Here’s What Makes Me Mad As Hell: the Evergreen Tract III

Things are crazy in this world, as Howard Beale told us as he urged us to our windowsills over 30 years ago. Crazy and getting crazier.

And the craziness makes us angry, or should make us angry. Really angry. Let me tell you a story.

Howard Beale (Peter Finch) urges us to action in the four-time Oscar winning film “Network.”

This past weekend we were back in a favorite neighborhood here in our city. We were in the northeast section of the city, in what I have taken to calling the Evergreen Tract, because that’s what the old city plats tell me it was once called. Conkey and Clifford to be exact, where a large contingent of volunteers is building a new playground, thanks to the Genesee Land Trust (GLT), helped by the City of Rochester (this will become a telling fact as our story unfolds).

We have written at length about this neighborhood previously. It’s a tough place – crime, violence, drugs and all the usual urban ills. But it is also a place of hope, committed neighbors, positive changes,  lots of sweat to rehab and restore the existing building stock, and even create new assets. It is a place that has many historic structures – in plenty of cities it would probably become a revered historic district.

And it has new, and substantial, reinvestment. New rental homes, in a development called El Camino, undertaken by the Ibero-America Development Corporation (IADC), sit on what were vacant lots – tear downs.

Jo and Jim, our favorite locals, toil away here, even in spite of Jim’s recent fall from a ladder, breaking his wrist. They weren’t in evidence this weekend, though we did chat with another local favorite, Miguel Melendez, who works with the IADC in the neighborhood.

But my story awaits.  We visited with our GLT friends, and watched as the volunteers worked to scratch a playground for neighborhood kids from what was once a parking lot, and before that a row of terrific – now long gone – buildings. The old foundations were giving them fits, but our GLT  friends reported later that at last the playground equipment was going in and the place was taking on a new life. Take a look.

This is a neighborhood trying hard to escape its almost certain fate. Abandonment has taken a heavy toll. And despite all the reinvestment, by individuals, NGOs, and corporations, the city is still intent on tearing down anything that’s old and struggling. For an endless sea of (very weedy) urban gardens.

How does this work, exactly? New development, helped by city. New playground, helped by city. Sweat equity types like Jo and Jim, obstructed by city. City helps build up, while city is tearing down as fast as it can. Does any of this make any sense? No!

And now the object lesson for today – the Schiltz property, opposite the new playground. Address: 72 Conkey Street.

I found the building platted in 1888. Take a look.

Southeast corner of Clifford and Conkey. Schiltz property. In the 1888 plat book. Two story frame building, storefront down, residence up. Once probably a grocery or some kind of retail. Great building – still in the configuration shown in the 1888 plat.

Here’s the building today.

Yes, next door to this building are some of the new rental residences by IADC. Here’s another look.

And here’s a look at the intersection of Conkey and Clifford. In this view you can also see the empty lot and garden across the street from 72. Don’t you think we need lots more of this??

And here’s one last view, looking toward the new playground.

So let’s see. On a corner where there were four buildings there are now two. And about to be only one. A building adjacent to 26 new rental homes, across the street from a new playground, intact and built in 1888 or earlier.

Is there a plan in all of this? We get the GLT to build a new park at an intersection where we are tearing everything down – is this the plan? Wonder if the GLT thinks this is a good plan. And the city helps with the park at the same time that it tears down the building across the street?

WHAT CAN THE CITY BE THINKING?!?!?

Tearing this building down is absolute and utter madness. It is salvageable. It holds the corner. It is historic. It offers retail space adjacent to 26 new homes. It offers an opportunity for additional density in a neighborhood fast becoming a truck farm. It is opposite a brand new playground, and thus increasingly at the center of neighborhood activities. It is at a corner with Rochester police cameras. It is one block from St. Michael’s Church, in a neighborhood that once looked like this, at the turn of the last century:

There is interest in the building – a proposal exists to restore it and create a few new residences. The city has this proposal. No dice.

Recently, the building was attacked by the city in order to abate asbestos, prior to demolition. 72 Conkey’s days appear to be numbered. As in not many days left.

So I say to you, my fellow urbanites, go to your windowsills and shout. Tearing down buildings like this, wasting these kind of resources, in order to make weedy gardens next door to brand new investment in new homes and a new playground makes us mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore!

Call the Mayor. Call the City Council. Write an op-ed piece. Picket. Blog. Express disgust, anger, and astonishment at a level of defective thinking that is almost incalculable.

This has got to stop. Now.

14 thoughts on “Here’s What Makes Me Mad As Hell: the Evergreen Tract III

  1. The problem in America is that we associate old with inferior. There are many who believe that the city cannot be fixed until the old stuff is gone. I have known people who are afraid of old buildings in the city. They equate old buildings with crime. It is silly but we have a few generations under our belt who have had no experience with urban historic places and they are scared. So the fall back on simplistic remedies like demolition.

  2. So get this. A reader has let me know that the city has concluded that empty corner buildings are most likely to be drug houses, so they need to go first. Apparently that’s why the building across the street from 72 Conkey, now home to zucchini, was used as a fire training site and torched by the RFD, even though it, too, had a redevelopment proposal pending.

    How’s that for useful and productive urbanism?

    I would say more, but I am speechless.

    Pave the place. We’re done.

  3. A photoset of mostly interior shots of the place:

    exterior - west main entrance

    I believe the timestamps are correct, which would say the place was certainly salvagable before the city began working their ‘magic.’

  4. Excellent post and nothing in it that I disagree with. I would like to hear more about the proposal to restore it, who’s behind it, and who it went to at the city.

