Jan 28, 2014

Willert Park to be Considered for Local Landmark Status; BMHA to Issue RFP for Redevelopment

The Willert Park Courts at Spring and West Peckham Streets will be considered for local landmarking at the January 30th Preservation Board meeting in 901 City Hall at 3pm. Residents have completely vacated the historic complex and many relocated to the adjacent vinyl and concrete block new builds along Jefferson Avenue.

Historic Aerial
Historic Aerial view of Willert Park before the 1942 expansion
The Preservation League of New York secured funding for a National Register (NR) nomination, which was prepared by Frank Kowsky and Martin Wachadlo for the regional preservation advocacy group, Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBN). You can download the full nomination by clicking here.

Willert Park was completed in 1939 and designed by architect Frederick C. Backus with William E. Harris, who was tasked with the landscape architecture and site plan. After its completion, the buildings were highlighted as a great example of Modernism by the Museum of Modern Art, which can be seen here.

MOMA Isometric View
Isometric View of Willert Park from MOMA
In his book of Buffalo architecture, Reyner Banham wrote, “At the time of its completion Willert Park was hailed as one of the finest public housing projects in the country, for both its planning concept and architectural design. Sculptural panels by Robert Cronbach and Harold Ambellan embellish the low-rise brick row houses and apartment buildings, which are organized around a central courtyard.” The sculptures were created as park of the Works Progress Administration and still remain flanking entrances to the units.


The housing development was built specifically for African American families as the population grew tremendously around this time. Demand for the 172-unit complex was so high, that more buildings were constructed along William Street in 1942. These later buildings were demolished a few years ago, but all of the original complex remains.

Although the perimeter has been fenced and outward facing openings boarded, openings in the courtyard are another story 
Alfred D. Price Sr. was the first manager of Willert Park and was well loved by all residents. His son and UB professor Alfred D. Price Jr., fondly recalls the positive impact his father had during his time there and described Willert Park as “sacred ground” of Buffalo’s civil rights era. In fact, many noteworthy African American leaders in Buffalo grew up in the complex and went on to make their mark in education, medicine, arts, and much more.

It’s important place in history combined with concerns over the current conditions prompted Terry Robinson to prepare the local landmark nomination, with assistance from Preservation Buffalo Niagara.

In addition to missing windows and doors, large sections of the roof flashing has gone missing. To avoid water infiltration and issues with freeze-thaw, these conditions should be addressed immediately
“Willert Park is certainly important in the history of Buffalo, but it also is important in the context of housing developments of its era throughout America. It was occupied, well maintained, and all the apartments were fully equipped with appliances that were BMHA property, what happened to all those?” asked Robinson, “It’s been left for dead.” Much of what remained was scraped and looted by trespassers and many of the windows and doors are completely gone.


To find out exactly why the property was in this state, I called and spoke with the assistant executive director of the BMHA, Modesto Candelario last week. “It’s basically acts of vandalism. One of the challenges we have with any of our developments, when there is metal and looks like it can be taken, chances are people will take it,” Candelario said. “The complex is fully vacant and we try to secure it as best we can, but in some cases unless there is a 24/7 guard, there could be issues. We ask staff to drive by if they can every day, but I don’t know if they are doing it quite frankly,“ he continued.

Candelario assured me these removals were not the work of the BMHA and the complex was not being pushed for demolition. “We are not systematically making any effort to demolish or deconstruct the facility in any way. In fact we are assembling a plan to rehabilitate and redevelop the complex. The difficulties of managing a vacant facility in Buffalo are never easy.”

He went on to say that a request for proposals (RFP) could be issued as early as March for the rehabilitation of the complex. It may be a partnership between the BMHA and a developer or may even be completely taken over by a new entity; it has yet to determined.

The font for the cornerstone is simple stunning and emblematic of the period
The National Register nomination has yet to be officially submitted to the State Historic Preservation Office, despite being completed for quite some time. Tom Yots, executive director of PBN explained there is only one thing holding up the nomination. “If the mayor would send a letter of support for the National Register nomination it would move forward at the State Historic Preservation Office” said Yots. Once they get the letter, the nomination can be submitted and ultimately approved, which would enable a future developer to utilize historic tax credits for the rehabilitation and ensure the historic character is preserved, while serving a new generation of residents.

