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More of our history goes up in smoke

For years and year and years, mayor after mayor after mayor has fiddled about saving historic buildings while the structures continue to burn, rot and be stripped bare by thieves.

The latest to go up in smoke is a row house at the corner of Woodlawn and Masten avenues. It stood for nearly 120 years before burning in four hours on Friday.

Woodlawn row houses

David Torke has a slide show of photos taken at the scene at his blog, Fix Buffalo Today, which are worth a look. He also expands on the fire, the property's history and the city's stewardship since it took ownership. (Torke's blog is one of the best of the local variety and worth checking on a regular basis. I do.)

Update: Torke added a slide show to his site today with photos of the demolition work that started this monring.

As I report in today's Buffalo News, the row houses have sat vacant for nearly a decade. The city took title in 2002 after the previous owners stopped paying taxes on it. Torke has choice words for what he considers the city's neglect of the property and its complicity in the fire, but City Hall officials said they've made a good-faith effort.

Michael Clarke of the Local Services Support Corp., one of the smartest guys I know on development and neighborhood issues, told me:

"There's little attention paid to making historic preservation a priority. If you're going to make historic renovations a priority, you have to do more than advertise the availability of properties on a city Web site or at an auction. You have to be willing to say 'this is a priority' and work with a developer to find all the resources necessary to put a deal together."

The city, in its defense, has only so much money to go around. I understand.

But when you look at the way its spending that money, you see a big investment under Mayor Byron Brown in market rate housing in and around downtown. Not so much in distressed neighborhoods.

I don't know if restoring the row houses would have made economic sense.

But I do know that the property suffered while under city ownership -- having been stripped of anything of value by thieves during the time it was vacant, including the last seven under city control -- because City Hall has no plan to secure and otherwise mothball properties. The Woodlawn row houses aren't the only historic property that has been put at needless risk.

I also know that whatever the cost - Jim Pitts said he could have brought the joint back to life for $150,000, a non-profit had lined up $500,000 in resources for the job, while a city inspector estimated the cost at $1 million - the expense per unit would have been, at worse, about half as costly as what is being spent to build houses in Sycamore Village.

I can also appreciate that the city wants to target its resources and that the row houses are not located within one of the selected areas.

But given that the state just put $35.8 million into the Performing Arts School kitty corner from the row houses, I have to wonder why properties across the street from a refurbished school aren't in some sort of target area. This is an issue across the city, one that the mayor promised to address two years ago, but it remains on the "to do" list. At least at the corner of Masten and Woodlawn.

Update: One informed reader, having read Peter Cutler' comment in today's story that the Woodlawn row houses are not in a targeted zone, sent me this incredulous e-mail today:

Is he kidding? Not a target area? They apply to HUD and receive the OK for designation of a Neighborhood Revitalization Strategy Area, a target area program, that includes Woodlawn.

They transfer city-owned properties to Stenhouse along Woodlawn and Michigan - one block from the rowhouses, and it's not a target area?

They work with NRP and Belmont (before pulling the rug out from under them) with a lot of the sites right there in Woodlawn, Glenwood, etc, - and it's not a target area?

I begin to wonder if Peter ever reads what he says after the fact and confuses himself.

What about it, Peter?

One thing I can't understand is why the burned-out row houses were left unsecured for three days after the fire.

I stopped by Friday evening to take a look and noticed that the front doors were open. I started up the steps to look around inside, then remembered being told that many of the floors were burned and that the place was a hazard.

I stopped.

Curious neighbors, especially kids, might have continued up the steps, not knowing what I knew.

I drove by again Sunday evening and the doors were still wide open.

"This is bad," I thought to myself.

It wasn't until Monday morning, after the city awarded a bid for an emergency demolition, that the property was secured -- sort of --  with a fence around the perimeter. No boards on the door, mind you.

The wreckers are scheduled to get to work this morning, but Torke is among those who will tell you that the city's demolition of the property began the day it took title.




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