Trico – Dissecting the Anti-Preservation Stance

Last week if you would have asked me about my thoughts on Buffalo’s Trico plant, I probably would have told you I didn’t have many.  My knowledge of the property was limited, as frankly is my knowledge of many of Buffalo’s buildings aside from the Central Terminal.  It’s a side effect of being intently focused on one project and having limited available time to focus on things outside of my paid job, my unpaid job, and my family. However, I was certainly familiar with the building.  It’s hard to not have noticed it if you’ve ever been anywhere near the city.  It’s been profiled by Buffalo Rising and Buffalo Spree and the Buffalo News numerous times as it’s changed ownership and been acquired by the burgeoning Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Suddenly this week rumors began circulating that BNMC was preparing a demolition plan for Trico Plant #1.  That rumor was substantiated when Preservation Buffalo Niagara released a statement saying that BNMC had rejected their offers of assistance to help fund an adaptive reuse study for the building and would likely try to push their demolition request through bypassing the Buffalo Preservation Board’s review.  This is where I start to become peeved.  Trico Plant #1 has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2001 – six years before BNMC acquired rights to develop this property.  They obviously knew what they were getting, and they certainly had no problems in leveraging that status to get state and private funding to redevelop part of the building into the Innovation Center.  So now, why is BNMC trying to end run around the city entity responsible for protecting the type of structures they’ve taken advantage of in the past?

BNMC has been excessively silent this week, saying nothing more than this terse quote obtained by the Buffalo News:

Matthew Enstice, Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus president and chief executive officer, left a voicemail message at The News that he was “surprised” by Preservation Buffalo Niagara’s decision to go public with its criticism and felt as if they “were working as good partners,” but would have no further comment.

Ok, now let’s start cutting the bullshit.  BNMC was in no way surprised by PBN’s statement.  Nor were they surprised by their stance.  More than likely, BNMC has been sitting on these demolition plans for quite some time and any meetings between the two organizations were cursory simply so they could make the above statement publicly.  The Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus knew this would be a hot button issue with the local preservation community, hence the quick demolition schedule – try and get it pushed through before anyone can tie it up. Of course, that was highly unlikely to happen, and now instead of being upfront and forthcoming with their plans, BNMC has blown a large chunk of their accumulated community goodwill by proposing demolition of a registered historic structure without so much as indicating that they even have a plan for the space.  If there’s one thing that preservationists (even those “moderate” ones like myself) don’t want to see it’s demolition to create more “shovel-ready” sites or expansive parking lots at the expense of viable, redevelopable buildings.

I also had the honor of sparring a bit with a few folks on Twitter today on the topic.  Some standpoints were flatly untenable and other were valid points for consideration.  But we can’t have a real dialog on the subject until we dispense with the lies and misconceptions and get some real facts.  So let’s break down some of the common arguments.

