Buffalo’s “Demolition by Neglect” Problem and What We Can Do About It

The National Trust for Historic Preservation describes Demolition by Neglect as a situation in which a property owner intentionally allows a historic property to suffer severe deterioration, potentially beyond the point of repair. Some property owners use this type of long term neglect to purposefully create a dangerous enough situation that they are then able to circumvent existing preservation protections for the building, while other property owners may be agnostic to the demolition of the building but are simply waiting for a big pay day on the property. In either case, it creates a particularly frustrating situation for preservationists and community members alike as time and energy have to be spent trying to convince those with the means to do so to care for their properties in a responsible and lawful manner.
It is important to distinguish active Demolition by Neglect from abandoned properties, properties where owners have made good faith efforts to sell but were unsuccessful and then subsequently walked away from their responsibilities to the property, or from properties which, while currently vacant, are properly mothballed for a future use. While these cases have their own challenges, Demolition by Neglect is becoming an increasingly common issue in Buffalo as the real estate market has been heating up in recent years and more people are looking to profit off of this suddenly “hot” investment area.

Circumventing Preservation Law

Daryll Carr has owned 110 South Park Avenue in the heart of the Cobblestone Historic District for years and, despite a decade of housing court dates, mandated repair schedules, and threats of fines, has continued to allow his building to deteriorate to the point where bricks have come loose from the façade. His goal? Demolishing the modestly sized historic Mugridge Steam Bakery building for a wildly over-scaled proposed skyscraper or to sell this valuable Arena-adjacent land as a “shovel ready” site. Since the building is located in a local historic district and the Preservation Board won’t approve his demolition plans, his only hope is to create a situation so dangerous that a Judge or the Fire Marshall will order an Emergency Demolition of the property. The situation at the corner of Whitney Place and Carolina Street is similar – several offers have gone in on this unique and lovely property located in the heart of the West Village Historic District, even as the building suffers from severe roof and structural deterioration, but the owner won’t consider them and isn’t responding to numerous violations notices from the City’s Inspections department.

Waiting for the Big Pay Day

Other owners don’t necessarily seem to have big future plans for their properties – just a sense that they deserve a big pay day. Such is the case at 238 Carlton Street, where the suburban owners purchased a badly deteriorated building and despite having no work done to repair or even shore up the building, have offered it for sale at nearly three times what they paid for it. They’ve explained that they feel the property’s location in the Fruit Belt immediately adjacent to the Medical Campus makes it a valuable investment for which they’d like to get a high rate of return. Despite repeated offers at substantially lower amounts that reflect that immediate structural and stabilization work that needs to be done, these owners continue to put their own profit motives ahead of having a safe and occupied building in the center of one of Buffalo’s most historic and most vulnerable neighborhoods. At 169 East Ferry, the owners have not necessarily had the means to make investments in their historic building, but have also turned down purchase offers going back at least a decade, which when coupled with their own lack of maintenance and repair to the building, has resulted in the current situation where a private sector developer just backed out of a sale because the building is so far deteriorated he was skeptical that it even could be saved at this point. The City has written the building for housing court and it will be considered for an emergency demolition in June.

What Can be Done?

PBN and many neighborhood groups such as the Allentown Association work closely with the City’s Inspections Department to identify these properties and try to get them taken care of without being taken down. However, there are limited tools available to help us combat this issue. PBN would like to see the City of Buffalo enact a Demolition by Neglect statute, which would give more power to the City and to Housing Court to intervene in cases of Demolition by Neglect. Cities such as Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, and others, have created a special law designed to identify and deal with these most intractable of cases by levying heavier fines, allowing cities more latitude to make emergency repairs versus undertaking emergency demolitions, and even in some cases seizing ownership of the building itself. Introducing this type of legislation in Buffalo would help us deal more pro-actively with the buildings above, and many others throughout the City.
Our architectural heritage is an important part of building a revitalized and sustainable City moving forward. We must ensure that the City has all of the tools it needs available to help us safeguard these important assets for future generations.