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Proaction vs. Reaction (UPDATED)

That’s WGRZ’s report on last night’s protest of the demolition of the Bethlehem Steel administration building adjacent to a crushed stone and cement facility. It’s a shame to see a pretty building go, but as I wrote yesterday, I certainly think this ranks rather low on the priority scale for not just Lackawanna, but western New York at large. 

After so many decades of preservationist battles led by professional activists funded by Buffalo’s foundations – after so many decades of reactive grassroots planning-by-litigation, is anyone amazed that even lowly White Plains, with a population of less than 100,000, has a more modern, better-constructed, better-designed, and more walkable city core than Buffalo?  

Please don’t mistake my sentiment – I think it’s great that we have a treasure trove of gorgeous, architecturally significant buildings to show off here in town. I thank the people who worked/work to save and improve them.

But where does that end? We also have a community that reacts to the proposed demolition of, say, Trico Plant 1 by defaulting to “keep it”. When “architectural significance” isn’t going to fly, they rely instead on appeals to emotion about its personal significance, or the significance of what once took place within that building. Are we going to erect a windshield-wiper museum in Trico? Is it the first, or the best, or the prettiest example of that sort of factory? Is Trico 1 to be treated like it’s equivalent to the Darwin Martin House? 

And preservation shouldn’t be quite so reactive. 

After all, what palpable, positive results do we have to show for our civic fascination with planning-by-litigation, and our mysteriously funded preservation reactivist efforts? I know that the city is still haunted by the demolition of, e.g., the Erie County Savings Bank to make way for the execrable Main Place Tower and the empty, pitiful “mall” attached to it, and that the Larkin Administration Building was demolished, leaving only yet another surface parking lot. But after all these years, you’d think that there’d be a lobbying effort to codify actual rules and regulations. But whereas old Buffalo erred on the side of demolition, perhaps now we err too often on the side of preservation – even of buildings whose historical, cultural, or architectural significance is specious, at best. 

Look – I don’t want pretty buildings demolished any more than anyone else does. And I’m not “in favor” of demolishing the Bethlehem Steel building at issue here. By the same token, I think you should only interfere reactively to a landowner’s use of his privately owned property where there’s a compelling public reason to do so. Dismantle this Bethlehem Steel building and put it someplace else. They did it with the 1831 London Bridge. 

Where’s the push for a land-value tax? Where’s the push to create a binding, uniform set of rules and regulations for handling these things. All that money and influence that the preservationist community enjoys, and we don’t yet have a “do not touch” list of historically, architecturally, or culturally significant buildings for Erie County? We’re just going to back-handedly react to planned demolitions by equating an abandoned building in a concrete factory to Shea’s? 

Sometimes, I think Buffalo’s preservationist community secretly wants these sorts of battles. They don’t really want the problem to be solved through prospective action; with legislation and a binding, predictable set of rules. Tim Tielman’s name is synonymous with architectural preservation in Buffalo, and he wields a lot of influence and has many wealthy and powerful supporters. He’s uniquely positioned to parlay his influence into legislative action. 

But if the problem is solved, what would they do then? 

UPDATE: I’ve been debating regular commenter and BRO writer David Steele in a post at Rustwire, and we’ve been going back and forth, with his ultimate position being that an elimination or reversal of suburban sprawl in WNY would solve problems like this Lackawanna Administration Building. Here’s what I wrote him in reply: 

OK, so let’s run with your proposition that all of this is the fault of sprawl, and nothing else. 

Now, ask yourself why it is that people choose not to live within the limits of the city of Buffalo. It would seem to me that if the solution to the problem is to reverse or eliminate sprawl and entice people back into the city, you have quite a chicken/egg phenomenon at play.

The solution to your problem is not to belittle suburbanites or to backhandedly condemn sprawl and leave it at that. After all, who would want to move to a city that just got through insulting them? Who would want to be bullied into a very important and expensive choice of domicile? 

And this, of course, is before we even get to the irony that this Lackawanna building is located in a Buffalo suburb – well outside of even Buffalo Rising’s self-imposed geographical beat, yet I think we’re up to article 5 or 6 about the various candlelight vigils and calls for action about a suburban building. 

I wrote today about the fact that, when you get right down to it, I don’t think people like you and the people whom you’re supporting in this battle WANT the problem to be solved. 

It’s social hour, where you all get to hang out, make signs, post to BRO and here and reddit about the shortsighted horror of people who want to demolish buildings you like. It’s an opportunity for a certain socioeconomic class in Buffalo to feel self-important and superior to the troglodytes living in Lackawanna and other suburbs. It’s like you guys are on safari, teaching the barbarians what is and isn’t important. 

