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Don’t cry for the Atwater rubble

The debate raged on [and off] for years, but in the end the Atwater house disappeared in a flash. Elmwoodies went limp and vow never to eat at Pano’s again, but the losses will be easily offset by the future gain in parking spaces, and hopefully a completely rebuilt building that will show there’s true progress on Elmwood. What I found truly amazing about the whole thing was that it was a classic demonstration of “Old Buffalo” reactionism, even when there was ample time and opportunity to do something about it.

There is a right way and a wrong way to approach preservation. The wrong way is to allow someone to acquire a property with specific plans for it and with no strings attached, and then when they announce their plans barrage them with complaints and personal agendas hidden behind the “shield” of preservation. This is what happened with the Atwater house. Pano did the research into determining whether he was going to run into any restrictions with the property next to his business. Finding there were none, he purchased it with the intentions of demolishing the structure. This is where the reactionism first steps into play. Presumably, the house was available to anyone who wanted to buy it, not just Georgiadis. Nobody else did. Not until the plans for it’s demolition were announced did the “preservationists” come out of the woodwork. Missed opportunity #1 – waiting for someone else take responsibility.

Suddenly, Pano finds out that “everyone” loves the [suddenly named] Atwater house. Pano then offered $10,000 of his own money to assist someone in removing the house and relocating it somewhere else. Had this been a true preservation issue surrounding the building, there would have immediately been a swell of support for this idea and probably a public fundraising campaign. There wasn’t. Missed opportunity #2 – if you believe in the cause, you need to be willing to help make it happen.

Pano certainly was being dealt the lion’s share of the blame, but the “I heart Atwater” crowd blamed everyone else too, from the city to old and/or fat people to Byron Brown, and I’m sure there was an anti-suburbanite reference or two along the way as well. But did the city really fail to act? The city has a preservation board. The Atwater house was presented to the board, the board reviewed it, and determined it was not significant. The system is in place and the process was followed. The fact that some people disagree with the outcome does not indicate a failure, only a personal loss.

That leads me to missed opportunity #3. When this issue first arose, my response to it was, “It’s too late for this house. If people are truly interested in the preservation of Elmwood as it exists today, they need to work on establishing a preservation district.” This is the “right way” to approach preservation, and missed opportunity #3 – give yourself grounds to stand on. All preservationists in Buffalo understand that there are far too many buildings to save individually. The only conceivable way to address preservation en masse is to establish preservation districts, or restrictive zoning areas that limit what can or can’t be done with particular buildings within that zone. This ensures that if you are purchasing a property within a certain area, you know going into it what you will and won’t be allowed to do with it. This is a fair balance between private property rights and community well-being. It’s a step beyond simple land-use zoning. What are the Elmwoodies going to do when someone wants to tear down another house, start the battle all over again? It will end up with the same result. The hotel project died due to the fact that there was a legal restriction on the property, defining what it could not be used for. The power of law was clearly illustrated. If Elmwood wants to preserve itself as a street of old houses to house “trendy” boutiques, then it needs to establish itself as a preservation district. It’s clear that many of the actual property owners on Elmwood don’t agree with that philosophy, and in the end they’re the ones holding the cards. The people that love Elmwood are either going to have to start buying up the properties themselves, or get the ball rolling on building support from the property owners to establish such a district. If they believe that the current character is key to the future success of the strip, they need to be willing to back up those beliefs with action, not reaction. There was time to start working towards that end when the Atwater case first arose, and much progress could have been made by now, possibly even influencing the outcome. Nothing was done, and to my knowledge nothing is still being done. No action will certainly mean that we will be having this debate again in the future.

I don’t believe preservation was at the heart of the Atwater debate, typical resistance to change was. Mike Miller had a quote I loved in his take on the controversy:

There are more important structures that are severely endangered due to “demolition by neglect” than just one house that is endangered due to development.

“Preservation” for personal gain is what we saw with the Elmwood Hotel, the H-O Oats grain elevators, and the Atwater house. Preservation for community gain is what we see with the Central Terminal, the Darwin Martin House, and hopefully the Richardson Complex. Mike referenced the “479 historically or architecturally important commercial, religious and residential structures” in the East Side in his post. We know that it’s inconceivable to save more than 10-20% of those. We’re trying to take the right approach with Broadway-Fillmore Alive. The Central Terminal is in good hands. Chris Byrd now sits on the board of directors of the Broadway Market. We’ve been looking into the possibility of establishing a preservation district in the Broadway/Fillmore area to ensure that we don’t lose buildings like the Eckhardt Building. The more we lose, the more we will blame ourselves for not being able to put in more time, garner more support, or find the finances to make it happen. That’s how true preservation works. We believe in a goal and we put ourselves on the line to achieve it. We don’t wait for someone else to do the dirty work. We don’t cry foul when we did nothing to help ourselves. When we lose a battle, we focus on how we win the next one. It’s happening in a lot of places. You see it on the East and West sides. You know the names of the people that are making it happen.

It’s not happening on Elmwood.

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  1. Please allow me to applaud an excellent expose on the Atwater House.

    I am a preservationist at heart but I have the structural knowledge and appreciation for the need for expansion and growth in order to keep a community vibrant.

    My vain attempts to become a proactive supporter of preservation in the City of Buffalo were thwarted by the autocratic Tim Tielman and his groupies whose philosophy, ostensibly, is to save everything.

    Unfortunately, I disagreed with his approach and was banished from the Land of Oz.

    Oddly, I do not see him throwing-up his roadblocks on too many East side properties.

    Though, he should be commended on many of his success stories there are still the more questionable ones such as the Vernor’s Building that is one of the most visible eyesores to ever be allowed to remaining standing only because of the judicial roadblocks that he and Scott Fields have been allowed to implement.

    Pick and chose your battles is a cry that is not heard enough; the preservationist should be looking at more adequate structures such as the H.H. Richardson Complex to resurrect which would make an ideal assisted living facility for our aging baby-boomer population.

    In order to save this building compromise should be the word of the day and not total preservation.

    Remove the three brick, former female wards, in order to return a form of symmetry to the design and restore the medina sandstone pavilions and towers. This is not a new or unusual concept, perhaps, in time, the pavilion lost to neglect could be replaced and rebuilt according to the original plans of the entire complex being constructed out of medina sandstone.

    I may be digressing but I am attempting to show an ideal situation which could be a win-win scenario.

    I can fully understand and appreciate the general public’s passion for a certain building but compromise is the only solution.

  2. Derek,
    I agree with you…If they wanted to save it and they had 10k offered to them and they didnt do a damn thing then stop complaining! Can someone please show me some houses,buildings etc that the preservation board has saved and rehabbed … without a ton of government help?

  3. I love old houses and wish it still looked like 1891, but alas times change and it is time for change. I agree we need to pick our battles and look at the whole picture as well. And sorry… but I still eat at Pano’s! Great article Peace!

  4. You don’t live in this neighborhood, or even in Buffalo. Yet, you feel free to tell us what we should do. You also, like most other ignorant commentators, condemn “preservationists” for trying to save a place AND for failing. Make up your mind.

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