May 23, 2012

Demolition of Bethlehem Steel Administration Building Halted

The Bethlehem Steel Administration building got a temporary reprieve from demolition yesterday as preservationists have been publically advocating for the reuse of the historic structure. During the City Hall meeting in Lackawanna this past Tuesday, concerned citizens and preservationists were stonewalled during the meeting. The demolition of the building was not on the official agenda and as a result the group was told anyone who spoke out of turn would be held in contempt.
Image courtesy of David Torke,
Romaine Lillis, a longtime resident and member of the Lackawanna Historical Society, decided to speak about the demolition at the meeting regardless of the threat. Although Lillis was promptly shut down she was able to make her point, “That building should remain for us. It should be an icon for this city, stop this nonsense.” Lackawanna has does not have a Preservation Board or even a preservation ordinance for that matter, which complicates trying to halt the demolition of historic buildings.

The issue of the demolition was not on the agenda because it needed to be submitted the prior week by Wednesday. News of the demolition came to light last Thursday and the City was unwilling to make an exception for the meeting. Further complicating the issue was the fact that the City only meets every two weeks and demo equipment was already on site ready to go.

Mayor Geoffrey Szymanski wasn’t present during the meeting, but had the following to offer yesterday. “I am tired of hearing about our glorious past. I think preservation societies are only trying to preserve what once was as opposed to moving our region in a positive direction.” Apparently Szymanski has “no use for the building or for those who want to preserve it” because it has been “unsafe, unused, and unwanted for thirty years.” While the building has been unused for nearly three decades, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of code enforcement during that time to ensure deterioration didn’t occur; it didn’t get in this condition overnight.

There have been countless projects throughout Western New York that have utilized historic tax credits for rehabilitation work. Buildings like the Hotel Lafayette and the soon to be redeveloped Tishman building to name a few. The Lafayette was left for dead not long ago and now will become a downtown destination. The Administration building is one the last ornate and beautiful buildings on Western New York’s waterfront and could become a destination drawing people to our shared asset.

Demolition of the building is becoming less feasible for the owners, Gateway Trade Center, who were counting on half a million dollars in Restore NY funds, which cannot be used for demolition. The money was slated for an adaptive study or the rehabilitation of the property. Regardless of this, the City of Lackawanna is putting pressure on Gateway to proceed with the demolition.

The meeting this week at City Hall also brought to light what may go on the site after demolition; a warehouse. A letter from 2009 states, “the demolition of this building will allow us to have the opportunity to build a state of the art warehouse or manufacturing facility, where a vacant building once stood.” The letter was addressed to former mayor, Mayor Polanski and came from the project manager of Gateway Trade Center, Patricia Schreiber.

It seems this beaux-arts beauty of “our glorious past” would likely be sent to the landfill in favor of a warehouse. The hope being that we can finally move “our region in a positive direction.” Now that demolition has been temporarily halted there is an opportunity to begin developing an adaptive reuse study to determine if rehabilitation is feasible.

Once again, a very special thanks to David Torke of fixBuffalo for his images and hard work in trying to save this iconic structure. For addition photos and a copy of the letter mentioned above, check out his Flickr page, fixBuffalo

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May 21, 2012

Bethlehem Steel: Disposable Architecture or Iconic Landmark?

That’s the ultimate question of the Bethlehem Steel Administration building and unfortunately it looks as if the question has already been answered by the City of Lackawanna officials and the owners. Thankfully, there are still people who don’t want to see this Beaux-Arts beauty sent to the landfill like so many great buildings before it. The reason for the demolition has been said to be due to the deteriorated state of the building which poses an immediate safety concern. It’s been largely open to the elements and deteriorating for the better part of thirty years, so why is now the time for it to go rather than be rehabilitated?

Preservationists are asking that question and one of them has the potential answers for a successful rehabilitation and reuse of the iconic landmark. Darren Cotton, from UB’s Urban Planning graduate program, wrote his master’s thesis specifically on the reuse of this building. He was kind enough to share the document with me, which includes precedent studies, various reuse scenarios, identifying key players, and even rehabilitation time lines.

