Wrecking Buffalo: Coming to a garbage dump near you, this church.

The historic church at 375 Colvin in North Buffalo is currently being torn down.  It was an unrealized city asset that is being hauled off to a dump as you read this.  This unique piece of Buffalo is being thoughtlessly removed. No plan for reuse of this soon to be vacant land has been published by the owner .  If the typical scenario is followed it will be nothing special, parking, an empty lot, or perhaps some cheap sprawl style infill covered in plastic and foam siding. If we are lucky the parking lot will be surrounded by sickly shrubs – you know “green space”.  This demolition will add one more notch of mediocrity in a city which has been inexplicably striving to reach mediocrity for decades.  Long term neglect of buildings is far too easily accepted in Buffalo. It is not something that should be accepted. It is not normal for a building to rot in plain sight to the point it has to be demolished.  Empty lots and surface parking are too often looked on as progress.  Removal of a unique asset is not progress. Parking lots are not progress. Old buildings are not what is holding Buffalo back.  Bad decision making and lack of any plan of action is what is holding Buffalo back. 
Local government and institutional leadership sit on their thumbs for decades waiting for fairy dust to make a difference. This demolition is not going to make Buffalo a better place.  This demolition is making Buffalo a lesser place.  Too much of Buffalo has been lost.  Why is there not a concerted regional effort to assure that the degradation of Buffalo is stopped?  Where its the plan?  This church did not have to be lost. If this demolition is not making Buffalo better as a place why is it being done?  Why will it be done at another site in the not too distant future, and another, and another?
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About the author  ⁄ david steele

21 comments
BPS_Rising
BPS_Rising

I'm disappointed that he bought the old synagogue without a plan for it. There is a strong desire in the Jewish community to renovate that space, but nobody has come up with the funds to back that desire. This is threatened by a wrecking ball, it is only a matter of time is someone doesn't take this beautiful building seriously.

A post from last February on this building:

http://fixbuffalo.blogspot.com/2012/02/citys-oldest-synagogue-threatened-with.html

Travelrrr
Travelrrr

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: January 5, 2013

Press Release re: Former North Park Baptist Church

Contact: Tom Yots & Jason Wilson

Phone: (716) 852-3300

Email: Director@p-b-n.org

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 damaged 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 presents 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 Neighborhoods 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 the general absence of appreciation for 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 overwhelming 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 as well as 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 our cities' gradual renaissance 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, can not 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 every available square foot needs to be leveraged in order for the project to be financially feasible.

The former North Park Baptist Church is actually an example of 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 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 below renderings). The New York State Historic Preservation Offices was supportive and presented the project for informal review to the National Park Service who oversees the historic tax credit program. The National Park Service eventually rejected the design primarily because the openness of the congregation space was lost. With their proposed project being ruled ineligible for the Historic Tax Credit program the Frizlen Group decided to not move forward with purchasing and repurposing the church. It was determined that Historic Tax Credits were essential in making the proposed project financially feasible.

Local examples of once-vacant churches that were successful rehabilitated include the King Urban Life Center in the former St. Mary's of the Sorrows 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 historic open space. These layouts and designs are what the Standards are calling 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 to 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, we don't live with it. We 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, New York. The symposium, co-sponsored by the NY Landmark 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, 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 Avenue Presbyterian on Elmwood & Lafayette and the Unitarian Universalist Church on Elmwood & 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 in order to make 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.

RaChaCha
RaChaCha

I appreciate all the preservation board tried to do here -- and share your collective horror at the outcome :-(

r-k-tekt
r-k-tekt

Where do people get this impression that Preservationists or the Preservation Board want "everything saved" It's simply not true...Come to a Preservation Board meeting. Well over 90% of the demolitions are unopposed.

This was a battle the Board chose to fight because it was worth fighting, everyone on the board unpaid, volunteers, tried their damndest meeting with the Commissioner, Councilpeople, researching the history of the building, trying to meet with the owner.

When the City gives no support, the task overwhelmed them.

UberGeek
UberGeek

Central Terminal is being maintained, and improved already. Thanks to the Central Terminal Organization, and had nothing to do with the Preservationist Society.

UberGeek
UberGeek

I am at a loss to see how this church is historic, other than just being old.

What are the historic points? Is this a unique example of architecture? A model for other buildings built later? A landmark of historical significance (Such as a battle being fought there, or Underground RR site)?

LouisTully
LouisTully

Hell yeah, dude. I agree. City Hall blows. A little customer service would go a long way. I've reported a pay station not working only to get a ticket. When I called to say wtf was I supposed to do, they told me tough sh**, even though it was them who failed to do their job and maintain their equipment and perform the service to me... the resident, ie. customer.

When I call to complain of the illegal parking at the school across the street nothing ever happens. But parking enforcement sure is prompt to hand out a ticket to my neighbors or I, tax payers and residents of the neighborhood, if we don't switch sides within 5 minutes of 6PM.

