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a view from recently demolished 669 Genesee Street

When Preservation Equals Demolition
By BRADFORD McKEE New York Times March 31, 2005

St. Louis

FOR 108 years the neo-Classical style Century Building, with its 10-story marble facades accented by ornate friezes and pilasters, graced half a block in downtown St. Louis.
But after 15 years of fighting by local preservationists it was razed in February to make way for a garage.
The battle for the Century, with its familiar plot and cast of characters - preservationists squaring off against developers and politicians - resembled a typical preservation dispute. Yet it had an unusual twist: for the first time anyone involved can remember, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the country's most powerful preservation group, sided with the wreckers. In fact the redevelopment project that led to the Century's demise was financed with the national trust's help.
Although the circumstances surrounding the Century are unusual, critics say the national trust, a private nonprofit organization with more than 200,000 members, has set a dangerous precedent.
For Carolyn Hewes Toft, the president of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, which has become an improbable adversary of the trust, its position was a violation of its mission to preserve historic structures. Ms. Toft suggested that the national trust had lost its integrity and said that of all the demolitions she had witnessed, "this loss is by far the most difficult to accept."
Officials at the national trust said that its part in the demolition reflects the changing role of preservation, which they said includes fighting urban sprawl and reviving entire downtown areas, as well as saving historic buildings and sites.
Increasingly, the national trust is "using preservation as a tool for community revitalization," said Richard Moe, its president. Sacrificing the Century, he added, was in line with the trust's efforts to broker the renewal of historic but rundown neighborhoods like downtown St. Louis, even at the occasional expense of a treasured building.
But for many preservationists, like Michael Tomlan, the director of the graduate program in historic preservation at Cornell University, that price is too high. What the national trust did, Mr. Tomlan said, was wrong. "It's morally and in any number of senses ethically inappropriate. It violates preservation's Hippocratic oath: if you can't be supportive, for gosh sakes shut up."
Like the issues in most preservation battles, those surrounding the Century and downtown redevelopment here were complicated and played out over years as the parties jockeyed to influence the outcome.
The Century's fate was linked to the redevelopment of another building across the street, the Old Post Office, from the 1880's, which is the centerpiece of downtown renewal projects.
In 2001, when national trust officials were asked to consult on the transfer of the Old Post Office from federal to state ownership, they at first backed saving the Century. Missouri lined up two developers to restore, manage and lease the building for 99 years. Two tenants, Webster University and the state appellate courts, had already signed on.
But the tenants demanded parking within view of the Old Post Office for security reasons. The developers, Steven Stogel of the DFC Group and Mark Schnuck of the Desco Group, local companies, did not want to spend the money to build underground parking and insisted that the Century was the only nearby above-ground site big enough for 1,000 cars. City officials agreed.
Royce A. Yeater, the national trust's regional director for the Midwest, said he tried to persuade the developers and the city to consider alternative sites, but they were intransigent. "The minds were made up within the power structure," Mr. Yeater said in an interview. Mr. Stogel, the developer, said he studied all the alternatives offered, including an empty site directly north of the Old Post Office. "We reluctantly determined that we had to provide parking on the Century site," he said.
The national trust, making the restoration of the Old Post Office its priority, changed its position on the Century in January 2002 , swinging in favor of a garage on the site to ensure its continuing involvement with the project, Mr. Yeater said.
Still, Mr. Yeater said, it was not an easy about-face for the national trust, which was founded by Congress in 1949 with a mandate to protect historic structures.
In a bid to stop or at least slow the demolition, the Landmarks Association of St. Louis filed four lawsuits challenging the project. And in October 2002, nine months after the national trust gave its nod to demolition, the Interior Department accepted the Landmarks Association's nomination of the Century to the National Register of Historic Places.
The national trust's commitment to the Old Post Office project deepened in December 2002, when Mr. Stogel, the developer, asked it to help finance the renovation through the National Trust Community Investment Corporation, its relatively new for-profit subsidiary.
The investment corporation was formed in 2000 to encourage preservation projects with tax credits. Since 2003 the Treasury has allocated about $6 billion in so-called New Market tax credits to some 60 organizations, including the national trust, to be used as incentives for investors in depressed areas. So far the national trust's corporation has invested $111 million in these tax credits in 19 projects, including the Dia Arts Foundation in an abandoned factory in Beacon, N.Y., which received $6.5 million; and the Telegram Building in Portland, Ore., a historic newspaper building turned into a commercial complex, which received $2.6 million. For the Old Post Office, the trust agreed in 2003 to allocate an $8.7 million tax credit.
None of the other projects the corporation has financed has generated controversy on the scale of the Century, said John Leith-Tetrault, the president of the investment corporation.
"We know you don't make money on controversial projects," Mr. Leith-Tetrault said. (Since 2003 the corporation has handed back $1.7 million in earnings to the national trust, after bearing the administrative costs of the tax-credit projects.)
Under Treasury Department rules, the national trust's investment corporation can charge up to 15 percent of its investment value as an administrative fee, an arrangement that some critics regard as a potential conflict between the nonprofit national trust's mission and its profit-oriented subsidiary. But Mr. Leith-Tetrault said its typical fee is 5 percent to 8 percent.
For the Century project the corporation charged the developers a fee of $438,750, Mr. Leith-Tetrault wrote in an e-mail message. That money will pay for the national trust to monitor the project as an investor for the seven-year life of the tax credits. Mr. Leith-Tetrault said that making a profit was not a major objective in this case. "We feel very comfortable that the fee was more than reasonable," he said.
Officials at the national trust say critics are overreacting when they accuse it of subsidizing the Century's demolition. Mr. Moe said the trust is only helping to finance the $45 million Old Post Office project. The garage, which will cost $32 million more, is being paid for through the Missouri Development Finance Board.
Experts in historic preservation say the face-off in St. Louis highlights the difficult choices preservationists must make. "Often, unfortunately, in preservation to get something you have to give up something else," said Richard Longstreth, a professor of American studies and head of the historic preservation program at George Washington University. But he said it is important to ask "how much are you getting and how much are you losing?"
Mr. Moe said national trust officials believe the greater good was served by restoring the Old Post Office and revitalizing the surrounding area. "We're doing more of this kind of revitalization work than we did before," he said, "but we haven't changed our fundamental values.'"

