Friday, August 7, 2015

Former Public School 24: Part I

The now abandoned elementary school built on the south side of Martin Luther King Jr. Park was one of the first projects I worked on at Preservation Studios.  Initially called P.S. 59 in our project folder I ran into a major issue during my research. It appeared there were multiple P.S. 59’s and the school we were researching, located at 787 Best Street, had once been called P.S. 24. It was a conundrum. Which school was I researching? Why had the school morphed from P.S. 24 to 59? In seeking the answer tot his question I dove deep into the school’s history. In doing so I discovered first that we were in fact trying to preserve P.S. 24 and second, we were looking at one of the most important school buildings in Buffalo, a building whose past programs are worth recounting. As one of the first sites for special education in Buffalo P.S. 24 carved out a unique place in the city’s education history.

In the twenty-first century we champion events such as the Special Olympics and binge watch a T.V show about a blind lawyer fighting crime in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s hard to imagine our generally accepting and inclusive attitudes towards those with physical or mental handicaps as extraordinary. However, looking back at the tail end of the nineteenth century it is frankly uplifting to see how far we’ve come.  

Prior to 1900, most children with disabilities (both physical and mental) were treated at specialized facilities, such as the State Institution for Blind Students in Batavia, which formed in 1866.[1] In North America and Europe the prevailing belief was that mentally handicapped, blind, and deaf children were “biologically and morally inferior,” and as a result many of the earlier institutions of care and education were religiously based. [2] Handicapped students were educated in the trades because factory labor was oftentimes seen as the best employment they could gain. Children with profound mental illnesses were often times sequestered from the outside world by their own families or taken in at asylums run by the state or religious organizations. Fortunately, these attitudes began to change as child labor and mandatory school attendance laws were passed. The handicapped began to find themselves increasingly educated in schoolhouses, albeit in separate classrooms, but it was a marked improvement from the isolated vocationally and religious focused education they’d been receiving in asylums throughout the country.

In Buffalo, P.S. 24 took the lead in first educating the visually impaired and later became one of the earliest training centers for children and young adults with severe learning disabilities. Through our research we discovered that P.S. 24 was the local headquarters of sight-saving classes in the Buffalo school district. Students would do oral exercises with their classmates, before heading to special courses where reading and writing would be taught with larger fonts and bigger writing implements. The school even offered Braille classes for high school students.[3] By the 1940s students were being bussed from around Buffalo to attend sight-saving, and braille classes in P.S. 24.

Where once children were isolated and educated to become productive workers rather, by the 1940s people had revolted against the idea that blind and deaf children were profoundly different, i.e. ineducable and morally deficient. In studying the evolution of education for the physically handicapped it was fascinating to see the evolution of American education practices. At the start of classroom integration it seemed that visually impaired students finding success in the classroom was greeted with pleasant surprise. The transition would be much slower for students with mental handicaps, however once again it would be at P.S. 24 leading the way in education for the profoundly mentally handicapped children.

Stay tuned for Part II…
Image courtesy of

[1] Margret A. Winzer, The History of Special Education From Isolation to Integration (Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1993), 317.
[2] Winzer, 171.
[3] “Sight-Saving Classes for School are Given Praise by Group,” Buffalo Courier-Express, February 22, 1934, 11. Accessed 7/1/15 via

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Buffalo Hollywood Connection

Written by Matt Shoen, Assistant Historian at Preservation Studios

At 885 Niagara Street sits the mostly abandoned Queen City Dairy building. Built in 1903 the dairy collected milk from across Erie County, then pasteurized, bottled, and then delivered the product throughout Buffalo. Though Queen City Dairy, like so many Buffalo companies is gone, it has left behind a sprawling complex of offices and manufacturing space. 

To a casual spectator this may appear mundane; Buffalo has plenty of abandoned brick buildings from 1900s. However any assumption of 885 Niagara’s ho-hum conformity to Buffalo’s myriad of factory structures would be seriously flawed. In truth, 885 Niagara has a unique connection to Hollywood.

Walking through the building, currently used for storage by its owner, one might assume that 885 Niagara served as a set for some gritty 70s horror movie. With its dirt floor basement, creaking boards, and murky illumination provided by dangling incandescent bulbs this assumption wouldn't be a bad one, however the reality is far more benign. In 1903, construction of the Queen City Dairy began under the oversight of Sidney Woodruff, a local architect, who in 1926 would become one of Hollywood’s principal developers. In fact, it was Sidney Woodruff that erected the iconic “Hollywood” sign.[1]
Image courtesy of Mary Mallory's Hollywoodland

Years before his emigration to the Hollywood hills Woodruff was a well-respected architect in Buffalo. He took work with various architecture firms, assisting with the design of the original Pierce-Arrow showroom, a factory for the E.R. Thomas Motor Co., The People’s Bank of Buffalo, and working with Green & Wicks on the Buffalo Savings Bank. In 1923 Woodruff moved to California where he began his development in Hollywood. Following the fabulous success of Hollywood, Woodruff began scouting a new location to sink his teeth into. Choosing Dana Point, Woodruff began development just in time for the stock market crash of 1929 to derail his endeavors, effectively ending his career as a developer.

