, idea-absent rehash. Buffalo is basically a ward of the state, which covers a third of its budget and the bulk of its school costs.

The “charter school revolution” is city people suburbanizing city schools. Pull kids and money out of the traditional public schools, so your kids can have a Williamsville experience without moving to Williamsville. Esmonde has an especial hard-on for suburban schools, and has spent three or four columns advocating for the decimation of what had until recently been one of the best districts in the region. Esmonde’s concern-trolling about schools is utter nonsense, given his complete transformation into a tea party Sith lord.

Brown backed a proposed Bass Pro store that would have smothered the downtown waterfront, and a Seneca casino that experts say does us more harm than good. But mostly, he is mum – even on obvious causes such as expanding ECC’s downtown campus. Nearly two-thirds of respondents rated him no better than average in a Buffalo News leadership survey. He is vision-lite, cliche-heavy and largely uninspiring.

You would think that the man would be fighting for his political life. Instead, the mayor is livin’ easy.

2/3 of respondents in a poll rated Brown as “average”. The Siena Poll that the Buffalo News and Channel 2 commissioned, the cross-tabs for which have never been released.

Polls show him far ahead of Tolbert, who is barely known and fights a 6-to-1 dollar disadvantage. The Democratic primary in September decides the race, as city Republicans are an endangered species. My wish to see a progressive, idea-driven mayor in this lifetime may never be granted (in lieu of that, I’d settle for a Super Bowl). Pollster Steven Greenberg can’t explain Brown’s cushy lead, given abysmal marks on schools and job creation.

Esmonde uses the word “progressive”. It is to laugh. But while city Republicans may be an “endangered species”, you’d think that the underdog candidate, Sergio Rodriguez, might merit a mention. I mean, the guy has ideas, he’s saying a lot of what Esmonde is saying in this piece, and he has a name!

Which brings us to Brown’s political genius – he has mastered the art of low expectations. By keeping his head in the foxhole, by not championing big ideas and sweeping reforms, he has conditioned people not to expect much. So he can take credit for anything good that happens – even when, like the waterfront or downtown revival, it doesn’t have much to do with him – while avoiding blame for problems. It helps that Brown was preceded by three-term Mayor Tony Masiello, who, if possible, set an even lower bar.

At least Jimmy Griffin had an executive temperament, along with a temper.

A bolder, tougher, more visionary mayor would lobby for a regional planning board, to slow sprawl and funnel new business into the city. He would protect one of the city’s few resources – its stock of great old buildings – by data-basing historic properties and hammering negligent owners. He would push for mixed-income housing in the suburbs, to lighten the city’s heavy poverty load. He would embrace the choice of charter schools, while demanding accountability from traditional ones. And on and on.

How exactly does the mayor of the City of Buffalo “push for mixed-income housing in the suburbs”? Does he ask nicely, or is there some interjurisdictional power he has that I’m not aware of?

But Esmonde is partially right – to have Byron Brown record ads touting Geico, which is hiring way the fuck up in North Amherst somewhere, is an obscenity of the highest order. The city of Buffalo is precisely the place that Geico should have located its sprawling call center, but instead it went to North Bumfuck because it got a swell deal from whatever IDAs had handouts at the ready. It is the people who live in the city of Buffalo who are in desperate need of $30,000 entry-level white-collar cubicle jobs like the ones at Geico, because the manufacturing jobs are gone and working at McDonalds frankly sucks.

Byron Brown and Warren Buffett and the Buffalo News all think locating Geico up near Quebec was a swell idea.

A decent wage, a decent job, and some semblance of an opportunity are the very foundation on which you build a better future for young, underserved and underprivileged city residents. Not your “stock of great old buildings”.

Esmonde and his preservation-first cohorts have it backwards. Fixing up great old buildings doesn’t turn around the local economy, but turning around the local economy will help spur more fixing up of great old buildings. The focus on Buffalo’s hardware is well-managed by exquisitely touchy people who think that attracting “cultural tourists” to see the Darwin Martin house and other buildings is the antidote to a half-century of decline. Our town is replete with ultra-wealthy foundations sporting the names of the founders of businesses that long ago abandoned Buffalo, all of which seem to think that their deep pockets provide an avenue for them to tell everyone how they’re doing it wrong. Meanwhile, the best thing anything with the name “Oshei” in it could do is open a Goddamn windshield wiper factory in Buffalo.