For additional photos of Willert Park, check out my album on Iperntiy here.
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Jan 27, 2014

Diocese of Buffalo Revises St. Ann's Statement Regarding the Vatican Decree

I just received word from Kevin Keenan, the spokesman for the Diocese of Buffalo, that they have amended their previous press release regarding the Vatican’s decree for St. Ann’s Church.  


The revision states, “Demolition has never been our driving force or our goal, which is to preserve the space by development for other than religious purposes. A successful appeal of the decree would allow the diocese to pursue its priority for St. Ann: to find a suitable buyer for the church, with the goal of stabilizing the structure and ensuring that it is a community asset. The diocese remains in conversation with Preservation Buffalo Niagara regarding possible future uses for the entire St. Ann complex, which includes the church, former school and convent.”

Be sure to stay updated as current events continue to unfold about this incredible church.
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Jan 23, 2014

Decree From the Vatican on St. Ann’s Church Potentially Hinders Redevelopment

Parishioners of St. Ann’s Church and Shrine have been successful in their petition to the Vatican to halt the Diocese of Buffalo from demolishing their beloved church on Broadway and Emslie. The Vatican has sided with the parishioners, which is great news for slowing the threat of demolition, but presents a significant challenge to redeveloping the site.

The decree from the Vatican states that the church cannot be used for a “profane” (non-religious) use and any attempts to court a developer for rehabilitating the site for anything else will not be allowed. While the decree adds a layer of protection it also means any plans repurposing the church for a new use are no longer on the table…for now. That does not extend the empty school and convent buildings.

The former school spans the entire width of the block and is completely underutilized
Unhappy with the decision, the Diocese of Buffalo will file an appeal with the highest juridical body within the Vatican. In the mean time the use of the church is now under the discretion of the bishop.

Although the decree seems to throw a wrench in the redevelopment plans, many are hopeful. “I think there are ways that this could work and a good redevelopment project could still happen there,” said Tom Yots of Preservation Buffalo Niagara.

He continued, “The negative aspect in this situation is that it will delay things and we feel the project needs to move forward because the building requires stabilization.” Yots went on to say that the Diocese has been very cooperative as the two organizations are working together on a plan for the complex and their discussions have been very open.

For some additional backstory on the situation, check out this link.
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Jan 21, 2014

The History of Hamlin Park Finale: The Legacy of Model Cities and Hamlin Park in the Present

This information comes directly from the National Register nomination that Preservation Studios completed. Check back for additional installations in the series in the coming weeks. Stay up to date with all things Hamlin Park by liking the Hamlin Park Historic District on Facebook.
As a whole, the Model Cities program is remembered fondly by participants, not only for vestiges like the Build Academy, which survived the end of the program, but for achieving some of the less quantifiable goals of the program regarding power and agency, noted this in the documentary Model City:

Buffalo is a great example of the level of agency created for citizens by the Model Cities program. Aside from larger projects run by the Model Cities Agency, dozens of other programs were enacted through the Model Cities funding, often collaborating with other groups in the city. Two programs were run in junction with the Buffalo Library; the Readily Accessible Materials Van (RAM Van) brought magazines, books, and films to areas without access to a library, and the Bars Beautyshops and Barbershops (The Three Bs) program provided encyclopedias to areas where residents typically congregated. In August 1972 a Model Cities Expo was held to highlight all of the different projects made possible by the program, around 36 in all.


Tangible results of the program are more difficult to evaluate, though the effects of the funding on Hamlin Park seem apparent. Though much of the area east of Main Street suffers from poverty, Hamlin Park fared better than most. The seven census tracts that encompass all of Buffalo’s Model Cities area have dropped by over 50 percent in population and are now largely impoverished African American neighborhoods. Indeed, beginning with the topmost portion of Hamlin Park, the census tracts increase in poverty the deeper you get into the Model Cities program areas. Tracts 52.02 and 33.01 (the boundary of the Hamlin Park historic district) have poverty rates of 26.27 and 25.5 percent, whereas the tracts immediately to the south (within the remainder of the Model Cities area) have rates of 30.2, 37.3, 29.9, 37.05, and 44.7.


