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The Editorial Board: Five months after the city’s demolition order, Great Northern remains defiantly upright

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Great Northern grain elevator (copy) (copy)

Any new ruling ordering the demolition of the Great Northern grain elevator won't be based on any "emergency." The court needs to protect this historic structure.

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And, once again, it’s still standing. What do you know?

We made the same observation in February, as the Great Northern grain elevator defied the idea that it was in crisis and threatening to collapse.

That was two months after the windstorm that tore a hole in its façade. Now, five months after the damage was inflicted, the grain elevator remains wounded but otherwise none the worse. It’s a fact that judges, lawyers, preservationists and others need to keep in mind as they reconsider the crazy order to tear down this historic structure.

The longer this goes on, the more obvious it becomes that opponents of demolition are on the right side of this: The damage, though it may appear severe to the untrained eye, is superficial – cosmetic, even. Therefore, any order allowing the building to be razed is based not on any threat to the building or the people near it, but on a tortured legal interpretation of the order, itself.

Maybe that won’t happen. An appeals court last week ruled that Justice Emilio Colaiacovo erred in not considering evidence offered by a preservation group, the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture. The state Appellate Division in Rochester reversed Colaiacovo’s ruling that would have allowed the historic building to be demolished and ordered him to hold a new hearing. In the meantime, a restraining order continues to prevent demolition.

James Comerford, then the city’s commissioner of permits and inspections, signed the demolition order on Dec. 17, six days after the storm. But today, 143 days after the “emergency” order was issued, the building remains defiantly sturdy, despite a nasty hole in one wall.

That goes to the preservation group’s point. Said Tim Tielman, the group’s director: “We are confident that once our experts and evidence are put before the court, it will become clear that the city and Commissioner Comerford acted arbitrarily and capriciously in issuing an emergency demolition order that clearly was not necessary.”

Predictably, the elevator’s owner, Archer Daniels Midland, insists – the building’s refusal to collapse notwithstanding – that great danger exists and that “demolition is necessary to protect our employees, our neighbors and the public.”

But as one expert observed in an “Another Voice” column last month, the building’s innovative structure keeps it sound. Inside, “giant steel cylindrical grain bins are riveted together and to the frame to create a single solid mass of steel anchored to bedrock,” wrote Paul McDonnell, president of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo and president-elect of the American Institute of Architects, New York State.

The brick wall that was damaged is several feet thick, McDonnell wrote, and serves merely as an envelope that “keeps the weather out and bins shaded.” Everything inside is supported by the steel frame. No steel touches the brick.

So, the risk is that any loose bricks could fall, injuring a person or property. But it’s been five months since the storm and not only has that not happened, but no effort has been made to repair the damage. That’s not surprising, since ADM has been angling for years to tear the structure down. It doesn’t want the thing.

But the grain elevator is historic. Not only is the building old – it was built in 1897 – but it’s the last remaining brick-enclosed steel structure elevator in North America. Less significant, perhaps, but adding to its value is that it is the first grain elevator in the world, along with the Electric Elevator, to harness electricity from Niagara Falls.

A lot of people want to save this historic grain elevator, including Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown who urged ADM to save it even though his commissioner signed its death warrant. Developer Douglas Jemal, who says it can easily be saved and repurposed, has offered to buy it. Only ADM wants to tear it down.

It shouldn’t be allowed. There is no emergency. There is only the fixable damage that came from a 2021 storm and years of deferred maintenance.

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Preserving the best of Buffalo’s landmarks benefits our entire region. The character of the city’s architecture, and the neighborhoods tinged with history, are among the top features that attract new residents to Buffalo Niagara. Not every property merits saving just because it’s old, but we cannot afford to have bulldozers tearing down any structure whose owner finds it inconvenient to maintain.

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