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Still Waiting After All These Years

Over the past few years I have written about this beautiful
brick building on Buffalo’s near East Side here
, here, and here.  Somewhat
related to these stories is a story that I wrote about this wooden house
on the lower West Side
.  

The structures are radically different from one another in size, form and location, but their remarkable similarities make them both worthy of
attention in Buffalo’s fight to rebuild from decades-long disinvestment. Both
are significant parts of Buffalo’s historic heritage and urban fabric and are
rotting away with no apparent plan in place to save them.  Both are architecturally
interesting and have played an important roll in the history of the city.
 Both are in neighborhoods which are still densely built, but which have
seen significant decline over the last 40 years.  Both neighborhoods,
while troubled, are within just a block or two of vibrant and growing sections
of the city.  They are also within neighborhoods seeing noticeable
but spotty new investment.  One last significant similarity is the seeming
lack of any plan by the city to take advantage of these withering assets as a
means to leverage new development.  More on that later in the story.

orphanage 2.jpg

The brick building is the St. Vincent’s Orphanage School that
was most recently used as part of the ECC City campus; it has been empty and
rotting since the downtown campus opened in the 1980s.  Since my first
story appeared, the building’s beautiful roof eaves and brackets have been
stripped away.  This was done shortly after portions of the eaves started
dropping to the ground, most likely due to lack of maintenance.  

Some temporary-looking wrap has been applied to seal the tops of
the masonry walls. This sadly has probably been the most investment this
building has received in several generations.  Each year, this once
beautiful building takes one more step in the demolition-by-neglect cycle.
 Each year, more money will be needed to bring it back to life and, each
year, its declining appearance makes it harder to appreciate what it can be.
 This rotting building sits 1/2 block east of Main Street on an otherwise
relatively tidy street of large Victorian houses.  It is directly adjacent
to the successfully restored Squier Mansion and across the street form the
ongoing restoration of the Packard building.  A few blocks away, sits the
new Artspace project that has ignited new interest in the charming street
called Coe Place.  Lindwood Avenue,
where houses can routinely sell for upwards of half a million dollars, is just
on the other side of Main Street.

hens house.jpg

This wooden house is an elegant but typical Buffalo mini-mansion
that was once the home of well-known Buffalo retailer, M. J. Hens, of the now
defunct Hens&Kelly Department Store chain. The house is at 288 Hudson
Street, in a troubled but slowly reviving part of the historic Lower West Side,
just east of Allentown and south of Kleinhans Music Hall, in a neighborhood
densely packed with great buildings.  With a mixture of poverty and
wealth, investment and abandonment in close proximity, buildings in this part
of the city can trend toward extraordinary restoration or abandonment and decay
based on who owns them.  Luckily, the neighborhood has a core group of
residents who are devoted to saving it for future generations. Their tireless
efforts have paid dividends in success stories like the restoration of this
house highlighted here
.  

Walk down St. Johns to take a look at what is possible with a
building that was once scheduled for demolition.  Prepare to be amazed by
what you see. The Hens house is not yet scheduled for demolition; it is in
decent condition structurally, but is filled with debris and is starting to
leak.  Each year brings it closer to a date with a landfill.  Once
that happens, the fabric of this still mostly intact street will be ripped, and
the people of WNY will lose another link to their past. Although you can
allegedly buy this house from the city, there is no apparent effort being made
to make it presentable, nor is there a sign in front indicating that it is for
sale.   I could not find it on any Internet sales listings. Thus, year
after year, it sits as Buffalo’s infamous weather takes its toll.

I have written many times on the seeming lack of any strategic
plan by the city to take advantage of its basic assets, in order to stem the
tide of decline.  Important
buildings like the two described here and the neighborhoods they are in are
left to rot with little apparent effort to even enforce codes.  This
complaint has also been a common theme at Fixbuffalo, a well-known blog, focusing on the problems and opportunities of the East Side.
 Sure, these neighborhoods are troubled, finances are scarce, and the city
population is still falling, but considers the point made most recently by
BuffaloGeek
who recently took up this subject
.  

