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26 December 2007

How would you begin to repair a 130 year old ruin? by documenting in copious detail. [PDF] This is basically a follow-up on my previous post on the Buffalo State Mental Hospital. I'm excited to see work proceeding on this project - I just wish I could attend these meetings and presentations.
Additionally, the ULI pannel, which I mentioned in the earlier post, has released its final report!
posted by pieisexactlythree 26 December | 19:46
big, big pdf... crashed when loading on my old 'puter... but, I love the pics of the old place.

Trying to sort out old buildings is such a neat thing - it's like trying to understand a medical history almost. To kill the metaphor: You have to figure out it's plumbing, wiring, heating, skeletal structure, history of failures, repairs, etc. Like trying to breathe life into something and honor it's past. neato.
posted by mightshould 26 December | 20:51
A beautiful building; I hope the preservation suceeds. Stylistically, it reminds me of Old Dorm Block. Not sure if that reflects better on the insane asylum or ODB...

I love the public architecture of the late 19th century. Grand, yet still unquestionably human-scaled. I wish we could still build structures like that. Instead, we get the new San Francisco Federal Building, which "playfully juxtaposes" a North Korean apartment block with a discarded chewing gum wrapper.
posted by Triode 26 December | 21:51
I love Richardson's work and that building has to be one of his best. My wife got me a really nice book of his complete works for Christmas. It's sad though to see how many of his works were torn down in the twentieth century.

Is there going to be an open house for the hospital ever? I'd drive up to Buffalo to see the inside of that, it's only about a 3.5 hour drive.
posted by octothorpe 26 December | 22:25
That ULI final report sure uses a lot of flowery language to state that this project is going to be a hard sale to pitch to both civic and private leaders. They seem convinced that for the site to be most viable, the Strozzi building has to go, yet that structure is still in active use.
posted by mischief 26 December | 22:27
The hard sale to pitch is the mention in one of pi's earlier links of "Luxury Condos renting in the range of 1500 - 3000 per month"

$3000? in Buffalo? rly?

(Bet it would be cool to have the Tooth Fairy & The Great Pumpkin for neighbors, though)
posted by Triode 27 December | 00:03
I so agree with Triode about 19th century public and instutional architecture (and a lot of residential and industrial, for that matter). I'm a huge proponent of adaptive reuse. But yeah, I would want to watch an enormous project like this carefully from a budget standpoint. Does the city have the resources? Are they in a developer's pocket? What market is expected to purchase luxury condos? Is that market there, or will it materialize? How does this fit into the city's master plan?

Sometimes you really have to bite the bullet on historic preservation. It's just insanely expensive. It costs so much more to retrofit an old building with utilities and get it up to code than to build a brand new building that the end user or buyer sometimes could never foot the bill. Usually a large-scale project has to be part of a well-thought-out plan that will leverage other benefits to the city beyond just offering more housing stock (which stands a risk of sitting empty while consuming resources). If the city has decided that its historic architecture will be a vital piece of future development plans, then rehab is probably worth the investment. But it can become a burden, and definitely opens the door to potential corruption and boondoggle (then, so do all large construction projects).

Anyway, very cool. I also hope they save it, and do it well.
posted by Miko 27 December | 00:18
I see in your old post the "history center" plan. Interesting - there are cities where it's worked, and cities where it's failed, and cities where the impact has not been immediate and the jury's still way, way out. Unfortunately, history in and of itself as a popular draw has not been a viable formula for most of the past two decades. However, integrated with a complex of features that give a city a strong sense of authenticity and place, it can be an important part of a redevelopment plan. I'd be really careful if it were central to the plan, though.

I'll be in Rochester next fall for the annual meeting of American public-history folk. I'd be surprised if there weren't some opportunity to go and see Buffalo and environs - never been there. The site does sound amazing. I toured a Richardson building in Pittsburgh that was very, very memorable. He seemed to be a real bridge between the beaux-arts and modern, more minimal styles.
posted by Miko 27 December | 00:32
The Armstrong Cork Factory is a similar scaled restoration/reuse project in Pittsburgh. I'm not sure what Buffalo's real-estate market is like but it's hard to imagine that it's worse than Pittsburgh's is and they seem to be renting out apartments at $1500 - $3500 a month.
posted by octothorpe 27 December | 00:38
I was thinking of Pittsburgh when I saw this post. Pittsbugh's economy is arguably a lot better than Buffalo's. The other problem is that Pittsburgh is entirely exceptional as a place where the "Renaissance", as its known, was brought about by a highly coordinated rescue effort following the postwar steel crash and boosted again after the total departure of heavy steel in the 80s. The city's redevelopment was funded by a huge infusion of federal money, state money, and private money, given by donors who drew their wealth from the city's former affluence and had a stake in re-creating it. An urban redevelopment group was created to foster the city's redevelopment around new industries. The federal government supported it as a pilot model for the redevelopment of industrial land with public-private partnership and history/heritage as an emphasis. Also, despite these initiatives, the city's population is less than half what it was at its high, and so a housing glut keeps home prices down, making it one of the most affordable large cities in the East, while tax-cut incentives and sports-and-entertainment-related development have attracted substantial new jobs to the state.