Historic Image courtesy of Darren Cotton via BECHS
As Darren so aptly points out, the master plan for Lackawanna’s waterfront calls specifically for the reuse of this building. “The former employment office of the Bethlehem Steel Plant represents a unique architectural form within the former steel plant complex. Due to the importance of steelmaking operations to the growth and development of the City, it is in the public interest to promote the preservation of locally significant structures which can serve as a reminder to our area residents of the site’s history. Public and private dollars shall be used…to rehabilitate the structure into a regional trade center.” That was written in 1989 and apparently in the last 22 years none of what the City proposed to its residents has materialized on the site.
Darren also cites the prime location in relation to the recent improvements of the Buffalo waterfront nearby. Additionally, site contamination is a concern, but through Darren’s thorough research he discovered that the area directly around the building has never been built on and would likely require very little remediation.

Bethlehem Steel, Courtesy of HAB/HAER Report
Western New York usually doesn’t go more than three days without an article in the paper that discusses what should be down with the area’s waterfront. The master plan for Buffalo’s inner harbor calls for any new buildings around the new canals to be an interpretation of what was there historically. It seemed like a fantastic idea decades ago to tear down all those terrible buildings for the sake of new development, which still hasn’t happened on a large scale. The administration building in Lackawanna represents an opportunity to embrace heritage rather than maybe replicating it further down the road.
Look what other cities like Johnstown, PA have done with their former steel mill complexes. Rather than sending it all to the landfill, the city put a spotlight on their industrial heritage which is now a great tourist destination. There are countless other cities throughout the world that have followed suit, but Lackawanna isn’t one of them. The opportunity has been squandered as most of the site has been landfilled with the exception of a few structures and the administration building.

Johnstown Steel Museum
Now consider the location of the Bethlehem Steel Administration Building, adjacent to the recent investment of Buffalo’s Outer Harbor. New infrastructure, plantings, signage, urban furniture, etc. has all been installed within the last two years to mark the beginnings of new waterfront for the region. You can spot Bethlehem Steel from the Union Ship canal only feet away. It’s reuse could be a fantastic draw to the waterfront and fundamentally link Lackawanna and Buffalo.
A final interesting piece in the whole puzzle is the matter of the Restore NY money which was slated for the rehabilitation, not the demolition of this structure. In a recent letter from a NY State Historic Preservation Office representative, there was discussion of the funds being used to, “abate/remediate the building and make it ‘Preservation Ready.’” That’s quite the opposite of what is currently happening as demo equipment prepares to start the demolition today.
Tonight at Lackawanna’s City Hall many concerned citizens, preservationists, and others will be joining together to make their case to the city to halt the demolition. Everyone is more than welcome to attend the meeting which starts at 6:30 at 714 Ridge Road, Lackawanna, New York 14218. You can officially join the event on the Buffalo’s Young Preservation Facebook page.

Special thanks to Darren Cotton for his great research and knowledge and David Torke of fixBuffalo who has brought to light many of these details.

Darren's proposed rehab timeline
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May 17, 2012

Lafayette Presbyterian Estate Sale to Kickstart Adaptive Reuse

The start of a big transformation is beginning this week at Lafayette Presbyterian Church on the corner of Elmwood and Lafayette Avenues. Starting this Friday at 9:30 a.m. the Church will be having an estate sale of the remaining furniture and other items before the transformation from Church to apartments takes place. In depth information on the sale is located on the Sweet and Harding website here.

Lafayette Presbyterian was designed by Lansing and Beierl and was constructed between 1894 and 1896. The medina sandstone building will now have a new life as apartments that will respect the architectural integrity of the building.
During my recent walkthrough, Reverend Drew Ludwig was anxious and excited for the new change to come. “This is the beginning of new chapter for Lafayette Church,” said Ludwig, “We can’t wait to see what happens when we take all of the energy, time, and money that once went into the buildings into serving our community.”

The apartments are designed with an open floor plan to highlight all the beautiful architectural features. Each unit will be unique and range from one to two bedrooms, many of the units will also feature loft space. The apartments will be professionally managed and offered at market rates. The architecture and engineering firm of Carmina Wood Morris has taken over the project and is in charge of the design and historic tax credits.
Since the redevelopment will be utilizing historic tax credits the sanctuary space must remain largely unchanged because it is a character defining feature of the building. As a result apartments will be limited to other locations throughout the complex and the sanctuary space will serve as a gathering space. The upcoming sale even includes many of the church pews so that the sanctuary can utilize a larger gathering space towards the rear.

