The pace of real estate development in Buffalo has caught fire in the last five years or so. A trickle of new construction less than a decade ago has now arguably become a torrent. The downtown area alone boasts 54 projects, large and small, recently completed, under construction, or recently announced. Additional projects out in the neighborhoods, such as the Larkin District, the massive River Bend solar panel pant in South Buffalo, and countless renovations in the Elmwood and West Side areas totaling in the billions of dollars have visibly boosted spirits in Buffalo.
Much of this new development activity has taken the form of historic renovation. Locations previously unimaginable for investment are seeing major renovation projects, with long empty buildings filling up with tenants immediately upon completion. Historic buildings formerly thought of as demolition candidates are suddenly seen as valuable resources. Developers have been scouring the city in search of the buildings that provide the unique historic character that today’s tenant market is demanding. Only a short three years ago civic leaders could imagine nothing more for the massive downtown Trico building than to turn it into a “temporary” parking lot. Today the building is on the verge of being renovated into a major new downtown mixed use hub of commerce and activity.
With this new trend in mind you would think that Buffalo’s historic building resources would now be safe from demolition and neglect. Each renovation has been like finding gold in the streets. You don’t throw away gold right? You would think that these proven economic assets would be safe from destruction. But you would be wrong. Demolition of Buffalo’s valuable and finite historic buildings continues at a frantic pace.
Demolition by neglect is still a big thing in Buffalo and the city still has a problem holding slumlords accountable by not enforcing its building codes. East and West side residents continue to be victimized by neglectful owners who drag potentially strong neighborhoods down. Ineptitude at City Hall can be epitomized by the still rotting Blacksmith Shop in the Popular Canal Side/Cobblestone area. It is just a matter of time until a wall collapses and emergency demolition is ordered. But that’s not the only danger to Buffalo’s historic buildings. In addition to demolition by neglect there is a growing new threat to Buffalo’s historic assets; demolition for development of new buildings.
Interestingly, as historic buildings available for renovation become more scarce, Buffalo’s developers have also begun planning for new buildings to fill demand in Buffalo’s popular neighborhoods. Great, you say! Buffalo has gobs of empty land and parking lots crying out for new buildings! But, more and more often developers are not targeting these empty lots for their projects. They are targeting the valuable historic building fabric that has spurred so much new interest in Buffalo as a place to live and do business.
Perhaps the most high-profile example of this demolition for development trend is Delaware North’s flashy new tower, built on the footprint of the elegant Delaware Court building at Delaware and Chippewa. The dramatically curved 1920’s era terra-cotta building was removed and replaced with a glassy tower. As a gift back to the city the developer clad the first two floors with a superb replication of the original Delaware Court terra-cotta facade. People have unanimous praise for the replicated terra cotta. But, the clunky tower has gotten less complimentary reviews and the infill storefronts of the first two floors are a shallow mockery of the historic originals (more on that in another story). A few blocks away, acres of empty downtown land remain undeveloped. Could this project have filled one of those lifeless empty blocks?
Further up town in the Elmwood Village, a similar new development threatens a pair of historic blocks at Elmwood and Potomac. Ciminelli Development has announced their intent to tear down some of the neighborhood’s most iconic historic commercial buildings to build a pair of multi-floor mixed use apartment buildings. Frizlen is said to be the project architect. The developer assure us that there is no need to worry, because they are planning to incorporate portions of the historic brick facades into the new structure. A few years back I wrote about one of these endangered buildings, pointing out the importance of Buffalo’s ordinary buildings. Preservation is not just about saving the major landmarks. Great cities are made up of a fine grain of beautiful little ordinary buildings like this one. The skate shop, which recently occupied this unique shop front with the elegant entryway stair announced that they have moved to Grant Street in order to make way for the proposed new development. Pasting a historic facade onto a new building is not preservation. This building is an important reason why people are attracted to the Elmwood Village. Its loss will be a damned shame. With so much land in Buffalo begging for development it makes you scratch you head in wonder as to why this block needs to be destroyed.
These buildings are said to be doomed for new development. Will the little building on the right serve as the garage entry?
A recent disturbing rumor has another delightful historic block of Elmwood in the crosshairs of development. An owner of a commercial building on the east side of Elmwood just south of Bryant posted on Facebook that a developer was asking if they were interested in selling their building. They indicated that they had assembled adjacent buildings for a planned “corner project” What that corner project is and how true the rumor is remains to be seen. The corner in question holds one of Buffalo’s most charming groups of commercial buildings. The property directly across the street to the west and north hold nothing more than parking. These parking lots are begging to be filled with attractive pedestrian oriented development. Why would a developer focus on destroying these gorgeous buildings instead of planning to eliminate these negative parking lots? Shame on Buffalo if it allows these buildings to be destroyed.
Rumor has this group of beauties in the crosshairs.
Another instance of a developer proposing to replace a historic building with new development is a mixed bag. The Project proposed by Elliciott Development would include renovation of the former Christian Center in combination with a new hotel/parking ramp tower on adjacent property. The adjacent property is partially occupied by the historic Bachelor Building, which would need to be demolished. The Bachelor is a simple but charming corner building, that has always been maintained in good condition. It is one of a few buildings still standing in this part of downtown. Ellicott says that the project can only be done if the old building goes. The Bachelor was originally a residence for young unmarried professional men just starting out on their career. It is one of the earliest buildings designed by Buffalo’s great and prolific architect E.B. Green. It will be replaced mostly by the parking ramp portion of Ellicott’s project. The developer claims that this is one of the most congested parts of Downtown Buffalo, making parking essential. Take a look at this image below. The red represents land currently used for parking on the surrounding “congested” blocks. The only thing congesting this part of the city is parking. It is a terribly ugly part of the city because of the vast dead sea of asphalt. It is a damned shame that Buffalo’s developers are so lacking in imagination that they cannot find a way to incorporate this beautiful little building into a new project while so much nearby empty land is begging for a higher use. I am sure it would not be very hard to find space just a few feet away for the parking ramp. Is demolition really necessary? No, it really isn’t.
Bright red marks the Bachelor Building. Aqua approximately marks the rest of Ellicott’s proposed parking/hotel project. Dark red marks the vast array of parking options which supposedly are in short supply.
Here is some help finding that empty space. Just a block away from Ellicott’s proposed parking ramp / hotel is a vast empty space formerly occupied by a movie palace and the Vernor’s Building. Both grand buildings were removed over the preceding decades to create some of that much sought after “development ready land”. Except, the only development on this land has been creation of a grassy plot and a partially paved parking lot fronting on Main Street. Buffalo should be embarrassed that such a prominent site sits empty decade after decade. Instead of developing this prominent corner, Buffalo’s developers are still demolishing the valuable historic buildings that have fueled so much recent interest and reinvestment in the city. Why demolish a valuable historic building while this gravel parking lot sits like this year after year after year after year?
“Main” Street in Buffalo, a gravel parking lot waiting for development, but somehow local developers still justify demolition as a necessity for their projects.