Thursday, November 27, 2008

Beautiful Buffalo: historic preservation--and lessons for us?

Perhaps you never thought of Buffalo as a beautiful city. More likely, you never thought much about Buffalo at all.  As I know from my own conversations, however, its residents are very proud of what they have, and a little bit sad and offended that others don't understand their pride.

The New York Times recently helped to correct that imbalance (Nov. 16) with an extensive and lavishly illustrated spread on the city's architectural treasures poised between destruction and preservation:  "Saving Buffalo's Untold Beauty:  The Home to Some of the Greatest American Architecture Tries to Balance the Past With the Future."  It also offers some valuable lessons for the rest of us, whether in rural or urban environments, east or west. As author Nicolai Ouroussoff puts it, the city is a microcosm of American urban and architectural development:  "Touring Buffalo’s monuments is about as close as you can get to experiencing firsthand the earliest struggles to define what an American architecture would look like." He notes that the early industrial structures fascinated European architectural innovators:
the city’s grain silos and steel mills had become architectural pilgrimage sites for European Modernists like Erich Mendelsohn and Bruno Taut, who saw them as the great cathedrals of Modernity. In their vast scale and technological efficiency, they reflected a triumphant America and sent a warning signal to Europe that it was fast becoming less relevant.
Still, he continues, it is the evolving picture of American architecture--from Richardson and Olmsted to Sullivan and Wright--that most fascinates the student nowadays.

The dilemma, he explains, is also a sign of hope: For many years, Buffalo seemed to epitomize the fate of the deindustrialized, economically and culturally declining urban space. Today, preservation offers a chance not only to save buildings, but also to revitalize both the economy--in part through cultural tourism--and the quality of urban life:

However, a positive result is far from guaranteed. In the first place, there is continued danger of destruction. Even as preservationists doggedly restore public structures and homes in blighted neighborhoods alike, massive federal projects threaten whole swaths of the city:
Preservationists raised an outcry this year when Mayor Brown unveiled his plan to demolish 5,000 houses over the next five years as part of an effort to clean up some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the mayor’s office are now trying to hammer out a compromise.
In the second place, there is the threat of too much of a good thing, or the right thing the wrong way or in the wrong place:
how these projects will be forged into a cohesive vision for the city’s future is less certain. The best-intentioned preservationists, however determined, can accomplish only so much. Often developers co-opt the achievements of these trailblazing individuals and nonprofit groups by dolling up historic neighborhoods for private gain. The city’s rough edges are smoothed over to satisfy the hunger for more tourist dollars. Shiny new convention centers and generic boutiques follow. Yet schools, roads, bridges and electrical and power lines continue to crumble.
As Ouroussoff sees it, the city is a sort of preservation laboratory whose evolving results others would be wise to observe:
Buffalo is an ideal testing ground for rethinking that depressing model. Its architectural heritage embodies an America that thought boldly about the future, but believed deeply in the city as a democratic forum. What’s needed now is to revive that experimental tradition.


Now the city is reaching a crossroads. Just as local preservationists are completing restorations on some of the city’s most important landmarks, the federal government is considering a plan that could wipe out part of a historic neighborhood. Meanwhile Mayor Byron W. Brown is being pressed to revise a proposal that would have demolished hundreds of abandoned homes.
The outcome of these plans [the tension between local desires for preservation and federal determination to bulldoze the city into modernity; JW] will go far in determining the city’s prospects for economic recovery, but it could also offer a rare opportunity to re-examine the relationship between preserving the past and building a future.
The most important lines for me were in many ways those that spoke to the rather different condition of our own rather different town.
today its grass-roots preservation movement is driven not by Disney-inspired developers but by a vibrant coalition of part-time preservationists, amateur historians and third-generation residents who have made reclaiming the city’s history a deeply personal mission.