So the big question, is the church closing? “Far from it!” said Rev. Drew, “After the renovations, we will still have a larger-than average physical plant, with room for us to practice hospitality and grow.  The building will be preserved, and we will go from an annual budget deficit to having funds to reinvest in the Elmwood Village.”
The estate sale runs this Friday through Sunday from 9:30 am to 4:00 pm on Friday and Saturday and noon to 4:00 pm on Sunday. Come out this week to see some fantastic offerings and enjoy the “before” to truly appreciate the transformation that is coming to his Elmwood Village landmark. Keep up to date on construction (completion slated for January 2013) by liking Lafayette Lofts on Facebook.


When the project has been completed it will likely be one of the best adaptive reuse church projects in Buffalo in recent years. Other redevelopments in Buffalo have divided up the sanctuary space and while it created some very unique units, the entire feel of the original building was largely lost. Lafayette Presbyterian is located in an area of prime real estate so these units are in high demand and will probably be snatched up quickly. While other religious properties, particularly those of the east side, may take years before seeing this type of reinvestment if ever, when this project is completed perhaps it will inspire others to reuse their properties in a similar fashion.
For addition photos of my visit to the church including more of the sanctuary space, click here.

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May 1, 2012

Bishop Kmiec Closes St. Ann's Without a Long Term Plan

The service at St. Ann’s on Broadway this past Sunday started with hushed conversations of parishioners discussing the letter from Bishop Kmiec to be read during the mass. As the service began, Father Roy Herberger was visibly saddened and barely able to begin. Everyone’s worst fears were confirmed, all services at St. Ann’s were to be suspended immediately due to “life threatening structural issues.”


Father Roy took to the pulpit to read the letter he received from Bishop Kmiec and his reasoning for closing St. Ann’s. A 126 page structural report was conducted by Arbour Construction Management and “revealed severe deterioration of the exterior building structure.” The overall repairs to the whole church including everything in addition to the structural issues have been estimated to be around $7 million. 

Since the structural issues were only confined to the primary fa├žade on Broadway, Father Roy asked Kmiec if they could continue services, but use the secondary side entrance on Emslie Street where there were no structural issues. Father Roy was immediately told “no”, receiving no further explanation.


“It doesn’t seem that at this particular point that we do have any choice at least immediately,” said Father Roy, “so that’s why as we leave here today, for who knows how long it may be really if ever...who knows if that will even take place. I’ve always been the eternal optimist, but I don’t know if I can say I feel that way understanding where the Diocese is coming from, not only with the building, but with St. Ann’s as a parish, even if the building were completely fixed up.” The news was met with tears, exasperated sighs, and looks of disapproval of the official decision by Bishop Kmiec.

I’ve only been to St. Ann’s for mass a handful of times before, but they are the most tightly-knit parish I have ever seen. Everyone knows each other by name, they are concerned for one another, and when they show each other signs of peace, the whole thing lasts about ten minutes rather than ten seconds. They have worked tirelessly over the years to maintain and preserve the church to the best of their ability. Some of them even trace their roots to the original German parishioners who founded the church as old as five generations ago.


I was curious to see if the Diocese had the money in their coffers to pay for the repairs in full or at least partially. Here is the fiscal report of the Diocese of Buffalo for 2011, you can see the millions of dollars they have and decide for yourself. It made me wonder where the money the parishioners have been giving during collections in recent years has been going, because it sure seems the Diocese hasn’t been putting it back into the building. Structural problems this serious certainly do not happen overnight.


The parishioners of St. Ann’s are likely to fight this and appeal the closing in hopes of getting a letter from the Pope instructing Kmiec to fix and reopen the church. Unfortunately, we all know the Bishop ignores direct orders from the Pope, like when he was told not to close St. Adalbert’s and when ahead and did it anyway.

The church was built in 1886 to serve the predominately German neighborhood which once surrounded the area. The future of St. Ann’s is not certain at this time, but hopefully the fight that will ensue produces some results and sees the building repaired and reopened. Below is a short video of the bells of St. Ann's after the final mass, they may never signal the end of mass again. To see more photos of St. Ann's click here or to view them as a slideshow click here.

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