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Preservation vs. demolition is wrong view

The trouble with the save vs. demolish debate is most folks don't realize they are on the same side.

Developers, the city and preservationists all profit from the city's stock of great old buildings -- some of them world-famous, others merely loaded with character and class.

Character sells. Ask any developer. Carl Paladino gets upscale rents at the Bellasara, a transformed century-old building. Ben and Bernie Oblitz are turning a once-hurting 19th-century block of Main Street structures into apartments. Rocco Termini transformed a cluster of relics near the Theater District into high-end lofts. Renters came for the character -- high ceilings, exposed brick, natural wood -- of the old buildings.

The homogenization of America intensifies a demand for the real thing -- and folks are willing to pay for it. Downtown rents skew upwards of $1,000 a month.

"That's the reason people are moving back downtown, the character of these old buildings," developer Termini said. "It's not the same old thing you get in the suburbs."

Buffalo is dripping in the real thing -- not just lofts, but landmarks. We are building a cultural tourism industry around once-endangered, now-saved international icons like Wright's Darwin Martin complex, Sullivan's Guaranty building and the Richardson towers. They will bring bucks to Buffalo and expand our national brand beyond Bills and blizzards. It works for all of us.

More often than not, preservation is development. Saving Shea's gave us a downtown centerpiece that draws hundreds of thousands of people. Dennis Murphy transformed a tottering Delaware Avenue relic into The Mansion, a successful boutique hotel. Ani DiFranco turned the crumbling Asbury Methodist Church into a cultural center and spared us a parking lot. Mark Goldman jump-started the Chippewa Street revival by reviving the Calumet Building. And on and on.

Nearly every time somebody saved a great old building, it was worth it -- and not just for its own sake. It raised the value of everything around it.

The larger point is this doesn't have to be a Hobson's Choice -- protect a relic or knock it down. It usually only comes to that when the city screws up and lets buildings rot. Most of the blight on the landscape -- from the long-vacant Vernor building to the recently demolished Schmidt edifice -- was avoidable. It happened because the city didn't crack down on bad owners and because a revolving door of housing court judges delivered wrist-slaps.

Owners who let buildings rot aren't developers, they're speculators. They bought the buildings -- decades ago, in some cases -- in the hope that downtown will revive and they would make a killing. They don't fix leaking roofs or crumbling foundations, and when the tide doesn't turn they declare the building a hazard. It's called demolition by neglect. That's when battle lines are drawn, when preservationists march in and when developer/speculators cry "obstruction."

"It's avoidable, absolutely," Termini said. "There needs to be a lot stricter [building] code enforcement from the city, starting with the core area downtown."

Only in recent years did Tony Masiello flex some muscle to make owners fix or sell stagnant buildings. Judge Hank Nowak Jr. has slapped heavy fines on some inert owners. Preservationists need to be proactive instead of reactive: Red-flag crumbling buildings, call in city inspectors and point a finger at bad owners.

Can we save everything? No. Save or lose usually depends on how far gone a building is, where it is, if somebody will take it on and whether what is planned does us more good than what is there.

But it doesn't always have to be us vs. them. Especially when we're all in this together.


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