Despite vocal opposition from a handful of preservationists, a Buffalo couple easily won approval Monday night for their plan to knock down a century-old but possibly deteriorating Lafayette Avenue home and build a new one on the Elmwood Village site west of Gates Circle.
Brian and Gia Manley, owners of Imagine Staffing, fended off criticism of their million-dollar proposal by leaders of two local organizations, who were outnumbered as the couple’s neighbors turned out at the Buffalo Planning Board to express support for the project and the Manleys’ investment in the neighborhood.
“I am more excited about this construction and its enhancement of the neighborhood than anything that’s happened there since I moved in,” said Jim Grunebaum of Lafayette Avenue. “It’s an eyesore. We are very thankful for this and that Brian and Gia are making a significant contribution to the neighborhood.”
In the end, the vote was not even close, and project supporters broke out into applause after the decision.
“We’re absolutely pleased, especially since it was a unanimous vote by the Planning Board. They could really see our vision,” Brian Manley said. “This is what we had hoped for.”
Opponents, meanwhile, sat stone-faced, and later expressed disappointment that a home in a national historic district – but not a local preservation district – can be demolished so easily.
“Today’s decision by the Planning Board sets a precedent that puts every home in Buffalo’s historic districts in danger,” said Gretchen Cercone, president of the Lancaster Avenue Block Club, whose own house sits behind and across the street from the Manleys. Cercone brought a petition to the board that she said contained 275 names opposed to the project.
“Developers and investors watching this case closely now know that the city’s own Planning Department is in favor of demolishing structurally sound historic structures. If anything good has come from this demolition proposal, it is that Elmwood Village residents are coming together like never before to demand increased protections for this city’s historic assets.”
The approval marks a key step forward for the Manleys, although they still need a zoning variance and city permits before they can start work. They hope to be in their new home within a year.
The Manleys already live three doors away from the Lafayette Street home. They paid $400,000 in January to buy the three-story, four-unit house at 647 Lafayette, in the Elmwood Village East Historic District. They said they had planned originally to renovate it as their new home, but that after they started to analyze the project, they and their architect, John Wingfelder, concluded that they would have to strip out almost everything. The garage roof had collapsed, there was water damage in the house, and they said there was nothing left to preserve.
So instead, they said, they decided to demolish the house, which was built in 1920, and erect a new two-story home with an attic, designed to fit in with the historic character of the surrounding neighborhood. “We have worked diligently with John to come up with a design that will embrace our street and our neighborhood,” Manley said.
Neighbors on Lafayette applauded the plan. “I’m very excited about this project,” said Beverly Thomas. “The project truly reflects the block. I think it’s going to be a great asset, and we’re very much in favor of this project.”
Cercone and others, including architect Anthony James and longtime preservationist Tom Yots, acknowledge the design effort, but still urged the Manleys and the Planning Board to change course and keep as much of the old house as possible. “The house that is being proposed to replace it, it is a nice design and it is compatible with some of the houses that are on Lafayette,” Yots said. “But it is not compatible with what is there now.”
Cercone had even urged the board to reject the plan and give more time for a broader community meeting, with more detailed plans for neighbors to see. “It is a beautiful home. It is structurally sound. It should not be replaced by a new build,” she said.
“There doesn’t seem to be another example of this building type in the city that I could find,” James said, citing the house’s four chimneys, hip roof and original center hall style. “I’m hoping there may be some way to consider maintaining that.”
“I have nothing against the Manleys,” said Connie Hoyt, another Lafayette resident, who acknowledged the house “has been bastardized over the years” and “is not the most beautiful house on the block.” Even so, she said, it doesn’t need to come down. “I just feel the house needs someone to speak for it.”