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Preservationists working to save Buffalo's dilapidated Richardson complex scored a significant court victory the other day with a judge's ruling that the State of New York must repair and maintain one of Buffalo's most historic buildings.

Nevertheless, the ruling is likely to serve mainly as a backstop to the larger triumph they already won when Gov. George Pataki, just before this month's elections, indicated a serious desire to restore and reuse the buildings on Elmwood Avenue that had once housed the Buffalo Psychiatric Center.

The ruling by State Supreme Court Justice John Michalek orders the state to meet its obligations as owner of the historic complex, and its distinctive twin towers. He has ordered the state to return to court next month to provide information about how it plans to rescue the deteriorating buildings, which have been largely vacant since the mid-1970s.

The ruling is the first of its kind in New York, and while it deals only with the Richardson complex, it could prompt other such lawsuits around the state. Given the state's difficult economic condition, that possibility could tempt Pataki to appeal, even though he has already announced his intentions to restore and make new use of the building.

He should resist the temptation, though, and instead commit to finding the flexibility that will allow him, and future governors, to protect the state's rich architectural heritage without raiding the treasury. Economic cycles will always challenge the fiscal health of this state, which leans heavily on revenue produced by Wall Street, but that cannot be allowed to undermine a balanced and thoughtful program of historic preservation.

Pataki has yet to provide details of his restoration plan, including its funding. Experts have said it will cost $100 million to renovate the entire complex, including at least $7 million simply to prevent further deterioration. What he has revealed, though, is that his plan builds on previous proposals to make the complex an educational center, likely occupied by Buffalo State College and the city's Olmsted schools.

That's a great place to begin, and if that approach puts the complex to full use, no one could call it anything but a success. Still, the towers are so dramatic and imposing that they could be even more valuable if included in the plans for some broader public use that would expose them to the greatest number of people, including visitors.

For a building that only a year ago seemed destined to crumble on its foundations, the Richardson complex has come a long way quickly. Credit goes to the preservationists and politicians who insisted these buildings could not be sacrificed; to Pataki who, for whatever reason, bought into the idea; and to the judge whose ruling should help to ensure that everyone's good intentions are backed by the force of law.

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