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Sherman Says: The regional preservation movement is a lone voice in the wilderness

BUFFALO — The hasty process by which landmark buildings in Buffalo and Erie County are led to the gallows of demolition should shock and sadden everyone interested in our cultural heritage.

Case in point: the former North Park Baptist Church on Colvin Avenue in Buffalo. Completed in 1927, the sprawling structure dominated the prosperous neighborhood for decades, lending magnificence to the surrounding blend of well-constructed homes and a thriving business district.

The church sustained heavy damage, during an April arson fire, but did not appear to be a total loss. In November, the owner applied for a demolition permit from the City of Buffalo, citing the damage caused by the blaze.

Immediately after the first of this year, the Buffalo Preservation Board announced its intention to nominate this former church for local landmark designation, based on its architectural design, history and presence in the neighborhood.

But sadly, demolition began on Jan. 4. “The now-familiar manner in which we neglect and sequentially dispose of our city has unfortunately begun to define the city of good neighborhoods as much as our actual architecture does,” said a statement published on the Preservation Buffalo Niagara website.

This group of preservationists is not a gaggle of individuals who want to save every building on the block. They have a talent for looking beyond our region’s gritty, industrial past and seeing the next generation of structures worth embracing. Everyday citizens may simply say, “Don’t tear that down.” This group says, “There’s a way to keep that from being torn down.”

“We can’t help but share a critical piece of dialogue that is missing from this familiar conversation. This piece is the incompatibility of the otherwise overwhelming successful Historic Tax Credit program and the economic and design realities related to rehabilitating and repurposing a vacant religious space,” the press release said.

“The primary reason why more religious spaces aren’t repurposed as part of the Historic Tax Credit program is that most prospective buyers’ rehabilitation plans are incompatible with the design standards which govern the incentive program.”

The secretary of the interior’s standards mandate that the congregation space cannot be easily subdivided into smaller spaces. The standards applied in these cases expect those congregation spaces to be reused in a way that respects and reflects the original historic use.

“This presents an obvious problem for potential developers, because every available square foot needs to be leveraged in order for the project to be financially feasible,” the release said.

Buffalo-area preservationists were on course to remodel the church, more than two years ago, but fine print in the design standards became a millstone around the necks of inspired men and women with a vision.

“Do we to live with the ‘imperfections’ of the nation’s most successful and cost-effective community revitalization program, even though it often doesn’t allow for the reuse of vacant religious spaces?” those individuals said. “No, we don’t live with it. We act to change it and to make it a better and more comprehensive tool, in revitalizing our communities.”

Colvin Avenue’s loss is really everyone’s loss and is not limited to one prominent parcel. The church is a testament to the hard work, devotion and sacrifice of a generation teetering on the cliff of the Great Depression. It was later adopted by other faiths, but remained a rock within one of the most desirable sections of the city. Now, it has been deemed unfit for our children and grandchildren.

How noble that Preservation Buffalo Niagara seeks to use this tragedy as a means to craft procedures that will save similar structures. How sad that the city of Buffalo was not equally inspired.

While safety hazards associated with vacant or damaged buildings will always be paramount, more should be done to keep the bulldozers at bay, while keepers of the architectural heritage flame have the opportunity to speak. Preservation may not always be feasible, but unless all voices are heard and all options considered, we have failed in our mission as gatekeepers of the future.

David Sherman is the managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at

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