City Hall needs change. And leadership, HA!

digitalkid2112
digitalkid2112

I am not one that considers myself a 'preservationist' or one in favor of ''tear everything down". Generally I look at things on a case by case basis, look at the facts and attempt to keep emotion out of it. I think that is the problem that a lot of people on both sides of the argument have. Too much emotion. There are certain buildings that should be saved and there are certain buildings that should not. Buildings such as the Richardson, Lafayette and central terminal are obvious 'saves'. They have architectural and vast historical significance not only to the region but on a national or international scale. In this instance, let's look at the facts...does the building arguably have architectural significance. I submit it does not. There are several other examples of Romanesque style churches in the city. Does it age warrant historical consideration? While the building is nearly 90 years old there are several older and more historically significant churches in far better condition than this site. Due to extensive interior remodeling the church does not even retain most of its historic original features and what did remain was unfortunately destroyed by fire. Is there some sort of historic cultural significance? Arguable...conservative Judaism accounts for less than 1/3 of Americans practicing Judaism and other than being old rabbi Gitin was not known to have significance in this movement. Has the building owner attempted to solicit attempts at preservation? No. But at the same time did the preservation movement do anything to attempt to prevent its precipitous decline? No. And therein lies the issue with the preservation movement of this city...For all the good it has done and it has done a lot of good, the city's attitude to it has improved (if only marginally) the problem is that the movement is far too reactive instead of being proactive and until this changes we will all see further examples of this. Now in my opinion we cannot save everything and I don't believe it is realistic that we should. This to me is an example of something that fits this criteria and I hope most reasonable people would agree with that sentiment. In my opinion to think otherwise is an unrealistic endeavor...pick your battles, pick them wisely and fight to the death for it. If you do that and win, people will then take you far more seriously than if you halfheartedly try to fight everything. Just my opinion...

Cam33r4
Cam33r4

So THAT'S what the noise was this morning.

Anyway, I guess what bothers me the most about this is that there is no set plan for the land after the demolition is finished. Talk about jumping the gun and failing to see the whole picture of the situation. Tear it down, okay, but then what? It seems like there was 0 planning on anyone's part here, and instead people are just pointing fingers...

STEEL
STEEL

Actually I apologize. I did not mean that as a slam on you personally. What I am saying is that the economic and social problems of Buffalo is a regional issue that needs to be dealt with regionally. Your statement puts the whole blame on the city alone. The city is not blameless but as a warehouse for the poor and the municipality that has born the extreme majority of the massive regional decline and disinvestment over the last 50 years Buffalo is of course going to be dysfunctional in many ways.

Captain Picard
Captain Picard

You are so full of shit, Steel.

I live in the city, work in the city, own many properties in the city, spend almost all of my money in the city, and would never consider living anywhere else. I have never once maligned welfare or its beneficiaries, and I am a staunch proponent of regionalism. What percentage of your time and money is spend in the city of Buffalo? What have you done for the community other than make an ass of yourself on this website?

You should be called out for and ashamed of your continued biased character assassination of people you've never met.

STEEL
STEEL

Your attitude is where the problem lies. This is not just a Buffalo issue. Until WNY starts thinking regionally Buffalo will continue to rot and lose great unique assets and the region with a rotting core will also riot. In a shrinking region you cannot allow the core to rot from disinvestment while you continue to add wasteful infrastructure at the edges. You cannot keep multiple layers of wasteful governments that compete for the same piece of pie with tax give aways. You can't keep pretending that you are safe from the terrible welfare cheat liberals and scary people once you are on the other side of the city line.

buffalorr
buffalorr

[ Deleted as a response to an off topic comment. ]

Captain Picard
Captain Picard

I have to say that I agree with much of what you wrote. Major change is certainly required in most, if not all departments of city government.

However, this isn't just a preservation issue. It's a quality of life issue for all citizens of Buffalo. The incompetence, waste, and lousy attitude of the majority of those who work in city hall is disgusting. If you want us to pay your bloated salaries, at least have the decency to PRETEND like you're not robbing us and miserable in your work. A smile every now and then wouldn't hurt, especially since the only time I enter that wretched building is to hand over thousands and thousands ($9778 to be precise) of my hard-earned dollars. My reward for this tribute? Potholes, parking tickets, and police who show up an hour after I've been carjacked.

Douche bags.

Superman3d
Superman3d

@buffalorr

If you want a great project to work on, buy 407 Jefferson. The guy whom just purchased it for $600 (six hundred dollars) at in October 2012 stated to me that he wasn't that interested in it and would be willing to get out of the deal.

buffalorr
buffalorr

There should be a lawsuit against the City of Buffalo for allowing these properties to deteriorate to such a condition, if one doesn't already exist.

I just moved back to Buffalo after having left in the '70's due to a job transfer and am so glad to be back home.

I took trips back to visit family and friends dozen's of times during those years.

When I first noticed this church boarded up on Colvin several years ago, my gut feeling told me that it would eventually be demolished and replaced by a vacant lot.