  1. “The Trico building isn’t historic.”False.  It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  That is the very definition of being a historic place.  There is an application and a review process that is vetted by professionals in the field.  Applications go first to your state Historic Preservation Office, generally with letters of support from your local Board (if there is one) and local officials, and if it gets past them it then goes to the National Parks Service.  If they sign off on it and include it in the Register, congratulations – you are now a “Historic Place.”
  2. The Trico building is ugly.” – Subjective.  Even if it is, that doesn’t affect whether or not it’s worthy of preservation.  See the Third Church of Christ, Scientist in D.C.
  3. It can’t be adapted for use as a modern medical facility.” – False.  First, factory buildings tend to be the easiest to adapt because they’re generally wide open floor plates with high ceilings and only support columns to work around.  Wake Forest University’s Biotech Place [PDF] is a clear example of a similar space adapted for exactly this kind of use.  Is it possible that the structure doesn’t fit what BNMC wants to do with it?  We don’t know.  They haven’t announced any plans or made any such statement.
  4. It’s falling apart.”  – Extent Unknown.  We know there was roof damage back in 2007 when BNMC acquired the building and we know that bricks have fallen off.  So the question then is…  why hasn’t the landlord done anything in the last 5 years to fix it?  Not taking care of your property for the intended purpose of eventually making it more convenient or urgent to knock down is known as “demolition by neglect” and that makes a lot of people quite ornery.
  5. It’s contaminated.” – Unknown.  While some have commented that environmental studies were done early on, the results of those studies haven’t been made public.  Regardless, most types of contamination are fixable, and many will need to be remedied before demolition could take place anyways.
  6. We have too many vacant buildings. It’s better torn down.”  – False.  In the case of Trico, we have a National Register listed building which makes it eligible for up to 40% in redevelopment tax credits.  Saving it preserves a piece of history and part of Buffalo’s character, keeps it out of the landfill, and saves from the need to reconstruct from scratch.
  7. “…buildings in Buffalo that sit vacant for years are only “historic” when someone wants to something with them.” – False.  Trico Plant #1 was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001 – six years before BNMC acquired the property.  They knew what they were getting, both in status and condition.
  8. Buffalo wouldn’t fight to keep Trico here, but we’ll sue people for the bldg.” – FalseQuite a bit was done to try and keep Trico here actually, but ultimately they packed up and took production to Mexico, like many of the manufacturing jobs in this country have.  And that has no impact on whether or not to allow BNMC to tear down a historic building.
  9. BNMC needs the space to expand.” – Mixed.  The Medical Campus is certainly growing, and that’s fantastic.  But expand how?  If you’re demolishing the Trico plant, what is replacing it?  If there was a viable plan to replace the plant with a new building, that makes a much stronger case for demolition.  But then again, take a look at these two parcels and tell me which makes more sense to reuse and which to build new on?

So where does that leave us?  Well, an application for local landmark designation went before the Preservation Board today, with a public hearing scheduled for March 22nd.  There’s too much visibility on the building now to let a quick demolition permit slip by unnoticed.  You can follow updates on the Save Trico Plant 1 Facebook page.  There are also many questions that remain to be answered, and some that have yet to be asked, but at risk of burning any bridges related to my own preservation project, I’ll leave those cans of worms for some of the other investigative bloggers to open.

Could Trico be torn down?  Yes.  It’s designation on the National Register offers it very little in the way of protection from demolition.  Local landmark status carries heavier weight in that regard.  Could Trico be replaced with a magnificent new facility that would make everyone forget that the “ugly factory” ever existed?  Probably.  But if those were the plans, BNMC would have that plastered all over every available media outlet.  Could we end up tearing down a building – who’s history is tied to an invention used by every person who drives a car, from a company who’s founder’s namesake foundation is the largest philanthropic organization in Buffalo today – with just another parking lot that will remain for the next 5, 10, 20 or more years?  Absolutely.  And that would be a damn shame.

9 thoughts on “Trico – Dissecting the Anti-Preservation Stance”

  1. You are sounding more passionate lately about preservation and that’s a good thing. What I find intersting is that PBN is willing to provide funds to finding a reuse for this building when we know deeper pockets are available sitting across the table. Subjectively speaking I like the building’s capabilitiy but it does not have a pretty face. But the old Federal building was not that pretty either but a little plastic surgery has taken decades off the old girl.

  2. You omitted the part about landowners having a qualified right to do what they want with the property they own.

    You’re right about most of your points, but so what? Trico is gone, and hell, if you try hard enough you can come up with an historic rationale to save any building, anywhere, at any time. I’ll bet you if someone came up with a reasonable, funded plan to replace the execrable Buffalo City Court building, there’d be opposition to it. And if there wasn’t, I’d do so ironically.

    A quick scan of the BNMC plan shows that the surface parking lots surrounding the Trico are already slated for development, and expansion of the campus.

    So, if tomorrow the BNMC held a press conference revealing what it wanted to build on the Trico plant site, that it wanted to build it as soon as practicable after demolition, and that the funding for it was in place, you’d withdraw your opposition?

