Ellicott Development’s fast-track plan to create a massive, multi-use “gateway” project at the northern edge of downtown smashed into a four-story brick wall Thursday evening. The Buffalo Preservation Board, with one dissenting vote (Sam Gurney, who did not articulate the reason for his vote), voted to deny permission to demolish the building many of us recently learned (via coverage in The Public) was known as “The Bachelor” when it was first built in 1886.
Opposition to this project has been building slowly and behind the scenes over the last month, ever since the plans were announced. First, the architecture of the initial rendering was widely decried, here on Buffalo Rising (generating a record-contending 250+ comments) and on Twitter. The criticism only grew when additional renderings showed the new construction towering over the low-rise and mid-rise buildings of the north end of downtown–where downtown grades into Allentown, and where Franklin and Pearl have maintained a “backstreets” vibe and scale compared to Main and Delaware.
Perhaps recognizing that this project might draw opposition, I’ve been told the Ellicott was very cautious and quiet about who it approached and talked with. When the plans were announced, I was told that a major institutional property owner nearby hadn’t been contacted, was quite surprised, and didn’t have a warm reaction. Another downtown property owner I talked with today claimed to have been aware of the project plans as far back as last spring, and didn’t like them, but feelers put out to the preservation community got no response.
But in the last week, signs of opposition began to appear. First, on Tuesday in The Public’s blog, Daily Public. That the piece was published under no name was a giveaway that some kind of quiet preservation effort was in the works, and that the piece garnered over two dozen comments favoring preservation of the building made it clear that there was an untapped reservoir of affection for it. That blog post was followed up the next day by a print article in The Public, openly calling for preservation of the building, and alerting the community that it was coming up for consideration at Thursday’s Preservation Board meeting.
At Thursday’s meeting, it became clear that there had been preservation work going on behind the scenes. Preservation board members had a packet of historic information in front of them, that showed the building preliminarily eligible for local landmark protection in four of nine criteria (it only needs to meet one to qualify). Someone who had lived in the building in the 1960s had sent board members a list of famous people who had connections with the building. It was quite a long list. Board member Tim Tielman mentioned that apartment buildings began appearing in cities only in the 1870s, so this building might well be the oldest purpose-built apartment building in the city. Board members agreed that unsympathetic window replacements and over-painting had downgraded the building’s appearance, but these are all things that can be reversed. Architect Tony James told the board that he understands that the interior light court, with skylight, is intact.
Ellicott Development’s Bill Paladino told the Preservation Board, “Our new project will not go forward without the demolition of this building.” Yet the board voted both to deny permission to demolish, and also to pursue a local landmark designation — something that will require a future public hearing.
The reactions of Ellicott Development’s representatives Bill Paladino and Tom Fox, who left immediately after the vote, could not be determined.
Could Ellicott Development try an end-run around the Preservation Board by using the “30-day” gambit? Funny you should ask that, because the Preservation Board had some discussions about that yesterday, as well. In part, during a rollicking tête-à-tête with their bête noire Albert Steele, who surprised everyone by showing up in person and taking his lumps over several demolition applications. For years, Steele has been taking advantage of Buffalo’s Commissioner of Permits and Inspections willingness to issue demolition permits for buildings for which the Preservation Board either denied or tabled demolition permission, if the building is not landmarked individually or by district. There may be a showdown over this issue in the offing.
Yesterday’s events leave some unanswered questions. Will Ellicott Development go back to square one on their plans for the Forbes Theater? And could this denial create the opportunity for Ellicott to look at moving their planned “gateway” project to another location? The project they proposed, with some architectural refinement, could be ideal for Main Street at Edward, where the site of the demolished Vernor Building sits windswept, and the single-story Schmidt Collision garages are almost certain to be a redevelopment site, given the investment underway on the Medical Campus a block away.
While this demolition may throw a monkey wrench into Ellicott’s recently proposed plans, those plans were widely panned. Will we use this opportunity to do something even better, perhaps at a better location? Stay tuned.