And now it’s too late. That’s what’s being said about two historic Cobblestone District structures at 110 and 118 South Park Ave. that have been allowed to crumble and decay for more than a decade under the bad stewardship of an indifferent owner.
The brick and cast iron structures – which housed 19th century blacksmith and bakery operations, among other uses – are among the few original Erie Canal-era buildings that remain in the district, which was designated a local Historic Preservation District in 1994 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.
As the city of Buffalo enters the early stages of eminent domain proceedings and owner Darryl Carr requests an emergency demolition in Housing Court, the buildings remain in limbo. Eight (at least) previous court appearances since 2010 have not been able to force remedial action.
People are also reading…
There has got to be a better way to address preservation in Buffalo. The strategy shouldn’t always be waiting until somebody with deep pockets comes along. And even if that is the only solution, at the least, the buildings have to be sustained until such a benefactor materializes.
It’s been more than two years since Mayor Byron Brown vowed that his administration would “crack down hard” on owners not maintaining their buildings.
That was after the partial collapse and successive demolition of a neglected Civil War-era building on Ellicott Street. While the city’s eminent domain action against Carr – initiated in December – is certainly a viable legal tool to take away neglected buildings, there have been earlier opportunities to protect the Cobblestone buildings for future, responsible owners.
Last year, Preservation Buffalo Niagara hired an engineer, came up with a feasible stabilization plan and offered to do the work. It also – as it did successfully with a residence on Cottage Street – offered to take receivership of the properties, make emergency repairs and then sell the property.
That’s not such an unusual strategy. In other cities, nongovernmental agencies have played significant roles in redeveloping urban cores, even taking on the implementation of policy. This needs to happen more in Buffalo, but the proposal was not accepted for the Cobblestone properties. It’s possible that the large parcel made this option too unwieldly; the presence of an active owner demanding demolition could also have been a factor.
Now, the choice is between two different types of litigation – over eminent domain or over emergency demolition. Both will be met with resistance. Both are reactive, last-ditch scenarios.
The Cobblestone structures have been called “textbook examples” of demolition by neglect. If they are, they’re part of a thick textbook that goes back to the 1950 demolition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building and includes far too many structures to list here. Often, the demolition requests are accompanied by ambitious plans to build anew once the old buildings are gone.
Usually, though, the lots remain empty, as happened with the Vernor and Schmidt buildings at 736 and 756 Main St. Torn down in 2004 and 2007, respectively, these structures were the “textbook examples” of that decade, and had been deteriorating since the mid-1980s, despite their distinguished historic architecture – Vernor was originally a spectacular Pierce-Arrow showroom – and location in a preservation district.
The triangle of land occupied by the Schmidt and Vernor buildings was then viewed as a prime site for downtown redevelopment efforts. It’s still empty.
With the permission to do so improbable and the ability to do so unsubstantiated, Carr claims he’ll build a 55-story tower on the Cobblestone site. Experienced observers see another parking lot as the likely reality.
In 2001, Jessie Fisher – former director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara, now director of the Martin House Campus – suggested a three-step policy for avoiding situations like this: first, survey and catalog historic properties, noting especially those on or eligible for the National Historic Register and those in imminent danger; then look at the city’s current demolition practices and laws and survey “best practices” from cities around the country; and finally, make recommendations for preservation/demolition policies and mechanisms.
In some cities, a solution has been a declaration of permanent landmark status, which would force emergency stabilization of such buildings rather than emergency demolitions. Prospective buyers of such buildings would be told in no uncertain terms of their indemnity.
There are doubtless many examples throughout the United States of more effective ways to manage historic preservation. For Buffalo, their message can be summarized in one sentence: It doesn’t have to be this way.
• • •
What’s your opinion? Send it to us at email@example.com. Letters should be a maximum of 300 words and must convey an opinion. The column does not print poetry, announcements of community events or thank you letters. A writer or household may appear only once every 30 days. All letters are subject to fact-checking and editing.