Property of the Weak

I've archived all the we(a)ks here for your viewing.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am not an attorney or realtor. I have no financial interest in these properties other than how their eventual renovation may impact my own property value and in a general sense stimulate and improve the quality of life here in the 'hood. In other words, I'm attempting to promote property that might otherwise be overlooked and eventually demolished. Many of these properties meet my highly subject criteria for being totally cool places.

I've lived here in the 'hood for 9 years, taught high school social studies here and rehabbed a late 19th century row-house that is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. I purchased the one next door, two years ago and I'm planning to rent that soon. I have a pretty good working understanding of what is happening on the city's east-side and would consider assisting you with your purchase, especially if you live out of town.

If you would like any assistance in contacting the owners of these properties, please e-mail me and we can begin that process. I may be able to help locate the owners and help you facilitate the deal.

"School House Project" ... Preliminary Findings...

The public safety problem confronting Buffalo Public School students and neighborhood residents surrounding recently renovated Buffalo Public Schools is extraordinary. In public health terms it would be called an epidemic. Very little attention is paid to the role of abandoned, boarded, derelict and vacant houses. From an effective and smart urban policy perspective the complete lack of a coordinated and systematic plan to remedy the situation is tantamount to buying a new car and ignoring the engine warning lights. Think about it. ONE BILLION DOLLARS is now being spent on renovating Buffalo Public Schools. Yet the two block area surrounding at least four of the newly renovated buildings is forgotten. It's as though students are supposed to be beamed-up and into class and home again. Have we forgotten the lessons that more desolate urban landscapes than even our own have taught. Perhaps we are just not we might pretend and think these lessons are so far away. Here's a wrenching lesson from Detroit.

Here's the report, pictures, too!!!

I'm developing a story about the larger urban policy implications regarding the "rabbit hole" of urban planning our elected and anointed officials have fallen down and specifically how their actions and policies relate to our new schools and the urban blight that surrounds them. I've called it "The School House Project." Yet, faced with the data it might be more appropriate to deploy a military metaphor and think of the area surrounding these schools as part of a complex urban "mine-field." So instead of a new car and engine warning lights, think of a million dollar Hum-vee with out the armor to properly understand the disconnect between the rhetoric from downtown and the reality in the 'hood.

The data is not complete yet what I have collected suggests that the problem is larger, more complex and the imminent danger experienced by our youngest minds is a whole lot greater and grimmer than I was initially prepared to accept and understand. I've collected data from three Buffalo Public Schools (just about four) that have been recently renovated and re-opened under Phase I of the Joint Schools Construction Project. Two of these schools are on the East side and two on the West side.

Harvey Garrett, the West side community activist, first pointed out the problem of abandoned, boarded, derelict and vacant houses surrounding our city schools when we walked around his West side neighborhood last September. Here, I had an opportunity to learn first hand about the collaborative work he is doing with neighborhood groups and law enforcement organizations.

