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Preserving or obstructing? Saving historic buildings is a fierce passion for some, but others feel an 'everything must be saved' philosophy is hindering Buffalo's growth

Preservationists in Buffalo can be found in the trenches, trying to stop 19th century buildings from being torn down, or saving hulking grain elevators from meeting the wrecking ball.

But not everyone applauds such efforts.

From average citizens to developers, some local people see preservationists as obstructionists who want to save every blighted building in an aging city. They do so, critics charge, without regard for feasible reuse, prospects for restoration funds or how their actions discourage investment in the city.

"There is definitely a school of thought -- and quite a large contingent of people -- who very openly take the position that everything must be saved. I don't think that helps the city in terms of moving forward," said Richard C. Baer, a member of the Buffalo Preservation Board, the city agency that considers changes to historic structures.

"I think preservationists are choking the city with the things they are doing," said Ernestine Aberle, a Buffalo native who lives in Clarence and opposes spending $76.5 million to restore the historic H.H. Richardson complex.

"I'm all for preserving things from the past, whether it be family customs or buildings, but it can get way off balance."

Critics point to several buildings they believe preservationists have gone overboard to save: the Vernor Building in the Theater District, the Balcom/Chandler House on Niagara Square and a 19th century building next to Pano's restaurant on Elmwood Avenue.

Preservationists are hardly a monolith. Some focus on buildings with clear historical value, such as the Richardson complex, while others are concerned about maintaining the historic integrity of neighborhoods that include structures less highly regarded.

But all believe the city's future can be found, in part, in its past.

"Preservationists have visited other cities and know that quality economic revitalization occurs when the fabric of the built environment is invested in, rather than demolished in the name of progress and easy profits for developers," said Dennis Galucki, executive director of the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier.

>The Pano's battle

A recent battleground between preservationists and those who think they go too far is the building next door to Pano's, a popular Elmwood Avenue restaurant. The 1893 structure is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

Restaurant owner Panagiotis Georgiadis applied for a demolition permit in September 2004 to tear down the building. He wanted to replace it with a dining patio and more parking, and later offered to incorporate design elements from the building.

Georgiadis and his supporters reasoned that he wanted to improve his business and should be allowed to do so without interference.

Preservationists insisted that the building was essential to the Elmwood Avenue streetscape. They pressed their case with picket lines and at public hearings, attracting the support of some politicians.

Georgiadis said his supporters voted with their feet, boosting his business during that time to all-time heights.

The case is in the courts, but the experience, Georgiadis said, landed him in the hospital.

"I got a bleeding ulcer, and since then, I don't care about this house anymore, or this city. I just go to work every day. I think [preservationists] are parasites," he said.

Baer, the Preservation Board member, is another critic.

"I think of those of us on the Preservation Board as being pragmatists," said Baer, who works as a construction consultant in Angola.

Baer said he is sympathetic to developers because he recognizes obstacles and delays can make redevelopment of historic buildings untenable.

"They just drag out beyond the developer's patience or ability to financially make it work," Baer said.

Tim Tielman of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture, can recite dozens of downtown buildings torn down through the years, most prominently, Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Administration Building in 1950.

Tielman blames the city's failure to penalize irresponsible owners and its lack of interest in citizen concerns for forcing preservationists into action.

"These complaints about 'preservationists' are not about preservation. They're about power," Tielman said.

"For 50 years, the decisions about the future of our city and how our money was spent was the exclusive province of the business and political elite," he said. "Today, on the margins, citizens are making themselves heard. Hooray for them."

Preservationists also point to many run-down buildings that were nearly demolished in recent years and are now success stories.

Recent examples include: the 1863 George Squier mansion on Main Street, now home to Literacy Volunteers of Buffalo & Erie County; the former Holling Press on Washington Street, which opened last year as mixed-income housing; and The Church, the former Asbury Delaware United Methodist Church, at Delaware Avenue and Tupper Street, now reborn as an art gallery and, soon, a performance hall.

That's why Baer also said a debt is owed to activists like Tielman.

"I've always said I couldn't be a Tim [Tielman], but I think of the Erie Canal Harbor and [buildings being rehabbed at] Main and Virginia, and I'm sure many more that would probably be gone if he hadn't jumped into the fray, as mad as it makes developers," Baer said.

>Developers aren't fans

Not surprisingly, many developers see preservationists as impediments to progress.

"There are a lot of projects people would like to see saved that are not saveable and may ultimately be a hindrance to development," said Benjamin Obletz, president of First Amherst Development.

The company owns Lofts at Elk Terminal near the Cobblestone District and is restoring the row of mostly 19th century buildings at Virginia and Main streets.

Carl Paladino, chief executive of Ellicott Development Co., who was vilified by preservationists for demolishing the Harbor Inn in 2003, is more blunt.

"I think the preservation effort is tempered by the Preservation Board. Beyond them, you have a bunch of extremists who have no appreciation whatsoever of how to help our city move into the 21st century," said Paladino, who has converted two historic downtown buildings into housing and is planning others.

The fate of the H-O Oats grain elevator, on Seneca Nation of Indians land near the Cobblestone District, has stirred perhaps the most recent controversy. Preservationists have promoted tourism potential in the collection of grain elevators near the historic terminus of the Erie Canal and suggested the H-O Oats silos could be turned into a hotel.

Paladino, who sold the grain elevator to the Senecas in October, recommended that the silos be used for signs, and was told the idea would be considered.

But he fails to understand what preservationists see in them.

"We have enough grain elevators to show the next few generations," said Paladino. "There's nothing particularly unique about the H-O grain elevator compared to the 17 other ones in town."

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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