I'm wondering if Buffalo has anywhere near that kind of confluence of interests and resources, especially in this day and age.
posted by Miko 27 December | 00:48
Along similar lines of redevelopment, the Mass MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) is in the old Sprague Capacitor factory in North Adams, MA. They've done an absolutely bang-up job of making a brownfield mill site into the hub of a newly revitalised town. There is also the nearby Porches Inn; it is built from what were once row houses for the factory workers, and retains the charm. Charm that yuppies can rent for $180 a night and up.(yuppies like me. Loved it.)

Visit MassMOCA, it's worth the trip.

On preview: PGH has benefitted greatly from the Heinz family money; I'm not sure Buffalo has local benevolents of such means.
posted by Triode 27 December | 01:12
Miko, I've been wondering myself what rustbelt cities can do to avoid a full on Detroit scale collapse. At this point I've realized that for all practical purposes, some such cities are a lost cause. Camden NJ would be one such example. I pity the few remaining inhabitants. What a place like Buffalo needs most is a foothold in an industry with long term growth potential. Short term, I'd look to the former East Germany for models of how to turn things around. I'm not quite sure what they did there, but somehow absorption of the East was to some degree successful.

This Times Mag article, which I've probably posted before, describes a remarkable effort in East Germany to reclaim a toxic obsolete industrial complex and create an outdoor recreational facility which preserved the physical legacy of the past, like a ginormous version of Seattle's Gassworks Park, and created an epic public park.

The grain elevator district south of Buffalo's downtown could do with this sort of treatment.

As for funding, a good chunk of it should come from the proceeds of a lawsuit which the county preservation society won, forcing the State to uphold its legal obligation to maintain and enhance the sites which it placed on the historic inventory.

The City's lack of coordination, and at worst, outright corruption, could be a major problem however. I think this would make many developers wary of doing business there. Recall, that for the most part, developers don't have large funds of their own. They go out and do the leg work with somebody else's money, and those investors might not want to pony up for any kind of public/private venture, where the public half of the equation has a poor reputation for honesty and competence.

As for this site, what any development needs to gain momentum is the credibility and stability obtained from securing long term leases up front from an anchor tennant. The adjacent college seems like an obvious choice. They're publicly funded, yet, as a state, rather than a local institution, above the swamp of municipal incompetence and malfeasance. The cashflow generated from a long term lease would establish enough operating capital to could persuade private investors with assurance that the project can deliver a plausible long term yield. In conclusion, the less "public" this public/private partnership ends up being, the greater the project's chances for success.
posted by pieisexactlythree 27 December | 01:29
On another matter which I didn't really address, it is indeed possible that high end condos close in could do well. Just because there is a lack of comparable product in the Buffalo market doesn't mean it will fail. Rather, nobody's been willing to jump into this market, and in a city where most of the housing stock is over a hundred years old, it's a physical product type that doesn't exist there. I've seen plenty of examples where there turned out to be massive pent up demand for high end condo product. Much of that demand, particularly in older urban areas tends to be driven by older couples who need low maintenance secure homes, but who want to remain in the vibrant central neighborhoods where they've been for decades. Introducing a new product into the market allows them to "age in place" as the industry lingo would put it.
posted by pieisexactlythree 27 December | 01:35
Triode: You forget, Buffalo may not have many high rollers, but it's a stone's throw from Toronto, and there are plenty of wealthy people there in need of entertainment.
posted by pieisexactlythree 27 December | 01:38
On the upside for Buffalo, it was the original "Silicon Valley". Westinghouse and Edison and all the rest of the cutting-edge technology companies of their time located in Buffalo for the very same reasons that continue to make it interesting today, and in the future: Proximity to key shipping channels and huge hydropower potential.

I read recently that computer datacenters account for 12% of our total national electricity consumption. If I were Google or Microsoft, putting my datacenters close to natural power sources would look pretty attractive. That'd create a market for 3K condos overnight.