The story here in Masten is significantly worse than the West-side. Three decades of "white-flight" racial segregation and strategic private dis-investment have resulted in deeper patterns of pathological criminal and social activity than have occurred on the West side. There are deep scars in this community. This part of Masten (Main/Jefferson – Ferry/Utica) is my primary focus as the decision has been made to re-locate the Buffalo Academy for the Visual & Performing Arts to this neighborhood. Doors are scheduled to open in January 2008. What will students experience as they walk to school?

This is not a plea to quickly spruce-up and clean the streets. That sort of planning typically takes place within the context of a Super-Bowl coming to town. Here we are talking about everyday life and smart city-planning.

What are we learning from the recently renovated and re-opened schools in other parts of the city? Are we simply going to accept a "photo-shopped" city-planning job of locating a 28 million dollar project in a blighted neighborhood and then walk away from the surrounding neighborhood as we have done in four other city neighborhoods. The evidence so far suggests that we will...just walk away.

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Urban Development/Housing

Doomsday For Suburbia?

New York Times reviews the independent film "The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream."

Mar 16, 2005, 08:00 am PST

Contributed by Abhijeet Chavan

"If the cost of energy skyrockets, are the suburbs doomed? Would Long Island, already paying among the highest fuel and electricity rates in the country, become an unsustainably expensive place to live?

A way of thinking that says "yes" is circulating, and has assumed tangible form in a video called "The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream." Made in Toronto by the independent producers Gregory Greene and Barry Silverthorn, it explores the idea that the world is running out of cheap petrofuels and predicts the utter ruin of North America's suburbs - and not in the distant future, but somewhere between 5 and 25 years from now."

Full story: Running On Empty

Source: The New York Times, Mar 15, 2005.

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Endangered City of Buffalo from The Empire Page

by Paul M. Bray - March 2005

It looks possible that we are going to have to kiss the great city of Buffalo good-bye. A proposal, "Uniting for a Greater Buffalo", by The Greater Buffalo Commission chaired by retired President William R. Greiner of the University of Buffalo and backed by Erie County Executive Joel Giambra would result in a so-called merger of the City and County. In the process it would lop off the head of the City and turn it into a "municipal service district". The City of Buffalo would become a self-supporting ward of Erie County.

Buffalo grew in the 19th century into an industrially muscular city and birthplace of many great civic ventures. When the renowned architect Walter Gropius was telling Europeans that America was the future because it was "the motherland of industry" he pointed to photographs of the massive grain elevators along the shores of the Niagara River at Buffalo. While industrial Buffalo thrived in the nineteen and twentieth centuries, civic spirit was present. It attracted the great park maker Frederick Law Olmsted and architects like Louis Sullivan, H.H.Richardson, Stanford White, Eliel and Eero Saarinen and Frank Loyd Wright who did some of their best work in Buffalo. Buffalo boasts one of strongest architectural histories in the United States.

Why should we care about the fate of the City of Buffalo? When suburbs dominate our politics and sprawl and urban disinvestment continues unabated, why not consign traditional eastern American cities like Buffalo to the dustbin of history?

To answer that question lets start with City historian Louis Mumford. He viewed the main function of cities to be an agent of human continuity. Fearing what he saw happening to American cities, he wrote "When the living memory of the city, which once bound together generations and centuries, disappears: it inhabitants live in a self-annihilating moment-to-moment continuum. The poorest Stone Age savage never lived in such a destitute and demoralized community".

Throughout the world the culture of nations (their identity and narrative) is rooted in their cities. For city residents and other nationals alike, great cities are cultural pillars giving form to the attainments of previous generations and helping define who they are. Needless to say, for example, Paris does that for the French whether they live within Paris, in the Paris suburbs or in the south of France hundreds of miles away. If there is a cultural pillar for upstate New York, it is the city of Buffalo?

Cities are also economic engines. Great cities drive state and national economies. They are complex systems attracting and magnifying creativity, labor, capital and entrepreneurialism. New York city is the economic engine for New York State driving the vast downstate region as well as supporting the whole economy of the State. Yet, its city effect lessens the farther upstate or into the State's hinterland you go. Upstate to have a decent economy needs its own great city to be both a cultural pillar and economic engine. That should be Buffalo's role.