Regular people will rehab your pretty old buildings when it makes economic sense to do so. People will do it when you don’t have to retain a preservation activist to help navigate your way to tax credits, and around demonstrations and litigation. People will preserve our “great old buildings” when they have money to do it. And how do you create wealth in a shit economy? You make sure you have a decent educational system, and that there are available jobs to help lift a generation out of poverty and into the economic mainstream.

Instead, we applaud the fact that Geico brings thousands of jobs to the sticks – just a few bus transfers and a commute that would make Long Islanders cringe! It’s appalling. It’s sickening. It’s a disgrace.

His city is on life support, yet Brown shows little passion and champions few causes. What, me worry?

Granted, the mayor has strengths. He is likable, projects concern and looks good – all political pluses. The streets get plowed, and the garbage is picked up. And his timing is good. He is in office while the waterfront is shaping up and downtown is repopulating. Albany and Washington dollars, not city money, stoke the waterfront, and downtown revival is traceable mainly to market forces and momentum. Still, the rising tide lifts his boat. As numerous insiders have told me, Brown stays out of the way and shows up for the ribbon-cuttings.

Brown stays out of the way? The stories of institutional, tolerated bribery and corruption within City Hall are legion.

In Buffalo, the city of low expectations, it goes a long way. A lot further, I think, than it should.

An irony here is that Esmonde does so much to keep those expectations low and stupid.

Erie Freight House: 8 Months Down

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

Donny’s Style Manual #1: Non-Sequitur Tielman Invocation

I have absolutely nothing negative whatsoever to say about Bernice Radle and Jason Wilson.  I have absolutely nothing negative to say about the Buffalo Young Preservationists, who are fighting for what they believe in, (even if I occasionally disagree with them). 

But because Donn Esmonde is an Ass™, I have negative things to say about his profile of them; to wit, does Tim Tielman pay Donny a stipend for mentions? WTF does Tielman have to do with anything to do with these two 20-somethings? Is that how he earns his living? Because as far as I can tell, he has no visible means of support, yet is able to not only afford a home and food, but even a bus. 

There are a lot of so-called activists in town who are opaque about what they actually do for money, but at least Radle and Wilson have proper jobs, on the books, and try to save buildings and neighborhoods in their spare time. Not only that, but they hold degrees and jobs that have something to do with planning and preservation

To my mind, Radle and Wilson have infinitely more educational and professional bona fides to talk about planning and preservation matters than the guy who runs a protectioneering racket. After all, neither Bernice nor Jason have taken developers to court, but excepted the ones who hire them as “consultants”. 

This Place Mattered

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


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


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.

Shorter Donn Esmonde

Tim Tielman has transformed obstructionism into a successful protection racket, and this is good for Buffalo. 


Wield Your Influence

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. 

Steel Tube Production for Lackawanna

Chris Smith came across a notice for a public hearing, which was held on the morning of Tuesday May 29th in Lackawanna City Hall regarding an application Welded Tube, USA, Inc. made to the Erie County IDA for a land and incentive package at the “Tecumseh Business Park, Lakewinds Site Parcel 3 at the intersection of Route 5 and Ridge Road in Lackawanna”.  

Under the proposal, Welded Tube intends to build a “new, high speed, efficient steel tube production line for the production of multi-faceted cold formed carbon and HSLA tubular steel for use in the energy tubular industry”.  

The ECIDA would purchase the land and lease it back to Welded Tube, and “contemplates that it will provide financial assistance to the Company for qualifying portions of the Project in the form of sales and use tax exemptions, a mortgage recording tax exemption, and a partial real property tax abatement consistent with the policies of the [ECIDA]”. 

The property in question is a 400 acre brownfield site that sits perhaps not coincidentally right next to the embattled Bethlehem Steel North office building. 

Alfred Culliton, COO of ECIDA says that Welded Tube is a “Canadian operation” looking to open up its first US operation on this Lackawanna site. Culliton says Welded Tube intends to construct further south on the property, near the South Branch crossing, and is in no way related to, or spurring the push to demolish the Bethlehem Steel North office building. 

Welded Tube USA, Inc. is not incorporated in New York State, and there are no Google hits for that name, except for the ECIDA hearing notice.  It appears that cleaning up the former Bethlehem Steel property for prospective residential or recreational purposes is not a priority, and the land will instead further be used for industrial purposes. This place – does it matter? How, and for whom?

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.