Thursday, October 25, 2012

Seeking a Rational Discourse on the Erie Freight House

Recently, discussions over the Erie Canal Freight House have escalated to a heightened pitch. The developer, Sam Savarino, has been turned into some sort of history-hating monster, despite his incredible efforts to rehabilitate the historic F.N. Burt Factory at 500 Seneca. Preservationists have been portrayed as progress-hating obstructionists, despite past successes saving some of Buffalo's most iconic buildings, such as Shea's Performing Arts Center and Babeville.

Perhaps it is poor timing, and everyone is so caught up in election-fervor that we're unable to discuss these things rationally. Regardless, some common misconceptions about the individuals, groups, and projects involved need to be addressed. 

I promise, capslock will not be on. (For that, just check the comments section of anything Freight House-related on Buffalo Rising)

Sam Savarino's Project:
500 Seneca St, another Savarino Project
Mr. Savarino has been very involved here in Buffalo, but since he has his own advertising department, only a few of his projects will be highlighted. 500 Seneca has already been mentioned, but he is also responsible for the Cobblestone Lofts, and White's Livery apartments in Buffalo's Cottage District. Like him or not, his projects are found throughout Buffalo, and in many cases he has made great efforts to maintain the historic nature of buildings he rehabs. 

His project proposal for Ohio Street is coming at a great time for the area. Right now Ohio Street sits between two redeveloped areas; Larkin Square and the Canalside. It is right down the street from a beautiful new park. The Grain Elevators are being highlighted by several groups as a destination worth saving and incorporating into a variety of events. Why not build some high-income housing to help keep this development going?

The Preservationist Reaction:
Preservationists don't want to stop investment in South Buffalo, they just want investment that doesn't sacrifice one of the last remaining parts of our history. The Freight House is the last of it's kind. It's true, "The Last of the Erie Canal Freight Houses," isn't the sexiest of titles, but this building represents a pivotal period in Buffalo's history, and is embedded in one of the most important areas in the city. 

The preservation community would rather see this area go the way of Toronto's Distillery District, where history and modernity go hand-in-hand. A new community growing within Buffalo's oldest industrial area, highlighting our past in a way that promotes our future. Preservationists look at all of the empty lots in Buffalo and think, "Why can't we have our cake and eat it too? Adaptive-reuse projects that create community, and still have high-income housing, but in a place where demolition isn't needed?"

For many in the preservation community, the potential is a win-win: either way Buffalo sees great investment, but in one scenario a historic structure gets saved. Preservationists merely want to broaden the discussion to highlight these possibilities. 

The Backlash against the Preservationists:
As a result of these efforts, Preservation Buffalo Niagara and the concerned preservationists have been painted as obstructionists inhibiting progress in Buffalo, as rabid reactionists preventing a developer from doing what he has every right to do as an owner of private property. 

First and foremost, Preservation Buffalo Niagara is incredibly concerned with progress, and just hosted a conference here in Buffalo in September highlighting how preservation, sustainability, planning and development are all intertwined, and need to be considered together for the best benefit of Buffalo. Their Buffalo Tours highlight not only Buffalo's history, but some of the great things happening in our city. 

While there is a grain of truth in the statement that many preservation efforts in this city have been reactionary, the fact of the matter is that the preservation community hasn't had many chances to be proactive. Just this year alone, buildings like Trico Plant #1 and Bethleham Steel have been threatened. Considering Buffalo's history when it comes to protecting beautiful buildings, is it any wonder the preservation community reacts so aggressively when another building looks like it will come down? 

At the Freight House: History shows that equipment 
like this does not tend to get along with Buffalo buildings
This doesn't mean things don't have to change. One preservation group, Buffalo's Young Preservationists, is trying to incorporate a more holistic approach to preservation with members who are professionals first (in sustainability, law, environmental protection, and the arts) but preservationists at heart. The group itself is still new (you could even call it...young), but has been actively trying to change the perception of preservation in Buffalo, through their BYP Happy Hours and proactive events of their own.

Lastly, in regards to the ownership, when the property in question is a historic site, the question isn't "who owns it?" but "who owns history?" If we, as people living in Buffalo, own history, then we should have a say in how a historic structure should be used. Otherwise, we risk allowing the same mistakes as in the past where ownership of history resulted in parking lots and "shovel ready" sites. Otherwise our history is just another commodity that can be bought and sold, and is just a placeholder until someone has a big enough checkbook. 

Where Now:
In the short term, hopefully some of the potential options for the Freight House will be examined more thoroughly, and if nothing can be agreed on, hopefully Mr. Savarino's project is able to be a lynchpin in the further redevelopment of one of the most unique areas in Buffalo. That is the silver lining in the situation. While we have seen far too much history lost in this city, at least the spot will not go to waste. 

In the long-term, preservationists should be working more closely with developers like Savarino to bring their ideas to light. In the same way that the preservation community has embraced sustainability and smart planning, they need to find a way to coordinate with developers rather than fight them. Buffalo is filled with an incredible amount of historic structures, so much in fact, that half the city could become the next "Distillery District." Developers understand the market value of those kinds of projects just as much as preservationists cherish the cultural aspects.

First, before any of those things can happen however, a spirit of rationality needs to be embraced by people on both sides of the issue. Once that happens, it is easier to realize we have a common goal: make Buffalo a better place for ourselves, our community, and the future. If we can't do it on a national level (posts you will not see on this blog: "Which side of the Big Bird issue are you on?"... "How many women are in your binders?") then the very least we can do is try our best to foster it here, at the local level. 

No comments: