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Preservation effort flawed Activists can't wait for demolition before trying to save historic buildings

Last week brought unhappy news that the owner of the century-old former administrative headquarters of Bethlehem Steel Corp. will, under court order, tear down the structure.

The 1902 Beaux Arts-style building, designed by Lansing C. Holden for the Lackawanna Iron & Steel Co., is known for its ornate details and serves as an imposing reminder of the region's industrial past.

But the structure has been abandoned for decades and allowed to deteriorate, and Lackawanna city officials have ordered it dismantled because of safety concerns.

Opponents of the demolition hastily organized a protest, but the well-meaning effort comes far too late to save the Bethlehem Steel building.

Coming just seven months after this region hosted the National Preservation Conference, the looming loss of this grand old structure highlights deep flaws in our largely haphazard efforts at historic preservation.

If the building were a person, the case could be prosecuted as criminally negligent homicide, and it raises questions that lack easy answers.

First, where was the City of Lackawanna all these years?

The building was left vacant long before its current owners, the Gateway Trade Center, took over in 1983, and there's no indication the city enforced building codes that could have maintained the structure.

And Lackawanna doesn't have any preservation ordinances, which would be another tool to use in the fight to save this monument to our industrial heritage.

Like it or not, local governments are stewards of these historic structures … because no one else is caring for them.

It's painfully clear this region too often takes a reactive, instead of a proactive, approach to preservation.

Preservationists need to make a comprehensive effort to catalog the region's historic buildings, prioritize those that are most worth saving and come up with an action agenda.

This is missing even in Buffalo, where groups have scored victories with Shea's Performing Arts Center, the Guaranty Building and other buildings saved from demolition.

Of course, this is hard to do when preservation groups here lack the financial resources needed to stabilize these structures or prepare them for a second life.

Buffalo Niagara doesn't have enough deep-pocketed corporations that could build a preservation war chest.
That's a problem because these are expensive projects.

Just removing the asbestos from the Bethlehem Steel building would cost almost $2 million, ackawanna's code enforcement officer told The News.

With the owners of these properties unable … or unwilling … to save these properties, we must rely on developers willing to tackle these complex and costly projects.

Rocco Termini's work with the Hotel @ the Lafayette and Mark Croce's efforts with Statler City are rare success stories. But those are cases where the buildings had reasonably obvious reuses.

Even if we had the money to save the Bethlehem headquarters building, along the waterfront in Lackawanna, what would be done with the massive structure?

These are difficult questions, but we need to ask them well the before the wrecking ball finds its next target.