At a time when oil prices and oil dependence are forcing us to rethink the wisdom of suburban and exurban living, Buffalo could eventually offer a blueprint for repairing America’s other shrinking postindustrial cities.
What we see is a more egalitarian, diverse and socially tolerant vision of the city. It is both pro-density and pro-history. These residents have come to recognize through firsthand experience that social, economic and preservation issues are all deeply intertwined.
The Amherst Master Plan does provide such a cohesive vision and does embody these principles. It declares sustainability in all aspects of town government and life a priority implementation strategy and moreover advocates directing development primarily to village centers.  Preservation or adaptive reuse of historic buildings conserves resources and energy andfacilitates the kind of infill that allows us to preserve open space by increasing density in built-up areas without destroying their existing character.

How to achieve actual preservation can be more complicated. There are a number of lessons here.

One can only stand in awe of Buffalo's achievement in organizing a citizen coalition to raise 76 million dollars for the restoration of Richardson's neo-Romanesque State Asylum for the Insane.  Amherst has proven less ambitious and successful in its attempts to raise private funds for preservation purposes, though to be fair, that may be because we have not encountered the sort of single high-profile case capable of mobilizing all forces and resources. To date, we have managed to get by with a combination of Community Preservation Act funds and the occasional grant, but as these revenue streams shrink or no longer prove as reliable as they once were, we may find ourselves in situations in which private funds constitute the only recourse--and we may find ourselves unprepared and under-resourced.  We may have had a foretaste of this in the case of the Hills lots on Main Street this year.

The case of Buffalo also raises the sensitive issue of developers, often reviled as either destroyers or appropriators of historic structures and landscapes. Given the lack of legal protections--aside from our Demolition Delay Law--for historic resources, our Historical Commission and local preservationists often have no choice but to negotiate with developers or other property-owners (private or institutional). Such situations raise fears of extortion (and to be frank, I have voiced such concerns myself), but the obvious fact remains that property-owners are the people with property to develop or sell.  Since we cannot expect altruism in a social system based on property and profit, the best that we can usually hope for is to be able to persuade owners that preservation (including adaptive reuse) is to their practical and political advantage.  The same applies to institutional owners such as colleges and universities: the fact that they are "non-profits" does not mean that they do not have material interests.  The description of the city as a microcosm of architectural development also applies, as we have repeatedly affirmed on these pages, to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst campus. The University could affirm, preserve, and market its landscape and built environmental heritage, to the benefit of all. From the latest reports, it is at last learning to do so.

The key in all cases is building effective coalitions, and that entails being able to explain what preservationists do in a way that enables constituencies to see it as in both their interest and the common interest.  Some citizens wonder why, under Massachusetts General Law, a single chapter of a locale's Master Plan embraces both "natural and cultural resources."  To be sure, there are many specific differences, but I see the two realms as intimately connected:   Both the Conservation Commission and the Historical Commission are charged with protecting the resources of the town, and that means in large part protecting them from inappropriate development.

Some scholars and practitioners occasionally warn that our definition of historic preservation is becoming dangerously broad (and that warning is well taken), but the fact remains that preservation is good sustainable and environmentalist practice.  (As the new phrase goes, "the greenest building is. . . one that is already built.")  There is nothing wrong with selling it that way, given that the sales pitch is honest--as long as we remember that preservation is a good in itself, and not simply the means to another end.  The latter point is indeed the most difficult to explain.

Although our community clearly espouses the value of preserving the historic character of the town, many residents see concrete historic preservation measures--those that cost money--as something of a luxury. Even if they no do not dismiss them as the domain of the stereotypical "blue-haired ladies in tennis shoes," they do not see them as an urgent need.  In particular, advocates of open space, farming, and conservation often do not recognize in historic preservation a kindred task.  The growing need for affordable housing sometimes prompts advocates of that cause in turn to assume that theirs is the only or most worthy cause.

Until and unless we can find a way to understand how these various goods fit together and reinforce one another, it will be difficult to make real and coherent progress.  That is why, in arguing for an increase in the Community Preservation Act surcharge, I have argued that the Commonwealth's grouping of the three tasks under the same legislative authority was positively brilliant:  all three contribute to the quality of life.  Still, the power and cohesiveness of that vision will be for naught if, as is sadly too often the case, advocates of each cause view those of the other as opponents in a zero-sum game.

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