It’s fun. It’s self-rewarding. It’s self-satisfaction. Who doesn’t want THAT?

For all the time and effort spent chaining themselves to the fencing outside of buildings, painting signs, and writing horrifically constructed press releases, if these people took just 1/2 of that time and energy into becoming politically involved and lobbying for prospective and enforceable rules for preservation and planning issues in Buffalo, we’d likely be better off. 

But what’s the incentive to do that? Once the problem’s solved, all the “Save the ______” social hours would be over. 


  • thestip

    I’m going to go back to what I said yesterday. The issue, as I see it, more than anything else is that the municipality for which these structures belong in needs to be more proactive over the years before we ever get to the point of demolition. In Buffalo with Trico, the city itself has been letting the building rot. In Lackawanna, why has the city not been citing Gateway for the numerous building code violations over the last decade +. I know many homeowners throughout much of the Buffalo area that if they let their home go the way these often large corporations or developers (cough Palladino cough) would end up paying hefty fines, yet these businesses can let buildings rot for years, until they can make a serious case for demolition. That’s when the preservation community has to come out and make a big stink about it. As you are saying it’s about planning, well these municipalities have to tools to enforce the building code now, they just need to do it. And if they did, it’s likely we would have less of these situations because, just tearing down a building because “it is no longer safe” would not be a valid excuse.

  • Robert Galbraith

    By the same token, why default to “tear it down”? What has happened in the past year or so that this building needs to go right now? There doesn’t seem to be a plan to put anything else here. As tear-it-down people are quick to point out, the place around it is a wasteland, so what’s the problem with having a crumbling building there in addition to all the other crap? As a BRO commenter said yesterday, demolition comes at a hefty expense too, except that ends with a net loss for the community and fat pockets for demo contractors

    This building is a lot nicer to look at than Trico (although I supported keeping Trico 1 up as well just because it seems better than a big empty space) and the idea of dismantling and moving this thing seems interesting to me. 

    I think, though, that the preservation squad should be, in addition to trying to stop demolitions, putting pressure on the owners of these buildings that are letting them get to this point in the first place. David Torke is doing a great service on this front, facilitating the reuse of important buildings that would otherwise be lost.

    • peteherr

      “….. the idea of dismantling and moving this thing seems interesting to me.”

      On whose dime? It’s a cool building that, if it wasn’t sitting on toxic waste, might have a future. So, who should pay to dismantle it and reassemble it somewhere else? If someone wants it, they should step up and so…OK, we want it. Has anyone done that? 

      • Robert Galbraith

        I said it was an interesting idea. Any thing you do with it costs money. Who’s footing the bill for the demo? If you’re prepared to spend millions to do something other than let it rot more, maybe explore options that don’t result in a net loss.

      • Mary/Bruce Beyer

         Peter — Step up here.  With your skills and all the money you made as a scenic carpenter at Studio Arena……..

      • peteherr

        I’m saving my money. I want to move a more historically significant building like the HSBC Tower. I’m planning on moving it to Clarence.

        Bruce can you email me? peterATbuffalostuff.net . I want to ask you something but not on a public forum.

  • But whereas old Buffalo erred on the side of demolition, perhaps now we err too often on the side of preservation – even of buildingis whose historical, cultural, or architectural significance is specious, at best.    

    This, basically is the problem. Old Buffalo, in the name of ‘progress’, demolished seemingly everything. That hasn’t worked, so ‘New’ Buffalo, in the name of ‘progress/preservation’ has basically decreed that anything that used to be significant must be preserved, even if there is no practical use for it.  Extremism on both ends has not served this region well, no matter what the motive 

  • Jesse Smith

    You are so cynical, Alan. On what basis do you assume that the people involved in these preservation efforts are not also involved in political action on preservation and planning issues? To the contrary, I know for a fact that several of the leaders of this protest have been very active at the Buffalo Green Code workshops, in the “Preservation-Ready Sites” effort (the list of “most important” buildings that you and others are clamoring for), and other preservation and planning efforts.

    And if you really think that Buffalo errs on the side of preservation over demolition, you clearly haven’t been paying attention. Just read the minutes of the Preservation Board and note the number of demolition permits that are approved every meeting (including many buildings that could easily be renovated).

    I find your suggestion that the preservationist community is just a big social hour (or worse, some kind of “white man’s burden”) rather insulting, and I’m not even particularly involved in this issue. One could easily turn the accusation around and suggest that you don’t want to see the citizens of Buffalo try to improve their city and region because then you wouldn’t get to write as many snarky blog posts about it.

    • Great. Let me know when the green form-based code for Buffalo- as yet unimplemented- covers Lackawanna.

