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Editorial: Prevent loss of at-risk historic buildings

Several things must happen to keep the wrecking ball away from Buffalo’s historic buildings. For starters, owners of such structures must maintain their properties. For another, the city and state need to pay closer attention.
Unfortunately, not all owners care, and when buildings become structurally unsound, uninhabitable and primed for the wrecking ball, it should be easier for cases to reach judges – before demolition.

Had the case of 435 Ellicott St. reached Housing Court so it could take immediate action after the partial roof collapse in August, the executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara believes the recent emergency demolition would have been averted.

Getting cases to court is not as straightforward as it sounds, city officials contend. Still, preservationists, affected business owners and the community remain understandably outraged that the building on one of downtown’s most historically intact blocks is gone. An emergency demolition conducted on Dec. 4 sparked anger from residents upset with city officials, fairly or not, over the circumstances and the avoidable consequence. Not every building can or should be saved but this one, which housed Two Wheels Bakery and Café and two upstairs apartments, continued to be used.

The good news is that Mayor Bryon W. Brown has pledged “to crack down hard” on commercial landlords who don’t maintain their properties. He made the promise standing in front of the ruins of 435 Ellicott. He also directed his administration to help the bakery’s owner, Susan Adamucci, to file a claim to recoup the estimated $80,000 to $90,000 of restaurant equipment she lost.

The building was one of several properties owned on and around Ellicott Street by Bruce H. Adler, 72, head of Buffalo Properties Ltd., which is registered in Nyack, north of New York City. Buffalo developer Rocco Termini recounted to a reporter that he had taken Adler to housing court 15 years ago “and nothing was done then.” He also said Adler owns six buildings in the same condition – “and still nothing is done.”

Housing Court Judge Patrick M. Carney said the building’s issues were never brought before him. City officials cite several reasons but remain adamant that not only did they write up the building for court but that they made a concerted effort to identify, with the help of preservationists, at-risk historic buildings.

The well-documented problems at 435 Ellicott St. culminated when a chimney caved in and a part of the façade crumbled in late August. It was then that Two Wheels Bakery and Café on the building’s first floor closed and the two upstairs tenants had to move out. The Puppy Playpen, next door, was also forced to move.

When, only a few months later, the circa-1860s building ended up bulldozed, Preservation Buffalo Niagara Executive Director Jessie Fisher called it a “system-level failure” when it comes to holding absentee, out-of-town property owners accountable. That’s what the Brown administration needs to confront.

A city inspector immediately wrote up the property for court, but the system is convoluted: When corporation such as Adler’s are involved, the city must notify the office of the New York secretary of state, which then serves the corporation. And that begins a six- to eight-week process, which can drag into months.

That’s a frustration for many, including Lou Petrucci, Buffalo’s deputy commissioner of permits and inspection services. Fisher, for her part, would like to see programs enacted in which demolition is not the only tool, one possibly augmented by dedicated funding for repairs, similar to the East Side Commercial District Program administered in Buffalo by Empire State Development.

Preservation members and city officials should work together to put systems and processes in place to address deteriorating buildings. New York should also review its processes to avoid catastrophic failures such as befell 435 Ellicott. No one wants to make decisions in front of a wrecking ball.

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