Donn Esmonde: No need to rush demolition of St. Ann’s - The Buffalo News

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Donn Esmonde: No need to rush demolition of St. Ann’s

It’s not just about saving buildings. A preservationist these days doubles as a caretaker and a counselor.

Twitchy owners of broken buildings must be talked back from the ledge, shown the possibility of better days. Change a mind, stop a bulldozer.

Tom Yots does not have a degree in psychology, but it would help. Yots is 66, a precise fellow who favors silk ties and pocket squares and mashes a teenager’s energy into a jockey’s body. The head of Preservation Buffalo Niagara may have saved St. Ann’s – the 1886 gem the diocese last month put on the demolition list – with a phone call. At the very least, he earned the East Side church – to the relief of parishioners, the neighborhood and anyone who cares about history, culture or progress – a stay of execution.

By rights, it should morph into a reprieve.

It looked to me like the diocese was rushing to the wrecking ball. I sympathize with a diocese burdened with yet another eroding East Side church with a sparse congregation. A half-century of suburban flight tolled the bell on many a bell-tolling building.

But it has been barely a year since the last Mass in the main church. There is no gaping roof hole or raining stones to prompt panic. The vacant former school and convent on the square-block complex are ripe for revenue-stream resurrection. The neighborhood is rising from its knees. Losing its iconic building is no way to go – particularly for a diocese that some felt pulled the trigger too soon on St. Barbara, the Lackawanna church it flattened two years ago.

Yots changed the St. Ann’s conversation with a phone call to a Rochester developer. She is a potential buyer.

Bishop Richard Malone called off the bulldozers – for now.

Yots didn’t make the next call. He took it Tuesday. A group of Buffalo developers also are ready to throw in.

Two weeks, two offers. What wrecking ball?

“As preservationists, we can try to broker a deal,” Yots told me. “It’s a role we want to play.”

Spokesman Kevin Keenan said the diocese is appreciative and “very encouraged” by PBN’s efforts. It should be. It would likely cost the diocese more than $1 million to dismantle the church, with its jewel-box interior. That’s a lot of meals served and old folks cared for through Catholic Charities. What’s the demo rush?

Yots & Co. talked the diocese down.

“We want to have conversations with property owners that don’t begin with torches and pitchforks,” said PBN’s Jason Wilson. “As preservationists, we can be proactive ... with our community resources.”

I saw Mallie Foust walking past the church Friday morning.

“It’s a beautiful building, of course it would help the neighborhood to save it,” said Foust, a carpenter who has lived nearby for two decades. “Saving this would send a message that good things can happen.”

Plenty of messages already have been sent. St. Mary of Sorrows on Genesee Street was transformed into King Center Charter School. The original ECC building on Ellicott Street had bushes sprouting from its roof. It found new life as Health Sciences Charter School.

The road to St. Ann’s recovery is clear: The diocese parts with the property for a pittance. The new owner seals the church and uses tax credits to help resurrect the four-story school and convent for development. PBN basks in the glow.

Need building therapy? Call a preservationist.


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