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Preservation, development can work hand in hand

I am a Rochester resident, but over the last year of consulting for a business in the Cobblestone District I have enjoyed exploring Buffalo's waterfront and its unparalleled collection of historic structures and industrial architecture.

Much of that exploration has been with "Buffalo's Waterfront: A Guidebook" in hand. It never ceases to amaze me that in just the decade or so since the guidebook was published, so many of the historic structures depicted in its pages have succumbed to the wrecking ball, most notably the Harbor Inn.

Regarding the question posed by Mark Sommer's recent article, "Preserving or obstructing?" in the case of the H-O Oats complex the answer is clear: It was not an either-or proposition. Community progress should be, and almost always can be, compatible with historic preservation.

As to the intrinsic value of the H-O complex, a collection of structures associated with the grain-processing trade is part of what makes Buffalo, especially the waterfront, unique. With such piecemeal losses of key historic structures -- the "crown jewels" -- a community can suddenly realize it has lost much of its heritage. Historic structures tell the story of a community the way books and old photos cannot. To discover that for many historic landmarks the only traces left are sketches in a guidebook is a jarring experience for visitors and locals alike.

Preservation laws are in place not to obstruct, but to make destruction a last resort. Demolition of a historic structure should never be the easy choice of a single-minded enterprise such as the Buffalo Creek Casino. The laws force a dialogue wherein a balance between progress and preserving the past can be struck. Without such laws, the Barry Snyders of the world just blindly line up their wrecking balls, saying they will not even discuss preservation "because they don't have to."

And as to the criticism of why nothing had been done to date to reuse the H-O complex, that's hardly the fault of preservationists, who have undertaken astonishing initiatives in the adjoining Cobblestone District and at the Erie Canal Harbor, which have borne fruit with preservation-sensitive development.

Rather, public agencies that have dragged their feet are responsible for the slow pace of economic revitalization at the waterfront. If waterfront revitalization had moved forward years ago, the H-O complex might at this moment house dozens of loft apartments -- a fitting companion to the Elk Terminal -- rather than living on only as a sketch in the guidebook.

My admittedly outsider's perspective is that, in preservation battles, Buffalo would be wise to look to the Cobblestone District, Erie Canal Harbor and the Asbury Delaware Church, among other projects, for examples of how progress and community revitalization can proceed side by side with historic preservation. A community-wide penchant for preservation doesn't obstruct progress, it represents progress.

Alan Oberst is a consultant who lives in Rochester and has worked to preserve abandoned railroad and canal corridors in Western New York.

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