And on preview: True, plus our dollar puts America on sale for the Torontonians. I grew up in Albany NY, so slagging on Buffalo is all in good fun. Glass houses, doncha know.
posted by Triode 27 December | 01:56
Albany, the 300 year old city that razed dozens of square blocks of historic brownstones to build the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza.
posted by Triode 27 December | 02:12
Triode, it seems like every city did a similar thing during the mid-twentieth century. Pittsburgh knocked down over 500 historic buildings in my neighborhood in 1966 and put up an ugly mall on an ugly parking garage and some ugly office blocks and an ugly plaza. I'm not sure why anyone thinks that's ever a good idea.
posted by octothorpe 27 December | 02:51
So I guess I should say something.
Um. Buffalo's economy makes Pittsburgh look like Wall Street.
We're only marginally better off than Detroit right now. They're the worst in the US. We're number 2.

I'd like to be hopeful, but after all these years it really is like fighting the windmills. The money just isn't there. We already rely on out of town funding just to keep necessities going, like the plows and roadwork crews.

So I have to admit, I think it will be just like the last half-dozen Richardson plans and meetings. A lot of talk, a lot of drum-beating, and then someone goes and misappropirates the money for something else. (yeah, Buffalo State College's new art gallery, the concrete nightmare they're throwing up as we speak. Using nothing but pure earmarked richardson funds from federal preservation orgs. yep)

We do have high-end apartments. They do ok, for the most part, but $1500 seems to be the cap. Over that and they don't rent as easily. (keep in mind, this is a city where you can buy a 5 bedroom Victorian, fully restored, in a GOOD neighborhood for under $300000. Who would rent when they can own at that price?
$1500/mo is VERY expensive by Buffalo standards. I pay about a third that, and my apartment is 1500 square feet in a desierable area.

Well, that.... and everyone in Buffalo thinks the Richardson is haunted by years of the mentally ill who were tortured there in misguided attempts to treat them. So that could either be a selling point, or a deterrent. Not sure which.
posted by kellydamnit 27 December | 12:27
That history is fascinating, octothorpe (incidentally, it's the process by which my museum was created). Urban Renewal was a series of postwar federal programs that shared a certain set of aims - "slum clearance," stimulating industry in the face of a threatening postwar slump after companies ceased war materiel producton, taking advantage of federal dollars made available to the private market through the GI bill, removing pockets of nineteenth-century infrastructure which were a hazard to safety and an incubator of disease conditions, and so on. Almost all of this federal redevelopment money was tied to new construction; rehabilitation was not seriously considered, so it was far easier for cities and states to develop plans establishing a new, outlying 'garden suburb' with tract or high-rise housing than to rehab the urban core. Urban Renewal absolutely changed the face of American cities, giving us a lot of crappy architecture and contributing to white flight and the bankrupting of the municipal coffers. There are some notorious stories of corruption, especially in Boston, where promised housing is only now being offered to people who were displaced in the late 40s. Now that they are octogenarians, they haven't got much use for it.

This stuff is all kind of fascinating - the collaboration it takes is none too simple to pull off, and the resources simply have to come from somewhere. The potential for corruption is always through the roof - your comments about the city governement are disconcerting, pie, but maybe the wheels will turn when sufficiently greased, rather than stalling out as an ongoing cash cow, which sometimes happens. I hope it can work in Buffalo, as it has in other locations. Camden is indeed an excellent example of a city that probably cannot assemble the resources, especially with Philly right across the water,competing for, needing and absorbing that kind of support. I could see Camden taking off only in the scenario that Philly's economy booms and housing stock grows limited, making land across the river more desirable. South Jersey has grown drastically since Philly's been on the mend, but not inside Camden city limits. There would have to be a lot of housing/financial pressure building in the city and NJ surrounding Camden to create a good field for development within that city.

Too bad. Camden has some amazing history. The Carter Family recorded their first album there....
posted by Miko 27 December | 12:27
Miko, I mentioned Camden because of a particularly morbid piece I read about it in the Times several years ago. I recall something about abandoned waterlogged rowhouses spontaneously imploding, and that imaged juxtaposed with a glowing description of the city by Emmerson in the mid nineteenth century.

I find it particularly disappointing that New York municipalities lack a lot of common mechanisms such as tax increment financing to leverage economic development. They've proven very effective here in Portland.

My vision for Buffalo's economy is a really big-picture sort of concept: With my understanding of a coming global energy crisis, I'd advocate for creating a tax haven for companies doing R&D and prototype manufacturing in sectors that will be needed in a low-energy/low carbon future. These would include alternative energy sources, biomimicry, or the process of using organic phenomena to recreate what we get from petroleum, and remanufacturing of existing materials. In addition, as transportation costs ramp up exponentially over the next 50 years, the canal network may become a lower cost alternative for distribution of goods vis-a-vis trucking. Of course almost nobody in power anywhere seems to have the foresight to do this sort of thing, but a man can dream...
posted by pieisexactlythree 27 December | 13:23
You can't beat the Old Dominion. || The Kennedy Honors Are Proof That....