We’ve seen this movie before.
People in power craft a questionable plan, brush off public opinion, present it as a done deal and – absurdly – expect praise.
Instead, they get hammered. Battle lines are drawn. Time and energy is spent beating back a bad idea.
It has long been a way of civic life in Buffalo – from keeping Bass Pro off the downtown waterfront to, lately, rethinking condominiums on the Outer Harbor.
It’s not a template worth copying. But that hasn’t stopped the people running the Chautauqua Institution, of all places.
They hatched a $30 million plan – under, critics say, the smokescreen of “rehabilitation” – to demolish and “replicate” the 1893 Amphitheater, the spiritual heart of the intellectual oasis.
Destroying an iconic building is a bad idea anywhere. It’s especially indigestible at Chautauqua. I’m not sure which is more threatened – the Amphitheater, or Chautauqua’s reputation as a place of enlightenment.
Whatever the case, the pro-demolitionists – as of last week – no longer have cover.
A reputable design firm, at the request of the enlightened opposition, crafted a best-of-all-worlds alternative. It preserves and updates the iconic “Amp” – adding seats, fixing the roof and expanding the backstage area. Although closer to a rough draft than a blueprint, the plan from CJS Architects is a GPS guide out of the wilderness.
If President Tom Becker and Chautauqua’s board members want to make rubble of a National Historic landmark, it will – now and forever – be on their heads.
“The plan demonstrates that the ‘Amp’ can be improved and saved,” said Brian Berg, a lifelong Chautauqua devotee who co-founded the anti-demolition committee. “And it can be done for a fraction of the cost needed to demolish it and build a ‘replica’.”
Instead of embracing the enlightened alternative, Becker – cue storm clouds – blasted Berg & Co. for releasing the CJS plan to the media. Accusing them by letter of eroding trust and “grandstand[ing] for the public,” Becker cancelled an upcoming meeting with Berg’s committee.
So much for open debate and the free exchange of ideas.
“We don’t understand why making the (alternative) plan public precludes a discussion,” Berg told me by phone from his Chicago home. “We are committed to an open process. We don’t see any need for gag orders.”
The institution renowned for learning is looking Mr. Magoo-myopic. The place where decisions should be transparent is instead modeling an old-school, closed-door dynamic.
This is supposed to be Chautauqua, not City Hall. Somebody needs to inform Becker that he’s gone off-mission.
“There was more openness with the talks between Iran and Obama than with this,” noted Berg, whose group’s anti-demolition petition savetheamp.org has more than 10,000 signatures. “We were hoping to share and solicit ideas from the community.”
They might want to hurry. If Becker is committed to demolition, as many preservationists fear, the wrecking ball might swing as early as September.
Imagine a bulldozer plowing through a line of objectors – including reps from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a legion of appalled Chautauquans – to splinter to smithereens the quaintly whimsical Amp. There’s a photo op for the ages.
Is this the legacy anyone – particularly those presumably devoted to a philosophical ideal – really wants to leave?
I don’t know Becker. But I’ve seen this top-down, I-know-best attitude time and again from heads of various Buffalo public agencies and authorities. It’s a formula for pitched battles, hard feelings and – unless sidetracked – bad decisions.
Granted, Chautauqua is a private institution, not a taxpayer-funded public agency. But it is the same sorry model: Someone in authority digs in his heels, puts his ego on the line and gets personally invested in a bad idea. Suddenly, an issue becomes about something that it’s not – and the “leader” who’s supposed to solve problems instead becomes the problem.
It makes it hard to craft a graceful exit, even when the light is shining on the other side of the door.