The current picture of the City of Buffalo and Erie County, the most populous upstate county, is ugly. Buffalo is bankrupt and functioning under a State imposed control board. It has lost half of a 600,000 population in the last fifty years and its tax base continues an exponential decline. The condition of Erie county government is also a mess. It is being called a "nightmare" and a "train wreck" as it accommodates a $108 million budget shortfall having to cut up to 2,500 jobs and close county parks. The sheriff's road patrols may be halved and hospital services at Erie County Medical Center are threatened. The 2000 census pictured a County that lost 19,000 residents and is the 4th most segregated county in the nation. Not a pretty picture for a major section of the State.

It appears that the time has come to post a sign on Thruway declaring "The former Great City of Buffalo is closed, moved south".

The current "nightmare" has obscured the "merger" proposal not because the merger proposal is good, it isn't, but because the must do job of reviving the City of Buffalo is off the radar because of the County's fiscal plight.

Lets take a look at what is wrong with the merger proposal and what really needs to happen.

The merger offers the "image" of a regional city, but there is a lot less to the proposal than meets the eye. There is no regional city when the 43 remaining cities, towns and villages in Erie County remain independent. What happens under the proposal is that the City's leadership or management functions of planning, finance, infrastructure, law and code enforcement, etc. guided by the Mayor would be transferred to the county government. Who then is going to lead and inspire the residents of Buffalo? The County Executive is responsible to a larger electorate and is having enough problems meeting the County's current financial needs.

City residents would still pay the bill under the proposal's "dual service and taxing system". Six new county legislative positions would be created and only city-based legislators would vote on city service and taxing issues for the new Municipal Service District that was the real city of Buffalo.

The proposal is a well-intentioned road to greater disaster. At best it may send a message to the world at large that the Buffalo and its county are trying to get control costs and increase efficiency. In the short term it accomplishes some economies. But it doesn't really address the "little boxes" issues of the high cost and ineffectiveness of fragmented local governance in areas of infrastructure, housing and land use except by eliminating some city government management positions.

The proposal is not a real merger of local governments nor is it even a "compact" or intergovernmental collaboration on common matters as Assemblyman Sam b and regional expert David Rusk proposed where cities, towns and governments collaborate to adopt common land use and infrastructure policies and plans and consolidate municipal services as appropriate.

The time has come to stop the nonsense of half measures to address upstate's decline. Real measures to revive the City of Buffalo are critical to the future of upstate's economy.

From the Governor and the State Legislature down it is long overdue to make it a matter of statewide urgency to revive the Great City of Buffalo from a city on the skids (threatened with ward like status) into the vibrant, healthy, attractive city that is the economic engine for upstate New York. The "merger proposal" and some incentives for shared services as found in the Governor's budget proposal, for example, do not do it.

The place to start is with a top notch, can do plan for revival that sets a vision and overarching goals for city revival, blue prints a full range of linkages to western New York, Great Lakes and Canadian economies and provides a block by block chart of what is needed to remake Buffalo into a financially sustainable and first class education, commercial, high tech, historic, cultural, environmental and beacon city for investment. The full resources of State Government need to be applied to realizing this revival plan to be complemented by leadership from within the City of Buffalo.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, a planning and environmental law firm in Albany, New York. His e-mail is

More Eye From Albany
For Eye From Albany columns prior to August 2002, visit

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School House Project

School House Project - A Preliminary Report
The following is a portion of a larger study that examines the current condition of residential and commercial property that is adjacent to some of the recently renovated Buffalo Public Schools. These findings are not conclusive. Some of the policy changes are still suggestions and do not represent a definative assesment of the problem.
I have spent long hours and a few days in city court, the third floor city hall and Erie county hall chasing down ownership information, inspection and housing court records on 54 abandoned, boarded, derelict and vacant (ABDV) houses surrounding three recently renovated city schools.
I focused on the immediate 1-2 block area around four recently renovated Buffalo Public Schools. Data from the neighborhood around the Emerson School on Sycamore near Walden is forthcoming.

1. School #19
2. Sedita School
3. East High School
4. Emerson High School

Each one of these Buffalo Public Schools was recently renovated under the Joint School Construction Project. Many of these houses will not be inspected for 6-9 months. Many of them do not have a current "housing court" file. Many of them are city owned properties.
My intention is not to trample on anyone's "turf" in the housing activist scene. Many people here such as Michele Johnson and Harvey Garrett are doing extraorinary work on a volunteer basis. I believe and after my assesment, the situation on a macro and city wide level is a whole lot grimmer than I first imagined. This is just a preliminary study limited to the area immediately surrounding three recently renovated city schools. I have every reason to believe the situation is just as rampant and may be even worse in areas somewhat further away from these schools and close to schools that will not be the recipient of funds under the Joint School Construction Project. For example this house located at 212 Best Street, directly across from City Honors represents the blighted conditions surrounding many of our other schools. This case is particularly poignant as it is directly across the street from the "best" high school in the city. Wide open and waiting for something like this...
212 Best Street

click to enlarge
This "study" originated in part because of my growing interest in my own neighborhood in the Masten District. In particular I was concerned that the Woodlawn Row Houses, a local-landmark, and architecturally significant late 19th century builiding is owned by the very entity that is charged with the correcting and improving neighborhoods; the City of Buffalo.

