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Mining Our Heritage: the Next Preservation Threat?

Hidden in the recent coverage of the sale of the former American Axle plant was news that sent a shudder up my spine with its implications: half the complex will be demolished—in large part, for the value of the recovered materials. According to the coverage in the Buffalo News:
Jim Militello, of JR Militello Real Estate, a Buffalo firm specializing in sale and lease of commercial and industrial properties, said the buyer’s plans for partial demolition fit an emerging pattern where the rising price of scrap steel is a purchase motivator.
“The price of steel is at a point where a lot of buildings are worth more as scrap than they are as standing structures,” Militello said. “Nobody understands better than [Jon] Williams [of Ontario Specialty], who is in the demolition business. It’s going to work to his advantage on this project.”
Ontario Specialty, headquartered at 333 Ganson St., has taken on several high-profile demolition and industrial remediation projects in recent years…

As raw material prices have skyrocketed in recent years, in a trajectory tied to the skyrocketing industrialization of China and India, there has been a phenomenon in the underground economy, with abandoned buildings being stripped of materials such as copper piping. But—as this quote suggests—is this trend now crossing over into the official economy, with a legally sanctioned plunder of buildings for their raw materials?
In My Fair City, in the last couple of years Eastman Kodak has removed over a million square feet of former industrial space from what was once the largest industrial complex in the northeast. The stated reason for this demolition blitz was to save on property taxes that would otherwise be owed on idled space. However, the company never inquired with our city government about the possibility of deferring taxes on those buildings to preserve them for future industrial use (or adaptive reuse), causing much speculation that the main motivation for their removal was the increasing scrap value of the steel and other materials recovered from the buildings.
Also, my City Hall’s motivation for its current plan to demolish a major portion of our old downtown subway tunnel—but only the section built of structural steel, and not the section built of reinforced concrete—is almost openly acknowledged to be the rising value of the steel to be recovered.
In terms of the value proposition, this is not unlike another phenomenon which robbed Buffalo and all of America’s cities of many fine buildings during the 20th Century. In the automotive era, the land that many buildings stood on became more valuable for surface parking than the value of the buildings. So down they came, snaggletoothing streetscapes across Buffalo, and clearcutting much of the west side of the central business district in My Fair City. One of Buffalo’s most notable victims was the Hotel Buffalo ( designed by notable Buffalo architects Esenwein & Johnson—a terra cotta Art Nouveau masterpiece. In 1968, it was demolished to expand surface parking.
ako3.pngDeaccession”—of buying buildings to strip them of their art and architectural features. Especially hard hit by this practice have been Buffalo’s churches, as seen here and here, and the Buffalo Central Terminal. Even where legal, those who engage in this practice generally carry out the desecration out of sight, and generally don’t stay around to face those who have to deal with the aftermath—and when making their purchases, they generally don’t signal their intentions.
But now, as Militello suggests, will investors begin openly bidding on buildings, not for their value as standing structures, and not for the value of the land they stand on, but—with the explicit intent to demolish—for their raw material value? Will we see our built environment mined for raw materials? Is it good policy to allow this? How will urban planners, the preservation community, and city governments respond?
In 19th Century Egypt, tombs were looted by Europeans who burned the mummies like logs to fuel their railway locomotives. Like those 19th Century Egyptians, will we allow our own rich heritage—built with the toil and sweat of generations past—to be taken to fuel the growing might of overseas industrial powers?
Photo credits:
Democrat and Chronicle (Kodak), Buffalo/Erie County Historical Society (Hotel Buffalo), David Torke’s Fix Buffalo blog (interior, Our Lady of Lourdes)

Written by RaChaCha


RaChaCha is a Garbage Plate™ kid making his way in a Chicken Wing world. Since 2008, he's put over a hundred articles on here, and he asked us to be sure to thank you for reading. So, thank you for reading. You may also have seen his freelance byline in Artvoice, where he writes under the name his daddy gave him [Ed: Send me a check, and I might reveal what that is]. When he's not writing, RaChaCha is an urban planner, a rehabber of houses, and a community builder. He co-founded the Buffalo Mass Mob, and would love to see you at the next one. He represents Buffalo Young Preservationists on the Trico roundtable. If you try to demolish a historic building, he might have something to say about that. He is a proud AmeriCorps alum.

Things you may not know about RaChaCha (unless you read this before): "Ra Cha Cha" is a nickname of his hometown. (Didn't you know that? Do you live under a rock?) He's a political junkie (he once worked for the president of the Monroe County Legislature), but we don't really let him write about politics on here. He helped create a major greenway in the Genesee Valley, and worked on early planning for the Canalway Trail. He hopes you enjoy biking and hiking on those because that's what he put in all that work for. He was a ringleader of the legendary "Chill the Fill" campaign to save Rochester's old downtown subway tunnel. In fact, he comes from a long line of troublemakers. An ancestor fought at Bunker Hill, and a relative led the Bear Flag Revolt in California. We advise you to remember this before messing with him in the comments. He worked on planning the Rochester ARTWalk, and thinks Buffalo should have one of those, too (write your congressman).

You can also find RaChaCha (all too often, we frequently nag him) on the Twitters at @HeyRaChaCha. Which is what some people here yell when they see him on the street. You know who you are.

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