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Plan to demolish, rebuild Elmwood Village home runs into firestorm of opposition

Brian and Gia Manley never expected the harsh reaction they have received to their plans to knock down and rebuild an Elmwood Village home.

The couple early this year purchased a 96-year-old house, with four apartment units, on Lafayette Avenue, just west of Gates Circle.

The Buffalo natives already lived in the historic neighborhood – three doors down – but wanted a bigger house and had planned to move there with their three sons after making substantial renovations to restore it to a single-family home.

“We were hoping to raise our family and continue to live in the neighborhood that we lived in,” Gia Manley said. “It’s our forever home.”

But once they got into planning, they discovered the house at 647 Lafayette needed much more work than they expected. And there was virtually nothing of original or historic character left in the home to preserve or restore. So they decided to demolish and build a new home designed to fit into the neighborhood.

That’s when the trouble started. After a positive community meeting and feedback, a few preservationists who live nearby learned of the plans and mobilized opposition, citing the historic nature of the Elmwood East Historic District and the need to preserve the city’s past.

“If every home in the Elmwood Village that needed work was fair game for demolition, before long the neighborhood we know and love would no longer exist,” said Gretchen Cercone, president of the Lancaster Avenue Block Club. She predicted “vocal opposition” if the old house comes down.

The Manleys declined to allow a Buffalo News photographer to take photos of the interior of the house.

The battle over the Lafayette house epitomizes the continuing fight between development and preservation, which has only picked up in intensity in recent years because of the wave of reinvestment and reuse of city properties. It’s also become more of a challenge as property values have increased in many parts of the city, making such projects more financially worthwhile.

Historic tax credits have eased some problems by encouraging property owners to undertake historic renovations instead of tearing buildings down. But the desire to save doesn’t always work, especially if structural conditions aren’t conducive to the work or the cost is prohibitive.

The Manleys

In the Manleys’ case, the owners of Imagine Staffing wanted to stay in Elmwood Village where they have lived for years, and thought they had struck it rich when they saw the three-story home at 647 Lafayette was available. Gia in particular had been attracted to the home, with its royal blue siding, white shutters, and stone front porch, and she envisioned the half-floor on the third level, with its hip roof and dormer, as their new master bedroom.

“We saw that it was going to need a lot of work, and it was going to be a big project,” Gia Manley said. “We thought we knew what we were getting into.”

The house was built in 1920 on a quarter of an acre; previous owners added on several times over decades.

The Manleys bought the house in January for $400,000, and began planning for renovations.

Then they got a closer look. The roof of the detached garage in the rear had collapsed, and a tree was growing through it while raccoons were living inside. A hot tub and covered bench area in back was infested with rats.

Water had pooled in a corner where a gabled roof on an addition meets another part of the house, causing damage to ceilings and walls inside. A grand staircase, porch and bay windows were long gone.

The Manleys realized they’d have to strip the house to the core wood frame and foundation, and even that would need changes.

“There’s nothing left of the good stuff, the cool stuff, that you’d want to restore and renovate. It’s just gone,” said architect John Wingfelder. “There’s nothing there we wouldn’t be stripping out.”

“The bones of that house are not faulty. But in order to do the renovation, that would be the only thing we’d have left,” Wingfelder said. “I’m not saying we can’t do it. I’m saying it doesn’t make sense.”

So they changed plans, deciding to demolish the 5,289-square-foot house and replace it with a new 6,200-square-foot home that they designed to fit into the neighborhood.

The Manleys then met with neighbors to win support, in advance of votes on the million-dollar project by the city’s Preservation and Planning boards.

The Preservation Board, which reviews every demolition in the city, unanimously voted against the Manleys’ proposal on Sept. 1, but its opinion is advisory. So the Manleys still are proceeding with their project, which goes before the city Planning Board on Monday.

The Preservationists

The opponents are led by Cercone, Jessie Fisher of the Preservation Buffalo Niagara and Chrissy Lincoln of Buffalo’s Young Preservationists. They convened a community meeting Saturday at the Crane Library to discuss the home and “the larger issues of demolition within a historic district.”

The groups said in a press release that more than 100 people in 24 hours had signed an online petition to save the home.

“Neighbors and city leaders must take immediate action to halt the demolition plans for this house and to put safeguards in place so these historic homes are protected,” Cercone said.

“Residents of the Elmwood Village have worked hard to see this neighborhood become the largest National Register Historic District in New York State,” Fisher said. “Preservation Buffalo Niagara stands with the community as they work to ensure that the appropriate laws and protections are in place to ensure that its unique charm and character endures for future generations.”

The house is listed as a “contributing structure” for the new Elmwood East Historic District, although that in itself doesn’t require the owners to maintain or renovate it and doesn’t prevent them from demolishing it. The district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but is not a local historic preservation district.

The Manleys’ plan

If the Manleys get the city’s go ahead, they intend to take down the house and garage, and then construct a larger three-story wood-frame home with four large bedrooms, large living and dining rooms, a library and a kitchen, according to plans the architect Wingfelder filed with the city.

It would have a new garage connected to the home by a pergola, a new in-ground pool, new landscaping, new fence, a front porch extending along most of the front, projecting bay windows and dormers, and a horseshoe-shaped front driveway.

“We worked tirelessly on a design that would add to the aesthetics of the neighborhood,” Brian Manley said. “We wanted to really create something that is very turn-of-the-century that will look like it was always there.”

If approved, construction would begin shortly, and the Manleys could move in within a year.

“We love Buffalo and we love the Elmwood Village so much,” he said. “We recognize what a wonderful place it is to be, and that’s why we’re making this investment.”

email: jepstein@buffnews.com

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