Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Preservation Disconnect

A recent editorial on BRO brought up a key point: here in Buffalo, there is a severe disconnect between preservationists, developers, and owners. While Mr. Quackenbush is entirely correct in this assertion, how he portrays the current situation is misleading.

Even the most ardent preservationist will agree that there is a disconnect between these three parties, but  his piece makes it appear as though, 1) preservationists are a coherent group; that 2) they have anywhere near the leverage that owners and developers have in these types of decisions, and lastly; that 3) preservation is related only to saving history.

All that remains of the North Baptist Church
at the corner of Colvin and Tacoma
To the first point, while many "preservationists" are obviously acquaintances, both professional and personal, there is an inherent fallacy in assuming that they are cohesive and coordinated a force as many in WNY are lead to believe. In Buffalo alone, there is Preservation Buffalo Niagara, The Campaign for Greater Buffalo, Buffalo's Young Preservationists, as well as groups dedicated to one project like the Central Terminal Restoration Corporation, the H.H. Richardson Center Corporation, the "Preservation Round-Table" dedicated to the Trico Building, and lastly the myriad of private firms and individuals related to preservation, including consultants like Preservation Studios, architects like Jake Schneider, activists like Joan Bozer and Sue McCartney, and even developers like Rocco Termini.

Now, while many of these groups inevitably work together, it hardly is an concentrated presence. This diversity is one of the strengths of Buffalo's preservation movement, but also its greatest weakness, as it seldom, if ever, is actually able to impose their will on developers and owners concerning the city's historic architecture. If "the preservationists" had nearly as much influence as has been ascribed to them, Buffalo might still have a great deal more of the incredible architecture it was blessed with. For simplicity's sake, however, this piece will simply refer to all activists friendly to the preservation ideology as "preservationists."

In his Buffalo Rising article, Mr. Quackenbush gives two examples of preservationists "impeding" progress; the North Baptist Church on Colvin and the Bethlehem Steel administration building. Unfortunately, he completely misunderstands the motivation and realities of the modern preservation movement. First and foremost, preservation is not just about saving historic structures, but also covers both economic and environmental sustainability, protecting neighborhood fabric, and adhering to good urban planning.

A historic building is not just important for the role it played in our history (note: not an owner's history, or a developer's history, but our history as Buffalonians and Americans), but for the investment of resources already put into building that structure. The continued practice of demolishing old and building new is completely unsustainable not just from an environmental standpoint, but from an economic standpoint. It is just as wasteful as tossing out an entire lamp when a lightbulb dies; the material investment has already been made, why not reinvest in it? Municipalities that don't learn this will end up paying in the end for the rising cost of waste disposal and building materials. Lastly, Buffalo has yet to learn from its past that the demolition of historic fabric does not help the surrounding properties, and more often hurts them.

In the case of the Colvin church, the building anchored a corner in one of Buffalo's prominent residential neighborhoods, and suffered minimal damage in the fire that prompted the demolition in the first place. This building was integral to the feeling of that corner, a feeling that is not "preserved" in a lone tower, regardless of what is built around it. It should be noted that a group of preservationists were working with developers to save that building, attempting to secure historic tax credits for a rehab project, but strict National Park Service guidelines regarding the sanctuary space brought the project to a halt.

This is ultimately the reality that preservationists face, a reality that Mr. Quackenbush has conveniently ignored. Outside of ideological principles, economic incentives are all preservationists have to bring to the table, which are often the only way these buildings can be rehabbed. In the case of Bethlehem Steel, the only way a developer could have feasibly rehabbed that building would have been through the State and Federal tax credit program. While the author claims the only "historic" feature worth saving was the facade, if the entire building wasn't preserved, it would not have been eligible for tax credits.

Without tax credits, that project would never have been completed; there simply is not strong enough of a market to support the "facadectomy" that Quackenbush advocated, unless a developer invested hundreds of thousands of dollars without expecting a return. Perhaps if Bethlehem Steel was located in downtown Buffalo, where it may be able to recoup the cost of construction with reasonable rates (though it would still have to compete in a highly saturated office space/rental market), but in Lackawanna that kind of development would take years, even decades, to see any return on investment.

The reality is that not only should preservationists work with developers, but they have to. There are few preservation-developers (though the successes of Mr. Termini and Mr. Schneider  may change this), and preservation-advocates are forced to convince those with strong finances that preservation has more benefits (both tangible and intangible) than demolition does.

The reality is that preservationists should be working with owners, but in a city full of absentee and negligent landlords, the only reasoning many understand is dollar signs. As owners sit on their properties, with no incentive to rent or maintain the property due to Buffalo city laws, speculating on a future windfall, their buildings fall into disrepair. As buildings lose integrity, they lose eligibility for federal incentive programs that entice developers.

For preservationists then, it has become an all-or-nothing battle. Pressing owners to maintain properties, even if it means sometimes resorting to bullish tactics, and doing as much as possible to incentive redevelopment, which often requires saving the whole building to secure federal funding.

For some (especially architectural historians), every building is historic, but the more important factors for saving buildings have already been listed above. Sometimes it is about making a sound economic and environmental decision, and other times it is about ensuring a building is still there for when a developer can afford to rehab a building fully.

In the case of the North Baptist Church, if the new building that replaces it manages to capture even half the feeling that occupied that corner, both myself and other preservationists will fully support the new project. At their core, preservationists act not just out of love for buildings, but for what they represent; a part of our shared history, of what made Buffalo great, and will make it great in the future. If the new building on the corner of Tacoma and Colvin can elicit any fraction of what the North Baptist Church inspired, it will be a victory compared to the vacant lot where Bethlehem Steel once stood.

The preservation movement needs something; maybe it's a rebranding, maybe it's a clarifying manifesto of what our ideals and goals actually are. Though Mr. Quackenbush is mistaken on several points, one does stand true; preservationists do need to work with owners and developers. The preservation community understands this, as we're not strong enough to achieve our goals (a stronger city and region) without them. There is a disconnect in Buffalo, but it is not the preservationists who are preventing it from rectifying.

The preservationists are already at the table. Owners and developers, if you're interested in bridging this gap for the benefit of Buffalo, we've saved you two seats.

We'll be waiting.

Written by Derek King, an Architectural Historian at Preservation Studios

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