It’s been a tough holiday season and new year for preservation in Buffalo. If you follow Buffalo Rising even casually, or scroll through the list of articles from the last couple of weeks, you can see the mentions of stalled Trico landmarking, the Bethlehem Steel Headquarters (on the Buffalo-Lackawanna line), and the former North Park Baptist Church — which is being taken down this weekend on one of those infamous Buffalo “Friday-afternoon demolitions”. You know, the kind that were never supposed to happen again.
On Saturday, Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBN) sent out the press release which is printed in its entirety below, lightly edited and with some links added (the original is here). It includes an amazing piece of the puzzle that I hadn’t heard before: that in 2010 an attempt to adaptively reuse this church was thwarted due to, essentially and ironically, a “religious” disagreement over the purity of the proposed design vis-a-vis the preservation Revealed Wisdom known as the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards. Essentially, the preservation equivalents of the Archdiocese of New York and the College of Cardinals (in our Vatican, Washington, DC) had a theological disagreement over the preservation equivalent of the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. And those Washington pinheads, by insisting on a perhaps out-of-date interpretation of a perhaps out-of-touch standard, made sure the operation on the patient would only be carried out by-the-Book or not at all — with the result that the patient, this weekend, died.
Enough metaphor salad. In the PBN press release, you can see that this was no mere academic or theological debate — you can see actual renderings of the real housing project proposal that, had it not been stymied, would likely have already housed its first tenants. But instead of that additional vibrancy in a city and neighborhood that would welcome it, the only “vibrancy” on that corner this weekend is the rumble of heavy machinery and crashing masonry.
In two months, PBN will be participating in a statewide symposium in the Capital District, where, with this loss fresh in mind, they will push for a rationalization of these standards and their interpretation. They’ll tell you about that below. And it can’t come soon enough, with news coming in from all across Upstate New York of closed churches being demolished, threatened with demolition, or struggling to find new uses. Godspeed.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: January 5, 2013
In April of 2012, the former North Park Baptist Church on Colvin Avenue was damaged by a three-alarm arson fire. No one was harmed during the incident, thankfully, since the North Buffalo church had been vacant for a number of years after the owner, the Korean United Methodist Church, vacated the property for unknown reasons. Late last November, the owner applied for a demolition permit from the City of Buffalo citing, in large part, the damage caused by that fire.
Earlier this week, the City of Buffalo Preservation Board announced their intention to nominate the former church for local landmark designation, given the property’s high architecturally design, rich history, and physical presence in the neighborhood. The demolition of the former North Park Baptist Church began yesterday (Friday) afternoon at 3pm. The now-familiar manner in which we neglect and sequentially dispose of our city has, unfortunately, begun to define the City of Good Neighbors as much as our actual architecture does.
As we begin to debate the true culprit of yet another Friday-afternoon demolition, whether it is an irresponsible property owner, an utter lack of vision from elected officials, or a general absence of appreciation of our unique architectural gems like this former Italian Renaissance Revival church — or a combination of all of the above — we can’t help but share a critical piece of dialogue that is missing from this familiar conversation. This piece is the incompatibility of the otherwise overwhelmingly successful Historic Tax Credit program, and the economic and design realities related to rehabilitating and repurposing a vacant religious space.
The decline of the neighborhood church building type during the last 40-plus years is very similar to that of the decline of the industrial and commercial buildings in the downtown cores of our cities — as well as the decline of our cities’ neighborhoods themselves. This trend was caused in large part by the movement patterns of our country’s population from established, urban neighborhoods to newly formed communities in the suburbs surrounding our cities. Unfortunately, the recent sequential story of the gradual renaissance of our cities rarely includes the successful repurposing of neighborhood religious spaces. With the aid of the Historic Tax Credit program, once-idle manufacturing buildings are being converted into trendy downtown living lofts, and homeowners in at-risk neighborhoods are provided incentives for renovation work on their historic homes. But almost all vacant churches and other religious spaces are left vacant — many neglected to the point of demolition.