This set of row houses is abandonded, boarded, derelict and vacant and sits 100 feet away from the former Buffalo Traditional High School. This will be the future site of the Buffalo Academy of the Visual & Performings Arts, in 2008. My additional concern is that there appear to be an ever widening disparitiy between the rhetoic from public officials and the reality of the "lived" neighborhood. Here, I am drawing a specific reference to the strong public policy announement that the Masiello administration made in July 2004 regarding the quality of neighborhoods that surround schools renovated under the Joint Schools Contruction Project. This policy is called The Mayor's Livable Communities Initiative and was published by Tim E. Wanamaker, Executive Director of the Office of Strategic Planning in July 2004.

Policy Suggestions

The list of growing concerns regarding how these ABDV properties are being (mis)managed by the people and departments that we have entrusted to remedy the problem, include some of the following findings:

1. The 6-9 month inspection cycle. When there is obviously no intention on the owners part to fix the problems why is the cycle so long. This runs contrary to the policy set forth in the Mayor's Livable Communities Initiative, July 2004.
2. The total lack of enforcement with regards to serving the 100's perhaps as many as 900-1500 outstanding housing court warrants. Capt. Rozansky of the Erie County Sheriff's Dept is responsible for bringing these people to court. I learned this afternoon that one obstacle standing in the way is that the Dept of Inspections does not have the money in their budget to purchase a color ink cartridge to print the necessary paper work to facilitate the legal process.
3. The apparent lack of communication and coordination between Taxation, Housing Court and the Real Estate Office is bordering on the pathetic. For example 390 Vermont had a demo consent order signed by the owner. This relieved him of Housing Court obligations. The city then took possession of the house and sold the house at the City property sale in October 2004. Like 242 Koons Avenue, 390 Vermont sits 50 feet away from a recently renovated school.
4. Despite the policy claims of The Mayor's Livable Communities Initiative which clearly states that ABDV property around schools has top priority and will be strictly monitored on a monthly basis, I found no evidence of such planning, concern or monitoring of these properties. In five cases, my own documentation recently prompted 4 emergency board-ups and in one case at 352 14th Street - city owned since October 2002 - a place on the demo list. Here, the appropriate documentation had been overlooked and no one on the third floor knew it was a city owned property until I brought it to their attention this afternoon.

Additional Material
I will also include two additional sites. The ABDV property around the Emerson School site and here in the Masten neighborhood surrounding the site of the new Performing Arts High School scheduled to open January 2008. This of course includes the "poster child" of ABDV property, the Woodlawn Row Houses. This is an historic local-landmark and owned by the City of Buffalo. It sits 100 feet away from the school's main entrance.

Short Term Policy Recomendations
Eventually I would also like to include a more comprehensive critique regarding how the various agencies, departments and housing court might improve code enforcement. This would help restore a sense of sanity to our neighborhoods. This critique might include the following suggestions:
  1. Pro-active inspections
  2. Use of UB Law School student interns for Inspection and Housing Court research
  3. Integrated policy enhancement between Real Estate, Inspections and Housing Court
  4. Shortened inspection cycle
  5. Publishing the warrants
  6. Enhanced collection procedures for demos
The "broken windows theory" of crime, crime prevention and neighborhood decay was first made popular by James Q. Wilson in 1982. Wilson is often quoted:
  • if the first broken window in a building is not repaired, then people who like breaking windows will assume that no one cares about the building and more windows will be broken. Soon the building will have no windows...
The consequences of having such large number of ABDV property clustered in neighborhoods deserves further study. The primary concerns continue to be:
  1. A criminal safe haven surrounds many of these properties
  2. Negative econmic effects - excellerating rates of dis-investment
  3. Public health and safety
Cities with similar problems experience horrendous events such as this. In the mean time perhaps we should be fortunate that we don't live in Detroit, yet.

I'm left with the unsettled thought that we are now accustomed to living with neighborhoods that have dozens of abandoned, boarded, derilect and vacant properties. This is our reality. Can we expect more from our elected officials?

I am monitoring these houses on a monthly basis. I will have an update in 30 days.
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There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask
of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.
- Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) from The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961.

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