And so the battle to save the Cataracts is over. In a nearly unprecedented joint meeting of Rochester’s Preservation Board and Plan Commission on April 4th, the Preservation Board unanimously voted to designate Cataract 13 as a Rochester landmark. And then the Plan Commission voted unanimously to overturn their designation. Demolition may now proceed.
This has been an ugly process, filled with an almost endless supply of shortsightedness, untruths, name calling, and disingenuous behavior. But for those of us who have and will continue to advocate in favor of conserving value and assets in our cities, and opposed to demolition for parking lots in particular and for most reasons in general, now is the time to try to make sure that 13 Cataract will not be lost in vain.
Our city’s laws, which allow the Zoning Board of Appeals to grant permission for demolition without reference to our other preservation laws or our Preservation Board, are upside down, and must be rethought, and recast. Good examples of preservation statutes can be found in many American cities. Not ours.
And attitudes must be changed. City leaders need to rethink their response to a now oft-repeated pattern of threats from property owners. The brewers told us all that if they didn’t get exactly what they wanted, they would punish us all by doing nothing, taking their promised jobs (8 or 10) and investment (less than $3 million), and going home. Somehow the brewer’s meager project, unwillingness to honor local history, and stiff-necked pursuit of demolition for parking became, in the course of public discussion, a morsel of manna from heaven. Really?
Think about this: in order to help the brewers avoid bankruptcy a few years ago, the city gave them $9 million in concessions. In return, we get a parking lot, 8 or 10 jobs, and a new investment of less than a third of the amount they city has already forked over on their behalf. Good deal, right?
So now we must watch as these buildings bite the dust, and we must try to figure out how to move the conversation about historic preservation and city making to a better, more useful place.
Aside from those who were happy to tell us that this project would be central to the renewal of an entire quadrant of our city, about which any city observer is right to be skeptical, we heard two other themes repeated over and over during the proceedings.
The first went something like this: “It’s their property – let them do whatever they want.”
As if we advocates weren’t already acutely aware of the paucity of legal tools available to limit any citizen from doing something witless and wasteful with and on their property. We need to encourage a broad and constructive conversation here about the limits of property rights, the extent to which landmark buildings are so designated in order to acknowledge their value to the larger community, and about the real economic and cultural worth of historic properties as this accrues to the larger community. We all can and do benefit, in real dollars and otherwise, from the presence of historic properties. As long as we don’t tear them down….
The second theme was this: “Where were the nay-sayers 5 or 10 years ago? Why weren’t the preservation advocates shouting about 13 Cataract Street then?”
This is a ridiculous question, but many of you who engage in the advocacy of historic properties hear this often, regardless of where you may be.
For me, I think of a recent event here as a kind of metaphoric response to the second theme. A week or so ago someone tried to break into our house. They failed, thankfully, but damage was done nonetheless. We summoned the police, explained what had happened, and filed a report in the hope that they might find the offender. We did not, however, ask the police officer why he hadn’t been sitting out in front of our house for the last month.
Preservationists and urbanists made no prior outcry about 13 Cataract Street because before November of last year, we all believed in some terrific and years old plans to save and adaptively reuse the Cataracts, and were hopeful they would be implemented. It wasn’t until November that the brewers indicated their plan to demolish instead of reuse, and it was then that those of us opposed to demolition swung into action.
In the end, it won’t be easy to change the attitudes that we have confronted in the last several months. But we will try. Perhaps one of the most hopeful outcomes in all this dismal mess has been the coalescing of a group of thoughtful and energetic individuals and organizations regularly getting together to try to make sense out of the planned demolition. Maybe the loss of 13 Cataract Street will become a turning point. We will see.
Onward we go.
“Goodnight, sweet prince/and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” W.S.