The primary reason why more religious spaces aren’t repurposed as part of the Historic Tax Credit program is that the majority of the prospective buyers’ rehabilitation plans are currently incompatible with the design standards which govern the incentive program. These Standards (known as the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards) mandate that the congregation space or sanctuary, typically a large, rectangular basilica space, which is often two-stories or more in height, cannot be easily subdivided into smaller spaces. The Standards applied in these cases expect those congregation spaces to be reused in a way that respects and reflects the original historic use. This presents an obvious problem for potential developers and owners of these properties, because, typically, every available square foot needs to be leveraged in order for the project to be financially feasible.
The former North Park Baptist Church is an example of such a failed attempt to use Historic Tax Credits in a proposed rehabilitation project. In 2010, while working at Preservation Studios (a local historic preservation consulting firm), we [Tom Yots and Jason Wilson] participated in a walkthrough of this property with local architect and developer Karl Frizlen of the Frizlen Group. We ultimately partnered with The Frizlen Group in proposing a design that would have placed residential units into the congregation space. The proposed design called for keeping the original interior wall surfaces and stained glass windows, and inserted an independent structure within the open space of the sanctuary (see renderings below).
Local examples of once-vacant churches that have been successfully rehabilitated include the King Urban Life Center in the former St. Mary of Sorrows [Seven Dolors] church, and Babeville in the former Asbury Delaware Avenue Methodist Church, which was a Historic Tax Credit project. Both of these rehabilitation projects inserted new uses into the former sanctuary spaces that did not obscure the original, historically open space. These open layouts and designs are what the Standards call for in order for a church rehabilitation project to be eligible for tax credits. The obvious Catch-22 is that the transparency in the King Urban Life Center, and the openness in Babeville, are not features that would be easily accommodated in an apartment design.
So what can be done? Do we live with the “imperfections” of the nation’s most successful and cost-effective community revitalization program, even though it often doesn’t allow for the reuse of vacant religious spaces? No. Instead, we need to act to change it, and to make it a better and more comprehensive tool in revitalizing our communities.
When word first surfaced of the possible demolition of this building, Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBN) sent an alert across the state to various historic preservation advocacy groups and funders. As a result, PBN has been invited to participate in an upcoming symposium in March at the Carey Center for Global Good in Rensselaerville, outside of Albany. The symposium, co-sponsored by the NY Landmarks Conservancy, the Preservation League of New York State, and the Partners for Sacred Places, will focus on the adaptive use of religious properties. Former State Parks Commissioner and land use advocate, Carol Ash [now president of the Carey Center], will also be partnering in the program.
PBN intends to bring to the symposium the serious problem faced in upstate New York cities, like Buffalo and Niagara Falls, where there are not easy commercial reuse solutions for vacant religious buildings. This problem is, of course, compounded by the fact that the economies in these communities do not support development projects without incentives like the Historic Preservation Tax Credit program. We are hoping that the collective knowledge and experience at this symposium, along with the expertise of the New York State Historic Preservation Office and the National Park Service, will allow for the development of viable solutions to this problem.
Like many religious buildings in our communities, the former North Park Baptist Church was located in a residential neighborhood, and anchored the blocks that surrounded it. The character of a neighborhood is often highlighted by the religious buildings that serve as these anchors. The “village” feel of the Elmwood Village comes not just from the small shops and supporting residential blocks, but also from churches like Lafayette Presbyterian on Elmwood at Lafayette, and the Unitarian-Universalist Church on Elmwood at West Ferry. These beautiful and imposing buildings are integral to the neighborhood they serve, and that integration goes well beyond their religious and social activities to include an important physical presence of architecture and landscape.
North Buffalo has lost an important neighborhood landmark today, and it is PBN’s intent to pursue every available avenue to making the rehabilitation of our communities’ vacant religious spaces more of a reality than it was today.
Preservation Buffalo Niagara’s mission is to identify, preserve, protect, promote and revitalize historically and architecturally significant sites, structures, neighborhoods, commercial districts and landscapes in Erie and Niagara Counties.
Contact: Tom Yots & Jason Wilson
Phone: (716) 852-3300