    Because the question isn’t really whether Trico COULD be used as a modern medical research facility – the question is whether BNMC wants to use it as such – whether its layout comports with the way in which BNMC wants its people to work, and whether it’s economically or environmentally feasible or desirable to do so.

    Just because Zemsky re-did the Larkin doesn’t mean every factory and warehouse facility that happens to be old and harken back to a long-gone industry needs to be preserved. What I tweeted yesterday was,

    The Trico Building is a monument to nostalgia & the industrial abandonment of Buffalo. Hold @BNMC to a high standard, but let them build.

    I stand by that statement.

  3. Legally, the property owner does have the right to do with the site as they wish, at least as long as it is not designated a local landmark. However, there’s a difference between what can be done and what should be done in the spirit of being a good neighbor and custodian of a registered historic property. BNMC should be smart enough to know that they acquired a sensitive property and they should err on the side of overcommunicating to fend off this type of criticism.

    Would I withdraw my opposition if BNMC came forward with a plan? Possibly. That depends on what the plan entails. Would I withdraw my criticism? No. What you call “monuments to nostalgia” I call “built heritage” and I feel that whenever possible we should reuse what’s viable before knocking it down to build new. You imply that somehow we have the right to demand specific standards of BNMC for something they’re building from scratch, but we have no standing to ask why they need to demolish an existing historic property that they purchased knowing full well it’s status and condition? I would say that when you’re dealing with a community asset, the community has more rights to demand the latter than the former.

  4. Thank you for your insight and your passion on this issue. Trico is another signature building in downtown that deserves to be brought back to life for a variety of reasons including its historic significance. This building has the ability to be anything, we just need to think outside of the box and get creative!
    Thank you!

  5. Mr. Punaro has written an excellent deconstruction of the issue. It is no surprise, nonetheless, that Mr. Bendenko’s mindless contrarianism is on full display here. Indeed, his comments display the lack of creativity and vision — as well as the cynicism — that we’ve come to expect.

    But Bedenko’s train of logic really derails when he states that Mr. Punaro is correct about most (if not all) of his points, and then glibly says, “so what?” Even a cursory interpretation of Punaro’s individual arguments reveals them to be germane and immensely relevant. The Trico buildings are exactly the type of structures that successful, progrssive cities preserve and repurpose. These are precisely the type of industrial buildings that can be reused easily and inexpensively.

    The real rub, however, is not Bedenko’s sophistic argument, but that his jaundice has apparently blinded him to the obvious problems with the BNMC’s behavior. And the problems are surely obvious:

    The BNMC knowingly purchased an existing historic building, and have been letting the structure decay. They have refused to disclose the results of their own building survey to the public. They have refused to cooperate with PBN in performing a jointly-funded building survey. They have not submitted or divulged any plans to do anything productive with the site once the building is gone. (The last-known BNMC plan for the Trico site is for it to become a parking lot. Moreover, while the site is part of the BNMC’s comprehensive vision for the entire area, there are no specific plans for the site. The vision is nebulous at best, and is as imminent and binding as these types of things usually are; that is, not at all, like most of the similarly ambitious plans currently collecting dust in City Hall.) There is a giant parking lot right next door, apparently owned by the BNMC, exactly the same size as the Trico site, which would be prime for development.

    Boy, none of that sounds fishy, does it? Those pesky, small-minded preservationists must be trying to hold back progress once again!

  6. I’m not accustomed to being insulted in such an erudite manner. Next time, Chuck, just call me an asshole and be done with it. Although your insult-o-rama hardly deserves a reply from me beyond what I already wrote, I’ll do so anyway because I’m a bit pissed off.

    The Trico buildings are exactly the type of structures that successful, progrssive cities preserve and repurpose. These are precisely the type of industrial buildings that can be reused easily and inexpensively.

    Yes, they _can_. They also don’t _have to_. I’ve addressed it above, albeit with sophistic jaundice, but if there’s nothing legally preventing BNMC from demolishing the Trico, that’s really the end of it, isn’t it? You guys can make noise about it, but really it’s a difference in subjective preference – your efforts to make this some sort of objective truth notwithstanding.

