Winging It in Buffalo

The City Unveils a Plan to Take Down its White Elephants.

Downtown Buffalo and its art deco City Hall

Credit: Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau

There is no denying that Buffalo has seen better days. In the past 50 years, the city has lost some of its key industries, and, consequently, nearly half of its population. The result: tens of thousands of abandoned buildings.

Last July, Barbara Reed, the mother of a firefighter who was seriously injured while putting out an arson fire, wrote a letter to the Buffalo News offering a "mother's cure" for the problem: Take Down a House. She challenged the citizens of Buffalo to donate their own money to tear down the houses that the city could not afford to demolish. "I'm angry as to why this had to happen," she writes. "The equation is simple. Old houses plus fire (arson) equals potential danger and tragedy."

Reed's letter gives a voice to some residents' overwhelming sense of frustration as the city has grappled to find a solution to the problem. Since 1995, the city has demolished nearly 5,000 abandoned structures in an effort to curb blight and arson, but it estimates that there are as many as 10,000 more that need to be demolished.

Last month, the city announced a "Five by Five" program it hopes will bring its vacancy rate closer to five percent within five years by demolishing 1,000 buildings a year, a rate close to three demolitions a day.

"We just want the quality of life and safety to increase," says Janet Penska, the city commissioner who conceived and oversees the plan. "You have streets where all but one property is blighted and vacant. It's almost a patchwork."
Buffalo, N.Y.

Buffalo's restored theater

Credit: Buffalo Niagara CVB

Buffalo's vacant buildings cost the city $20,000 per year to maintain, Penska says, which is about as much as it will cost to demolish them.

Unfortunately, many of the structures being targeted are older Civil War cottages near the city center, threatening the city's vernacular housing stock.

"It's a safety issue for the city and a quality-of-life issue and, only after that, a preservation issue," says Roberta Lane, program officer for the National Trust's Northeast Office.

It's a dilemma that has plagued many Rust Belt cities in recent years. Loss of industry and suburban sprawl mean a high percentage of vacancies in places like Detroit and Baltimore.

This month, the National Vacant Properties Campaign will meet in Pittsburgh for a conference to discuss strategies to combat the problem. One such strategy that city planners will discuss is the idea of "right-sizing"—the use of widespread demolition to shrink a city to a size more proportionate to its population.

It's an idea that preservationists typically resist. "It doesn't have any regard for the culture of the place," Lane says. "It's kind of an experiment, and you're giving up a whole lot in the process."

Tax income is one of those sacrifices. Tim Tielman, a member of the city preservation board and director of Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture, and Culture, points out that it is very difficult to "right-size" sewer systems and other infrastructure. Clearing residential areas lowers the city's tax base to cover its maintenance. "The less dense a city is," he says, "the less urban it becomes."

The Philadelphia Story

Seven years ago, Philadelphia's problem with vacancy prompted its mayor to launch the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, which called for 14,000 demolitions over a five-year period in order to create a "land bank" for new development and open space.

The city failed to meet its goal, demolishing only about 2,000 houses before the program expired. But the larger problem is that the city had no plans for redirecting development into the neighborhoods that had been most affected by blight. "There wasn't much there in terms of neighborhood planning," says Adrian Scott Fine, director of the National Trust's Northeast Field Office. "Some of those lots are overgrown and just as much as an eyesore as the building that was there."

Even though demolition was popular among neighbors tired of fighting vandalism, drugs, and other safety issues the vacant buildings created, it was quickly apparent that it was not a long-term solution. "[Residents] don't want their neighborhood destroyed unless there is a plan to rebuild them," Fine says. "Since then, I think they have a much better process in place." The city is now more focused on neighborhood planning and more sensitive to preservation issues than it was before the initiative, he says. While not exactly a success story, Fine adds, the plan "got a good discussion going."

First Things First

While the demolition list is long in Buffalo, the city is trying to find a progressive approach to the problem. All buildings to be demolished are reviewed by the city's preservation board, and the city has worked hard to bolster code enforcement to discourage abandonment, and it has appointed an anti-flipping task force to prevent land speculation. "They're aggressively trying to deal with this at a bunch of different levels," Lane says.

The city says its program is not the same as the urban renewal of the 1960s, which relocated and razed whole neighborhoods. Instead, Penska says, it is trying to boost rundown areas with two programs: The city's Neighborhood of Choice program works with neighborhood organizations to help them with revitalization. It also has a middle-class housing program to attract teachers, police officers, and firefighters back into the city by covering their closing costs and giving them grants to rehabilitate houses.

"Buffalo has a fine tradition of neighborhoods, ethnically diverse neighborhoods, and we want to keep it that way," Penska says.

First Things First

The city's priorities are houses that are an immediate threat to public safety followed by blighted housing close to schools. Penska says that they then will look at demolition in neighborhoods targeted for redevelopment and renewal projects.

Because the city is seeking state and federal grants to help cover the cost of the demolitions, all demolition applications are being reviewed by the city's preservation board. Tielman says that the board is having a difficult time keeping up with the requests. "It's an impossible task, reviewing 2,000 structures," he says, limiting their ability to closely review every case.

The preservation board has designed posters for buildings they are reviewing to inform the neighbors about the pending demolition requests, but he says that the city has yet to implement the plan. "The board is not as good at doing street enforcement as someone who lives on the street and knows that house" he says. "I'd be worried about destroying something someone cherishes."
Buffalo, N.Y.

Buffalo's program targets mostly houses, not public buildings.

Credit: Buffalo Niagara CVB

Show Me the Money

Because of its financial problems, the city has found it difficult for it to carry out demolitions as quickly as some would like. But it has created what many preservationists see as an opportunity to show the city that there are alternatives. The West Side Community Collaborative, a partnership of 35 neighborhood groups and preservation organizations, has worked block by block to revitalize neighborhoods by buying and fixing up vacant homes and businesses. And a Queen Anne house on 2.2 acres is being transformed into the Queen City Farm, which will give inner-city children access to homegrown vegetables.

Lane thinks Buffalo could become a laboratory for ideas about how to deal with the vacancy issue, allowing other cities to gauge the effectiveness of programs that are not just reactionary but use preservation to revitalize entire neighborhoods. It's a city that appreciates its assets, Lane says. "People in Buffalo have a profound sense of the greatness of their architecture."

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