Turn's out my feeling came to fruition.

This has happened so many times over the year's since I've been gone and is so predictable, especially when a church property is involved.

The church I attended and was confirmed in, Christ Lutheran at Broadway and Fox St. was demolished about 12 year's ago.

It was an amazing, beautiful building loaded with fine woodwork and works of art, built back in 1892.

As happened with so many other congregation's within the City, the congregation left for the suburb's and gave the church to a small religious group that had no money to maintain it.

The minister of that group had no intention of keeping the building from the start.

It was soon stripped of it's valuable woodwork and stained glass window's made in Germany.

The exterior was left to fall into disrepair.

Then, on a Jan. night in 1990 or '91, it was torched by an arsonist.

The remain's of the church stood vacant until it was demolished in 2000.

It's still painful for me to think about.

I can guess what some may be thinking, it you loved it that much, why did your congregation abandon it in the first place?

Here's the harsh truth:

White flight was rapidly taking place during which time most of the members moved to the suburbs.

They then became fearful of driving into the old neighbor and parking their cars.

The congregation dwindled to the point where it became too expensive to operate the church.

It was then given over to the new smaller church organization, the final step in sealing it's fate.

I was in my early 20's and had to find a good paying job elsewhere after having no luck in Buffalo.

Now that I'm retired and in a position to live anywhere I want, I'm overjoyed at finally being able to return to my root's and home in Buffalo.

I was a small part of the problem of Buffalo's decline, not by choice, but by necessity.

Now, I'd like to be a part of the movement that's doing so much good in bringing Buffalo back and I do have resources to do it with.

If anyone can tell me where to start, I'm all open to listening.

I know that I and so many other's don't want to see this type of useless destruction continue.

How many more neighborhoods will go down the path of decline before they are lost as is happening to University Height's right now?

Superman3d
Superman3d

@ RaChaCha

The hurry with the demolition permit was that City of Buffalo only had thirty days to act on it or there could be a lawsuit. I am not always a fan of the city, but in this case it was the right decision.

If we are to speculate on property owner's intentions, let's discuss St Francis de Sales at 575 Humboldt which is no longer open to public and Lafayette Presbyterian at 598 Lafayette which has plans to build-out part of their space into apartments.

RaChaCha
RaChaCha

My bet would be that the City has had discussions with a developer about putting something on this property -- a developer interested in a clear site, but not adaptive reuse -- otherwise, what would be the hurry?

Alternatively, perhaps someone is getting a fire insurance settlement greater than the actual cost of the demolition and was eager to cash out. Perhaps so eager that a vig will end up in an envelope or envelopes.

travelman
travelman

BRAVO Steel and Travlrrr!! Well said. What a disgusting waste, its embarrassing.

Michal
Michal

Can't save them all.Central terminal next?

Travelrrr
Travelrrr

Let's be perfectly clear: this is not just about a building. This situation points to political ineptitude (yes, Brown and Casey, I am looking at you), apathy (or collusion?), and a broken system.

Where is the oversight, where is the urgency to encourage this building owner (and countless owners around the city) to properly restore, maintain, and protect their buildings? We certainly see said "urgency" by Jim Comerford to start a demo at 4pm on Friday afternoons....why isn't there equal weight given to fining, penalizing errant property owners? To demanding redevelopment plans for the site prior to demolition? To spending less money by shoring up these buildings in advance, so that we can avoid a costlier demolition later on?

Instead of any city oversight or top-down governance, volunteers and non-profit organizations, with, ultimately, no say whatsoever, try to encourage the owner--for months, years--to explore alternatives to outright demolition.

As many now like to point out, it is the people of Buffalo (and WNY) who are turning the city around; however, this is a glaring example of where we are truly and utterly powerless over our environment (as is, clearly, the Preservation-Board.) That is, until we can elect someone who gives a damn.......

Could the Board have moved for landmarking sooner? Potentially. However, that still does not go to the heart of the matter: we need a city government that fundamentally understands and supports preservation. I don't care if you like old buildings and/or if you think this is all about "obstruction"--you've got to be down right ignorant at this point not to see that our architecture is one of Buffalo's greatest assets: it brings people to visit our town, it changes tourists' perceptions, it makes people want to move to Buffalo to restore it and make it their own, restoration work is creating a lot of jobs, it embodies the greatness that this city once represented and fuels hope for the future.

But instead of all that, our elected officials--many of whom remain silent about the preservation cause (unless it involves a ribbon-cutting ceremony)--don't advocate for stronger protections, creating a true long-term strategy, launching a preservation fund, holding public sessions on the topic, etc. The fact is, preservation is not truly embraced unless thousands of people are in town spending money at our hotels and eating at our restaurants--THEN it sounds like a good thing to support. Lip service reigns.

The battered structure in the photo above literally disgusts me--this building has been part of our city, culture for over a century, and it was completely reusable.

Mayor Brown, your negligence/complicity on this matter, and so many others like it, is truly disgusting.

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