  • BlackRockLifer

    Alan- Though I agree with your political commentary on this site I can’t understand your hostility towards preservationists. I think you are broad brushing an entire movement and not recognizing the contributions of the many hard working folks in the preservation community. Most preservationists work quietly behind the scenes to  improve our city. They are not in the news or on television, they simply plug away and devote much time and energy to the effort.

    I certainly do not fit your stereotype, I am a life long resident of Black Rock, have blue collar roots, and have been proactive in my neighborhood for over 30 years.  I have invested much time, energy, and dollars to preserve the significant architecture of Black Rock. I realize there are some in the public realm that may come across as you describe but they are not truly representative of the entire community. Preservation adds value, is environmentally responsible, and brings much needed investment to our neighborhoods.

    • I’m not talking about all preservationists.

  • saltecks

    Can you say ‘misplaced priorities’. While the media was obsessed with the demolition of a long vacant building, one of WNY’s largest corporations was slipping their HQ’s out of town. Best use of limited tax dollars? Salvage a building or retain a corporation.

  • Dan_Blather

    Being a planner, whenever I see the same tired argument that simplifies the explanation for growth in Buffalo’s suburbs to “people fleeing the city”, as Steel often writes, I want to … well I’ve tried explaining it on Buffalo Rising, only to receive downvotes for not adhering to the party line of panic-driven white flight.

    When residents people “fled” Buffalo in the 1960s and 1960s, the houses they lived in didn’t sit empty for the decades to follow.  They were usually reoccupied; by blacks migrating from Southern states, Puerto Ricans seeking better opportunities on the mainland, and singles and young couples who could finally find a place on their own after a decade of economic collapse followed by the severe housing shortages caused by WWII.  Buffalo was a crowded city in 1950, with much of the city’s high density resulting from residents packed into frame worker’s cottages, attic flats, rear houses and two-flats that were often the same size at the front house.   Much of Buffalo’s housing stock was in abysmal condition by that time, thanks to deferred maintenance resultig from the Depression and wartime material shortages.

    Let’s say it’s 1950.  You’re a WWII vet with a decent factory job, a lovely wife, a newborn son or daughter, and a Chevrolet Fleetmaster.  You’re living in an 800 square foot upper flat carved out of a bungalow attic during the Depression, the type of place where you can only stand up all the way down the middle of the apartment.  You open up the Sunday Courier-Express, and see ads for houses in Cheektowaga and Tonawanda for $600 down and $60 a month, someting you can easily afford, especially with a VA loan.  There’s also some nice houses for sale in the city, in Kensington, Delavan-Bailey, and South Buffalo.  Your kid is crying, the neighbors downstairs are fighting, you had to park the Fleetmaster three blocks away because none of the houses on your block have driveways, and your landlord is threatening to raise the rent $10 next year.  “I can get even more from renting to coloreds”, he says.  Are you going to stay put out of loyalty to the old neighborhood, or the city, or are you going to leave?

    This is only one of the many forces that drove residents to suburban Buffalo.  There’s also shrinking household sizes, lower suburban taxes, better suburban schools, the emergence of industrial centers in Tonawanda and Cheektowaga, an influx of blacks who also needed someplace to live, and more reasons, all nuanced and complex in their own way, which causes the migration to Buffalo’s suburbs.  It’s a trend that started 100 years ago.   However, reducing it to “whites fleeing the city and its minorities” and “Kensington Expressway”, and rendering judgment upon the current generation of suburbanites as selfish traitors, even those who never lived there,  is easier to digest, and better justifies a smug sense of superiority more so than “It was too damn crowded, the housing was too run down, and people could afford it.

    • BlackRockLifer

      Dan- You make some valid points but fail to mention how government enabled the move to the suburbs while at the same time undermining the city. When my father and uncles came home from WWII they planned on living in Black Rock where our family had been rooted for generations. The old neighborhood was indeed densely populated but also had long established businesses, social organizations, and other amenities that contributed much to the quality of life. Contrary to your take the multi-generational model worked quite well, grandparents, their children, and grandchildren benefited from living in close proximity. There was a sense of community and of ones roots that frankly is lacking today in modern society.
      My father was able to purchase a fixer upper for cash but my uncles were not as fortunate, most of the older homes did not qualify for the VA or FHA mortgages so my uncles were essentially forced out to the suburbs. Later the NYS Thruway was constructed, again enabling suburbia while severing the neighborhoods historic connection to the waterfront that had defined the neighborhood and provided recreation for generations.
      Finally, growing up in the sixties and early seventies I can say that racism was certainly a major force, white flight was real, I clearly remember the debate and consequences surrounding that issue.

  • The reactive argument doesn’t work for Trico.  It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places years ago because it met the Secretary of Interior’s criteria, not because it was pretty.