In California Woodruff’s impact rests on the grand edifice of the Hollywood Sign and the ruins of his unfinished work at Dana Point. However, just a few blocks north of the New York State Armory sits a building which Woodruff built, which like his other developments in Buffalo, allowed him to amass the capital to head west and develop a community in the dry hills of California. Knowing that an old brick building in Buffalo, New York helped fund the construction of one of the most iconic images of American cinema brings a smile to my face, but it also creates a question. If this structure can contain such history what stories do the other landmarks of Buffalo’s bygone industrial age tell?

Image courtesy of Library of Congress, from
Palmer's Views of Buffalo Past and Present

[1] Originally the sign read “Hollywoodland” however the last four letters were taken down in 1949.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

When the Carrot Becomes the Stick: Who Will Preserve San Francisco's Heritage?

By: Jason Yots[1]

I recently spent a week with my family in San Francisco, my first visit since 1999.  At that time, the city’s real estate market was heating up as a result of the late 1990s tech boom in nearby Silicon Valley.  If the market was hot back then, it’s absolutely scorching today, for largely the same reason.  Conversations on streetcars, at parties, and in shops and restaurants - among recent and long-time residents alike - centered on $3,500 one-bedroom apartments and cash-purchases of million dollar townhomes.[2]  Even the unprecedented California drought (entering its fourth year) and the city’s alarming homeless crisis (approaching 8% of its residents) took a backseat to real estate chatter.

During my visit, I was reminded that 80% of the city’s buildings were destroyed during the unmatched earthquake of 1906.  As a result, the city has a relatively “young” building inventory when compared to the 18th and 19th century cities in places such as the American northeast, and to the even older building stock that exists in European cities.  Nonetheless, many buildings are older than the 50-year-old measuring stick applied by U.S. preservationists when assessing eligibility for listing in the National Register of Historic Places (and, by extension, for rehabilitation tax credits (RTCs)).

Building renovations and “tear downs”[3] abound, with seemingly little consideration for historic (or even civic or cultural) significance.   Pre-war structures are routinely masked by character-shifting facelifts, creating increasingly homogenized streetscapes in many neighborhoods.  In commercial districts, storefront openings are scraped clean, replaced by less appropriate new commercial units.  While there certainly are plenty of solid examples of urbanism throughout the city (my family did not use a car all week), its 20th century architecture is under siege, and no one seems much bothered by it.  Out with the old, in with the luxury.

The federal RTC - a critical budget-gap-filler in places like Rust Belt cities – would be a mere windfall in San Francisco[4], with residential rents rivaling stratospheric New York City’s and downtown office rents approaching $100 per square foot.  At those rents, a building will pay for its own renovation costs, without resorting to government incentives.  And therein lies the rub for preservationists: when their most effective “carrot” - the RTC - is more of a hassle than a feasibility indicator, how do you prevail upon developers and homeowners to honor the historic significance of their buildings?

The simplest answer may be that you don’t, at least for now.  When the carrot becomes the stick, even the silliest rabbit will avoid it.  But if the drought endures, and the tech market crashes (again), and the homeless population reaches a tipping point, and healthy urban density becomes overcrowding, then people will leave the city, and rents will drop correspondingly.  And then rehabilitation activity that once paid for itself will require the same incentives currently relied upon by San Francisco’s less affluent American counterparts.

Are preservationists being reduced to ill-wishers, hoping for the economic demise of a place just so that we can regain some influence over the direction of its historic resources?  I certainly hope not, but what alternatives are there to preserve and honor beautiful, historic cities like San Francisco?  Stand-by preservation tools – historic districting[5], preservation ordinances, conservation easements[6], civic responsibility/shame – likely will be ineffective in those places, where demand for shelter far outstrips its supply.  Until the carrot returns to being the carrot, preservationists may, in fact, be reduced to hoping against hope.

