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.
- “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.”
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “…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.
- “Buffalo wouldn’t fight to keep Trico here, but we’ll sue people for the bldg.” – False. Quite 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.
- “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.