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From Developer-Ready to Demolition-Ready?

Despite Sam Savarino’s interest in converting the ravaged St. Mary’s-on-the-Hill Church into residences, the City is moving forward with an emergency demolition order.  The landmarked circa-1903 church, now just a roofless shell, is located at the northeast corner of Niagara and Vermont streets directly behind the Connecticut Street Armory. 

Myri-Oyewo, who lives downstate, purchased the vacant Episcopal church in March 2006 for $17,000 intending to use the building for a daycare center.  That project did not proceed and the property’s condition deteriorated rapidly.

In 2008, after two decades of water infiltration and several neglectful owners, the City stepped up code enforcement action as the building became a safety hazard.  In a calculated gamble to spur the owner to shore up or sell the building, the preservation community supported the City’s emergency demolition order.  It worked.  Myri-Oyewo agreed to a $30,000 “therapeutic demolition” of the building.  That work involved removing the roof, building interior, windows, and shoring up the masonry walls.

The property owner has reportedly agreed to sell the property to a NYC-based buyer, though that sale has not closed as of today.  Bricks, siding and wood continue to fall from the building.  The City has deemed the property unsafe and is pursuing an emergency demolition order. 

From Jim Comerford, Deputy Commissioner of Economic Development, Permit and Inspection Services, to Kathleen Mecca, President of the Niagara Gateway Columbus Park Association:

Kathleen,

Thank you for your correspondence. According to our accurint search data, the same owner is still listed as property owner of St. Mary’s. I am not aware of ownership changing hands and I don’t have the power to stop it, even if it occurred. This has been in court several times over the past ten years and most recently, housing court agreed to a therapeutic demolition and stabilization [removal of the roof] that the owner’s contractor [Lamparelli] performed. We also deferred to the preservationist’s and agreed to leave the bell tower in place, even though everyone in my department, including me, felt that it was unsafe and in danger of collapse.

We also agreed to let Harvey Garrett ‘beat the bushes’ looking for a potential developer for the last year and a half, but to no avail. In response to comment that there is no reason for this to ‘succumb to demolition by neglect’, there is a very good reason; the health and safety of the residents in that area. That is my main concern.

I am confident that we did our due diligence with this structure and it is my intention to declare an emergency. The option for citizens interested in preventing the demolition, is to go to court and stop the city as was the case at the Livery on Jersey. Like the Livery, this building is an eyesore and an attractive hazard to children and nobody should be asked to live in and around these conditions.

Thanks again for your interest. If you have any questions, you can contact me at 851-XXXX.

-Jim Comerford

Mecca is not pleased.  “Is that the extent of our City’s policy on historic preservation – let the taxpayer figure it out?”

It did not have to get to this point.  Developer Sam Savarino in fact wanted to redevelop the church property, but could not come to an agreement with the current owner.  Sources say Savarino’s offer was higher than the NYC-based buyer’s bid.  A preliminary plan developed by architect Paul Battaglia for Savarino called for a mix of 15 studio, one and two-bedroom units constructed within the historic walls.  Several units would have been two-level.

StMaryOne.png

“I am at a loss wondering how this scenario can be repeated over and over again; selling a partially demolished structure for profit while under citation for multiple housing code violations under the nose of Buffalo’s Housing Court,” says Mecca.  “We have an Anti-Flipping Task Force in place, a preservation board inside of City Hall, the Preservation League of NYS, local and state land marking laws, an state assemblyman who has received considerable recognition for his historic preservation efforts, and one of the most active historic preservation communities in the nation.”

“St. Mary’s-on-the-Hill has been a historic anchor in the Prospect Hill-Columbus Park district for over 100 years,” she says.  “The building is not only significant because of its history but because of its location; it is one of four uniquely different buildings located on the four corners of Niagara and Vermont Street. Each building represents a different architectural style in Buffalo’s history.”

Mecca is asking the City to aggressively pursue every avenue in protecting the remaining church structure and insure that the adjacent school remains sound.  She understands that Housing Court cannot block a sale, she believes the City can and should be doing more to preserve the property.

“There is no reason for this building to succumb to demolition by neglect when there is a viable proposal on the table that will not only save the building but turn it into a profitable economic business for the community and for the City of Buffalo,” she says.

“The partial demolition was done illegally last year,” says Tim Tielman, Executive Director of Campaign for Buffalo and a Buffalo Preservation Board member.  “Now the process is once again being mismanaged.  Nobody has contacted the City of Buffalo Preservation Board, normally required, even in an emergency demo circumstance when a city landmark is in jeopardy of being demolished. Think about The Squire House and Babeville – all emergency demos were prevented and look what we have today!”

A large fine is hanging over the building. The current owner has been charged with either fixing the building or finding someone that would.  While the Housing Court judge can’t prevent a transfer, he can threaten jail time or fines.

According to Tielman, the issue has been completely mismanaged. “There should have been a pro-active approach instead of doing a partial demo and leaving it exposed to the elements.”

Speculation has it that the building is being sold to the NYC buyer as a means to dodge any sort of legal ramifications.  A dump-and-run if you will.  If the City performs the demolition, it will file a lien on the property.  If that happens, the owner will probably walk, the City will gain title, and the vacant lot will be sold In-Rem. 

Do we pin this situation on the owners, the building inspectors, the scavengers, or the preservation community? 

Adds Mecca, “The Mayor’s position rests with the path of least resistance; using demolition by neglect as a premise to justify destroying, not saving, Buffalo’s architectural treasures – a legacy that no one should be proud of.”

 

UPDATE via Artvoice:

After a harried morning of phone calls and emails between City of Buffalo officials and preservationists, a compromise has been reached to delay what had seemed to be the imminent demolition of St. Mary’s on the Hill, the church at the corner of Niagara and Vermont whose New York City owners had allowed the structure to fall apart over many years…

In essence, the city has told preservationists that the community has three weeks to come up with a viable plan for saving the structure. Otherwise it’s coming down.

Written by David Steele

David Steele

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( www.blurb.com ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

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