In many ways, the goals of Model Cities were far too lofty: broad, sweeping programs that combated blight, poverty, health, recreation, and education. Based on its own criteria, the program utilized in Hamlin Park was actually highly successful, largely because it was unburdened by the full program’s expectations. Indeed the city’s only expectation for rehabilitation programs was to prevent conditions from getting worse:

While code enforcement projects represent the least costly of the available urban renewal activities, they are also capable of the least amount of change. Consequently the areas which have been selected for code enforcement action have been drawn primarily from residential areas which are presently stable with the object of maintaining this stability. - Model Cities Pamphlet


A variety of factors contributed to Hamlin Park’s maintaining building integrity, population density, and low poverty rates compared to the remainder of Buffalo’s East Side. The establishment of the Hamlin Park Taxpayer’s Association in 1965 enabled a largely middle class neighborhood to mobilize against the issues of poverty spreading throughout Buffalo’s East Side. Working with city officials, they helped qualify the area for a project that would eventually be folded into the Model Cities program, enabling families the tools to help improve their neighborhood and fight off blight. Hamlin Park was chosen initially because of the neighborhood’s proximity to impoverished areas, a buffer community against blight and poverty, and the Taxpayer’s Association was pivotal in maintaining that integrity after Model Cities ended, not only by assisting homeowners with subsequent state and federal assistance programs, but helping to establish the local historic district in the 1990s. 


While Hamlin Park demonstrates neither the unqualified success nor failure of the entire program, it does demonstrate that with successful targeting and implementation, rehabilitation programs can succeed in stemming or counteracting the effects of blight. Unlike the lofty goals for much of the city, the code enforcement program, run simultaneous with and then through the Model Cities program, was highly successful at preventing the effects of poverty that spread through Buffalo’s East Side, particularly in comparison to the surrounding neighborhoods today.

1913 4-24 Buffalo Express

While Urban Renewal funding enabled the rehabilitations that maintained the neighborhood’s integrity, Hamlin Park’s success in the Model Cities program is tied to the Taxpayer’s Association that formed to facilitate the dispersal of those funds. The involvement of the group in the district did not end with Model Cities but continued in the following decades, whether implementing “Watch Dog Programs” to battle building deterioration, or assisting residents in applying for subsequent HUD program funding. In this way, Model Cities was successful in Hamlin Park by providing important funds for the community, but more importantly, by prompting the development of an organization shaped the neighborhood long after the program finished in 1975.

Northland Avenue

In the course of 153 years, the area known as Hamlin Park has been influenced by a variety of individuals, ideas, and movements, and the effects of those influences can be seen in the physical features of the district itself. The earliest stage of its history is traced in the curving streets of the northeast corner. Designed by August Hager, but inspired by Frederick Law Olmsted, it captured the dilemma of the nineteenth-century urbanite attempting to create the flowing, open spaces of the rural environment within the bustling crowded cities they occupied. The second period of development, at the turn of the twentieth-century, epitomized much of Buffalo’s streetcar neighborhoods: small, narrow lots with rows of identical houses, offering thousands of families the ability to relocate “home” to quiet, secluded neighborhoods only a transfer or two from their workplaces in the industrial and manufacturing parts of the city. Finally, the neighborhood epitomizes Buffalo’s, and the nation’s, attempt to combat the poverty and blight creeping into areas that seemed so idyllic only a generation before.

Driving Park
Back in the days of the Driving Park

Hamlin Park emerged from the 1970s as one of the city’s only Urban Renewal success stories and, coupled with Allentown-Lakeview, could be used as an example for future revitalization programs. When Buffalo applied for Model Cities funding in the 1960s and began outlining its plan for Hamlin Park, it saw that neighborhood as a vanguard against the poverty spreading through its East Side neighborhoods. Though the concentrated code enforcement program, and the Community and Taxpayer’s Association that emerged because of it, were successful at mitigating the effects of poverty in Hamlin Park, the remainder of Buffalo’s Urban Renewal programs were largely failures. Today, Hamlin Park is one of Buffalo’s last intact historic East Side neighborhoods.

You can check out the previous posts in these series here, Part IPart II, Part IIIPart IVPart VPart VIPart VII, Part VIII, and Part IX.


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