    The real rub, however, is not Bedenko’s sophistic argument, but that his jaundice has apparently blinded him to the obvious problems with the BNMC’s behavior. And the problems are surely obvious:

    Is this about the building, or about BNMC’s behavior? Because truly, BNMC owes you nothing. They listened and maybe humored the preservation folks for a while so as to hear all points of view, but they have no obligation – and made no promises – to do anything regarding keeping Truico around. You guys need to pick a point and stick to it, and whining about how mean old BNMC with all its “employees” and “money” aren’t being nice to people you like isn’t going to be persuasive with, really, many people outside your already small population of earnest amateur architect/planners.

    The BNMC knowingly purchased an existing historic building, and have been letting the structure decay. They have refused to disclose the results of their own building survey to the public. They have refused to cooperate with PBN in performing a jointly-funded building survey. They have not submitted or divulged any plans to do anything productive with the site once the building is gone. (The last-known BNMC plan for the Trico site is for it to become a parking lot. Moreover, while the site is part of the BNMC’s comprehensive vision for the entire area, there are no specific plans for the site. The vision is nebulous at best, and is as imminent and binding as these types of things usually are; that is, not at all, like most of the similarly ambitious plans currently collecting dust in City Hall.) There is a giant parking lot right next door, apparently owned by the BNMC, exactly the same size as the Trico site, which would be prime for development.

    You clearly and palpably didn’t even fucking bother to read what I wrote. You were evidently too busy rushing to the thesaurus to come up with insults to hurl at me.

    Even a cursory look at the BNMC’s plans reveals that the parking lots you abhor are already slated for development. The plans for the Trico building don’t appear yet, but so what? They don’t owe you a damn thing, and you have no standing to demand it.

    Oh, and, BTW, I also wrote that I agree that they ought to have a plan in place before anything gets ripped down. You ignored that completely & absolutely. Seriously, Chuck – you’re long winded enough that you should do others the favor of reading to the end. I specifically said, “hold them to a high standard, but let them build”. That implies that they have something to build, doesn’t it?

    Frankly – and you may deny it despite its truth – if Trico didn’t exist, and BNMC announced that it was going to build a big dung-colored brick box 15 stories high at that city block, you’d probably oppose it to high heaven due to the fact that it’s totally out of character for a contemporary urban downtown.

    Boy, none of that sounds fishy, does it? Those pesky, small-minded preservationists must be trying to hold back progress once again!

    Now you’re getting it.

  7. FYI, the BNMC does not own Trico. The City does, through a subsidiary of the Buffalo Urban Development Corp.

  8. Pathetic. Estimated at 180million to renovate, and you think that ok? AFA the National Register. There are over 1million buildings already listed on it, including the Barbershop where Elvis Presley had his haircut when he entered the Army. So what? Its not like the Sec of the Interior came to Buffalo and said, oops we missed that one add it now. They add anything the appropriate state agencies say to add. Period. It was added because the developer just thought of another way to make the public pay for an investment he did not have the money for himself. In front of me are several major books on Buffalo Architecture including what is probably the bible of Buffalo Architecture , BUFFALO ARCHITECTURE : A GUIDE (1981 MIT Press). Guess what, this Building is strangely absent. Its also missing from CLASSIC BUFFALO, A heritage of Distinguished Architecture (Canisius College Press). Guess prior to 2001 no one thought of Trico#1 as important.

    The role of the BNMC is to bring world class medicine to Buffalo. Its is not about forcing them to spend ridiculous amounts of money to rehab a building. I think it is reprehensible when an attempt is made to force them to divert funds, which are earmarked to create an institution to improve the health and welfare of all living WNYers, towards saving a building of questionable value. It absolutely disgusts me.

    You know what has always irked me. There was a beautiful civil war farmhouse in Allentown. Within the boundaries of the historic district. It was demolished a couple of years ago to permit the expansion of a printing plant. Did you hear of anyone complain, including Tielmans crew? Me thinks its about pulling the right preservationist strings.

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