Geek’s editorial clearly summarizes the problem; he
basically says that city has been using a scattershot approach to demolition
and reinvestment.  As policy is
currently carried out, it seems that every neglected building can be a target
for demolition no matter what its historic value or potential for
revival.  Conversely every empty lot and vacated street can receive
new investment (most commonly in the form of low cost suburban style house)
with no consideration for the potential for long-term benefit.  The city
receives a tremendous amount of grant money for these demolitions and new
builds.  But, the money does not appear to be targeted in any strategic
fashion. Think of dissolving a teaspoon of sugar in a gallon of
water, versus a cup of water.  The sugar is too diluted in the large
container, making no impact.  But in the small container it has a major
influence.  Buffalo is wasting its resources.

While writing a recent story about my
personal experiences
 as a young man working on the East Side, I needed some
images.  I Googled some East Side street views showing the area in which I
had worked with my father.  As I noted in that story, all but one of his
properties have been torn down since his retirement.  The street views
show that many of his former buildings, along with others, have been replaced
with what can only be described as scatter-shot new houses in a suburban style.

east side 3-thumb-505x255-945.jpg

These new houses represent millions of dollars (perhaps hundreds
of millions) of government-subsidized investment and can be found all over
distressed portions of the East and West Sides. The new houses are on double
and triple-wide lots.  Where there was once a block with 10 to 15 houses,
there now stand maybe 1 to 2 original houses and 3 new houses.  This type
of new investment was intended to stabilize
and rehabilitate distressed neighborhoods, but what it actually does
is create a situation where the city has to continue the maintenance of streets
that serve only a small fraction of the population they were designed
for. 

What if instead of spending money on what amounts to “inner
city sprawl” the city mothballed these empty streets or eliminated them
all together and directed the money into neighborhoods that have real potential
to grow and become attractive again?  Instead of spending scarce resources
plowing and paving unneeded streets, why not concentrate that money where it
will have real impact?  While Buffalo’s population has declined by half,
and many neighborhoods hold fewer than half the buildings they once did, the
people remaining still need to maintain the same number of roads, sewers, water
lines, and other infrastructure that was there at the height of the city’s
wealth.  The current strategy seems designed to “keep the status
quo.”  Each new subsidized single-family house built in the inner
city on a suburban-sized lot locks the city into keeping a street that may not
be necessary. 

The concept of subsidizing new construction in the city has
validity.  These types of projects date back to the 1980s when several
projects transformed portions of decimated city neighborhoods. By creating new
attractive neighborhoods, the city could potentially create a critical mass of
new wealth that can turn the tide of disinvestment.  The problem is that
critical mass has become a forgotten part of the formula.  Instead of
taking advantage of potential strengths such as the buildings highlighted
here–creating attractive nodes within neighborhoods with a real chance for
growth–the current mode of investment has been to scatter resources in a way
not unlike a diluted spoonful of sugar in a gallon of water.  

The city now has a new planning commissioner.  From what I
have read so far, he gets the concept of focusing limited resources to
create critical mass and efficiency. The entrenched bureaucracy of a city like
Buffalo can be a tough ship to turn, and Mike Kimelberg has his work cut out
for him.

Let’s hope the new commissioner has the ability and is given the
tools to make that turn and put into place a real strategic plan for rebuilding
the city. The following are a few concepts I would like to see included:

Analyze city neighborhoods and individual buildings to determine
the places that will most benefit form new investment. 
 
Analyze the city’s current state and trends to determine what
parts of the city could be decommissioned and shut down to be saved for future
growth. (This could be areas as small as single streets or as big as whole neighborhoods
that have emptied out and could include mothballing culturally valuable
buildings for future use).  

Focus money and resources on valuable historic resources
such as the two examples highlighted here.  There are many streets on the
East Side with no residents left. There is no reason to fill them up again
until demand increases.  

Restore these assets and invest in new high quality structures
to compliment them.
Grow the city out from areas of strength.

Take advantage of dedicated citizens groups to encourage
neighborhood change.

Sure, it’s not as easy as I make it sound here, but it would be
nice to see people in power actually talking about something like this.
 With shrinking resources and population base, Buffalo and
WNY can no longer
afford the policies of sprawl inside or outside of the city.

 
If you are interested in the house at 228 South Hudson Street
contact the Kleinhans Community Association at this number: 716.884.1914, or
Chris Brown at 
cbrown4884@aol.com.
If you are interested in the St Vincent’s Orphanage, the best source of information I can offer is David Torke at Fix Buffalo, through his web site.
 

 

 

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