[1] Jason Yots is a tax credit attorney and the President & CEO of Preservation Studios, a Buffalo-based historic preservation consulting firm.
[2] Almost impossibly, the city has added nearly 95,000 new jobs, but only 10,000 new housing units, in the last five years, creating ever-increasing pressure on commercial and residential rents and on home prices.
[3] The phenomenon of acquiring a serviceable building, tearing it down and replacing it with a much larger new building.
[4] If it’s even accessed at all: in 2014, only four “Part 2” approvals (the government’s indication that a project’s design is RTC-worthy) were issued in the entire state of California.
[5] There are several local, state and National Register-listed historic districts in the city.  Based on the RTC statistics, the NR districts are not generating RTC activity (they otherwise have no teeth).  Local districts afford cities and citizens the most participation in historic resource decisions.  I could not locate (low-hanging) data indicating whether San Francisco’s are largely honorific, or if their preservation laws are actively enforced by a (staffed) commission with (binding) jurisdiction.
[6] San Francisco Heritage, the city’s preservation advocacy charity, has collected only 60 preservation easements since 1974.  Not shabby, but not game-changing in a city the size of San Francisco.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Envelope, Please: NPS Issues Its Annual Rehabilitation Tax Credit Report

By: Jason Yots

We’ve entered that exciting season that straddles Winter and Spring:  Award Season.  Yes, yes, there are the Academy Awards, and all that sexy red carpet stuff, but more importantly for places like Buffalo, NY, it’s time for the annual Rehabilitation Tax Credit Awards!  Each year, the National Park Service publishes a titillating report discussing the performance of its rehabilitation tax credit (RTC) program.[1]  And the big winners for 2014 are . . .

Best Supporting Actor in the Role of Job Creation

We’ve said it before, and we’re saying it again: preservation means jobs.  In 2014, the RTC program created nearly 78,000 jobs, or roughly 1.5 times the office worker population in downtown Buffalo.   And these are not minimum-wage, service-sector jobs: the average annual pay-day on an RTC project is over $40,000.  Bravo RTCs!

Best Director of Taxpayer Dollars

The RTC leverages private sector investment with taxpayer dollars.   As a result, the program is relatively efficient in its delivery of a wide array of end-spaces: rental housing (42% in 2014), offices (18%) and commercial, such as retail, hospitality, manufacturing, performance, etc. (25%).  The RTC program also serves a broad spectrum of users in nearly every corner of the nation.  For example, among the nearly 20,000 new rental housing units generated by the RTC program last year, a full third will be available for low- and moderate-income tenants.  This is great news for both high-rent cities (where affordable housing is vanishing daily) and poorer regions (where competition for affordable housing subsidies is fierce).  Encore, encore!

Best Choreography of Economic Development Incentives

As a result of this flexibility, the RTC program can be used to double-down on other economic development subsidies, such as federal low-income housing tax credits (4% of RTC projects), state rehabilitation tax credits (50%), property tax abatements (18%), brownfields tax credits and others.  Based on an NPS survey of RTC program users, 88% of program participants used multiple economic development resources to achieve economic feasibility.  Raise your glass to a proven budget-gap-filler: the RTC!

Lifetime Achievement Award for Awesomeness

The Lifetime Achievement Award for Awesomeness goes, again, to the RTC program!  This is becoming embarrassing! But seriously folks, this program gets economic development done.  Since 1977, it has:

* Created 2.47 million well-paying jobs

* Generated $73.8 billion in rehabilitation activity across 40,038 projects nationwide

* Helped finance the construction of 255,994 housing units, of which 137,978 are available to low- and moderate-income renters

* Prompted many of the 1.59 million listings in the National Register of Historic Places

RTC, you are, in a word, awesome.  Keep up the good work!

Jason Yots is a tax credit lawyer and President of Preservation Studios LLC, an historic preservation consulting firm headquartered in Buffalo, NY.

[1] “Federal Tax Incentives for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings: Statistical Report and Analysis for Fiscal Year 2014” ( )

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Can Property Taxes Discourage Demolition By Neglect?

By Jason Yots

Buffalo Rising recently reported about the ongoing preservation battle at 110 - 118 South Park Avenue, in Buffalo's Cobblestone Historic District (1).  In short, the owner would like to demolish the building and replace it with a multi-story tower.  Having been denied a demolition permit in 2011, the owner now is ignoring code enforcement directives and allowing the building to rapidly deteriorate.  Efforts by surrounding business owners to buy-out the owner have been rebuffed.

Our city's building code enforcement process can and should do more to discourage demolition by neglect.  But tougher code enforcement alone will not eradicate DBN tendencies.  Hitting owners in the wallet, however, might be effective.  One such measure that's been considered in other states is land value taxation, through which the land beneath the building - rather than the building itself - is allocated most of the property's value.  Under our current property tax system, as an owner disinvests in his/her property, the market value drops and, eventually, so will the property tax assessment, making it easier for a DBN-owner to stay in title without reinvesting.  Under a land value taxation system, DBN is discouraged because an owner's taxes are based on the value of the land (which generally is not negatively affected by DBN), requiring an owner to maintain his/her building to keep it cash-flowing.

Coupled with a receivership-based code enforcement process, land value taxation can be a valuable tool for communities battling DBN.

1. The People vs. Darryl Carr (February 2, 2015,

2.  Photo credit: Buffalo Rising

Monday, January 19, 2015

New York’s Brownfields Cleanup Program: Back From the Landfill?

By: Jason Yots

Like most Rust Belt states, New York has its version of a brownfields cleanup program (BCP) that offers financial assistance to developers willing to remediate and redevelop environmentally contaminated land and buildings.  In New York, that assistance is provided largely in the form of reimbursement-based state tax credits.  The last iteration of the BCP legislation was set to sunset at the end of 2015, prompting renewal negotiations in Albany last year.

At issue in those negotiations were perceived abuses (mostly downstate) of the redevelopment component of the program.  Critics argued that, despite prior rebalancing, the BCP still was too light on remediation results and too heavy on redevelopment upside (for which, goes the argument, there are other incentives, if needed, or the private market itself).  Proponents of the program argue that in hard-to-develop areas like upstate New York, the BCP is a critical component of the bundle of economic development incentives required to plug the funding “gap” that plagues most real estate redevelopment projects.

Backing critics, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently vetoed the legislative renewal of the BCP, casting a cloud over numerous upstate projects that would have relied on the program in the coming years.  But there may be a silver lining:  The Buffalo News reported today that Governor Cuomo is stepping back from his prior veto in exchange for more changes to the program during the budget process.[1] 

The most significant change for historic rehabilitation projects may be that the redevelopment component of the BCP would be available only if at least one of three criteria is satisfied:

1.            The area surrounding the project is “economically distressed” (to be defined, but presumably will take a cue from similar provisions in New York’s rehabilitation tax credit law).

2.            The project involves “affordable housing” (generally meaning households earning less than 60% of the area’s median income).

3.            The project is “upside down” (meaning that the cost of the remediation exceeds the current market value of the building).

Will these new requirements constrict the overall flow of projects toward the BCP?  Potentially.  But most upstate New York projects enjoy the dubious benefit of satisfying one, if not all, of the new criteria.  Hopefully, that will mean that the BCP - which has become so critical to the feasibility of historic rehabilitation projects in upstate New York - will remain fully available and funded.

[1] “Cuomo Plans Changes for Brownfields Tax Breaks”, The Buffalo News, January 19, 2015 (

Saturday, March 22, 2014

National Park Service Issues Its Annual Historic Tax Credit Report Card

By Jason Yots

If you’re like me, then you’ve been anxiously awaiting the issuance of “Federal Tax Incentives for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings”, the National Park Service’s annual report about the performance of its historic tax credit (HTC) program.  Well, wait no longer because the 2013 version hit inboxes this month (Note #2), and this year’s issue was illuminating to watchers of the historic rehabilitation industry.

Preservation By Numbers

Like all good annual reports, the HTC report is packed with statistics.  On the macro level, the historic tax credit program generated over $6.7 billion in new investment in 2013, an increase of 21% from 2012.  At the micro level, the average cost of an HTC project was $5,820,000, while forty percent of all HTC projects cost less than $500,000 to build.  An interesting tidbit for small cities like Buffalo, NY: projects both large and small can work with HTCs.

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

In historic preservation, we never tire of that broken record: “Preservation Means Jobs!”  Because it’s true.  Since 1978, the HTC program has created over 2.4 million new jobs.  In 2013 alone, the program created nearly 63,000 net new jobs, up from 58,000 in 2012.   And before you can ask, “Where, in China?”, we read that an average of 78 new LOCAL jobs are created with each HTC project.  Factor in the $40,000 average annual pay-days on HTC jobs, and suddenly it’s a no-brainer that small market cities like Buffalo should be encouraging HTC development.

Lofts, Lofts, . . . Affordable Housing?

The HTC program is a strong housing generator.  In 2013, the program rehabilitated 247,625 units and helped to spur the creation of another 236,886 new units.  Of those 484,511 total units, 131,438 – or a full 27% - were low-to-moderate housing.  So, while the perception at times may be that HTCs only result in fancy urban lofts, the reality is that the impact of HTCs on the housing industry is in fact diversified.

Most Importantly, How Did WE Perform?

In the end, it’s all about us, so let’s close with some statistics specific to our state.  2012 was an active HTC year for New York, and 2013 built on that momentum.  In overall “Part 2” approvals (the government’s OK to start work on your HTC project), New York placed 5th with 63, behind Virginia (128) Louisiana (119), Ohio (78) and Massachusetts (72).   To give that number some context, however, consider that New York led the nation in total HTC project costs with an eye-popping $1.165 billion in estimated HTC investment (that is, about 17% of all HTC investment in the nation in 2013).  Ohio placed a distant 2nd in that category with $612,610,000.  New York’s total investment undoubtedly skewed a bit higher due to New York City’s propensity for mega-projects, but it’s clear that New Yorkers in general are aware of what only a handful of other states have figured out: commitment to the HTC program means new investment, new jobs and new lives for old buildings.

Jason Yots is President and CEO of Preservation Studios LLC


1.  For background on the federal and NY HTC programs, please see