    As I’ve pointed out, there is, unfortunately, a pervasive anti-urban mindset amongst certain city staff, many of whom don’t live in and/or don’t value what cities have to offer.

  5. Jason,

    The issue has a few dimensions. First, I think the main issue is that the city Real Estate office has no way to respond to an evolving situation on the street, between deciding to demolish and actually doing it – a 16 month spread in this case. All the positives Howard mentioned in his post have occurred within that window. It begs the question whether the city should be the sole decision making entity when certain circumstances exist: the neighborhood is organized, significant investments in housing (both new and existing) are being made, crime is trending downward — all these things change the investment prospects for the property and should be considered if they are in play. If the city can’t do that then I think it’s fair to ask it to relinquish some control.

    The second area of concern is complicated. I should strart with some clarification. I was the developer who requested the RFP (Request For Proposal) with the Real Estate office 16 months ago. I drafted a proposal with assistance from Eugenio Cotto, Director of Group 14621. Eugenio used a software tool to build the work breakdown for the project. For the record, the cost estimate was $60,000, or $20,000 per unit leaving out the storefront. Not bad at all. The time estimate for the project was 2 years, probably more like 3 years now. That was done 12 months ago.

    I never submitted the proposal. Why? Also about 12 months ago, the city changed my priorities. But let’s back up a bit. Six years ago, we bought Devendorf, which took us 5 years to complete. Never a word about cancelling the contract, through perhaps a dozen extensions. About 4 years ago, we bought Burns and Shoemaker. Now, after only 3 years, they were threatening to repo the houses. Real Estate said they were being pre-empted on extensions by the “guys on the 3rd floor,” the legal office. We had no choice but to focus on the two houses. But before all that, last year we also bought Galvin, the Queen Anne. Our code inspector signed off on that purchase after we completed Devendorf – auction purchases aren’t some open-ended thing, where you can just keep buying houses.

    Around Dec. 21st, Paul Scuderi gave us until April 1st – 100 days – to finish the interior work in Burns, or he would take the house. Well, we pulled out the stops financially, and 5 contractors and $33,000 later, on April 1st, we had only to put finish plaster on the blueboard, clean up the floors, and install the plumbing fixtures. It’s all in my blog – you can check it out. In an email, Scuderi implied he might still take back the house because of those few items.

    The building inspector then thought of a workaround, whereby the control of the project could shift to his office, and he could issue a conditional C of O, with the result that we would be protected from the Real Estate office. Even then, we had to pay a plumber to install a toilet, sink and tub in each house, only to pull them out again to do the floors – a complete waste of $600!

    So when the dust cleared, it was May, and only 2 months left to show the city enough progress on Galvin to appease the RE gods so they would let us keep it. And they did. The same week I fell off the ladder and won 2 months’ vacation from it all.

    This is all by way of explaining that the city has been running my shop for the past year, dictating what I work on, going from house to house to house with their orders, priorities and numbers on pieces of paper. It’s nuts.

    And because we were coerced into dropping it all on one house, all at once, I had to give up on Schiltz, instead of budgeting and progressing evenly on all the houses. Oh, and let me mention that Devendorf, which for a year has been standing empty with a C of O, ready to rent except for a few last coats of paint, cupboards and appliances for the kitchen, and a few miscellanies too small to concern the inspector, could be bringing $800 or more in monthly rent if we could just find 1 or 2 months to spare. That was supposed to help pay for the work on Schiltz.

    The point is, I had funds budgeted to cover much of the RFP on Schiltz, until RE brought down the hammer. Now I can’t even scrape the $10 thou to stabilize it until spring, so naturally I didn’t submit the proposal, and now I get to sit and watch the city pound the place into splinters.

    If this whole deal had been a two-way conversation, things might be different. And maybe you know some way to work this out that I don’t know about yet. But it just seems that instead of coming down off their high horse and talking to us, it’s easier for them to treat us like we’re slackers. As I’ve said before, we’re slow, because 1) we’re part-timers, 2) the houses we buy are really needy, 3) our quality is exceptional, and 4) we engage the community and it takes some time. We’re not slackers. Our properties assess high for their location when we finish them. So I don’t get why we can’t sit with a guy like Garwood and pencil out a solution with some actual give-and-take. Been there, tried that, it’s called 65 Conkey Ave. See weeded lot, above.

    Jim

  6. Sadly, this is nothing new for the city. A few years ago, my friend Henry McCartney was Executive Director of the Landmark Society. He spent a year fighting to save the Madison Hotel, a historic inn half a block from the Susan B. Anthony House and in the Madison Square preservation district. The city didn’t like it, but he had enough friends to keep it standing. That is, until a snowstorm caused some roof damage. The building was flat within hours.

    At a meeting at the Landmark Society this afternoon, Katie Comeau spoke of attending a hearing about demolition of some buildings on Genesee Street, former site of the Jewish Orphan Asylum. Despite some serious proposals to renovate the buildings, the decision was made to demolish and build new condos on the site. Here’s the City News article:

    http://www.rochestercitynewspaper.com/news/blog/2010/10/Council-committee-approves-razing-of-historic-Genesee-Street-property/

    These buildings were also recently visited by the fire and police departments for “training” purposes. Coincidence?

  7. Battles over saving old buildings are nothing new – as any of us veteran preservationists can attest. But the pressure here on terrific old buildings is being exerted by the city. This easily jumps over saddness, straight on to madness.

    How can a municipality justify this wastefulness? Especially in these times, when it should be received knowledge at the city level that we cannot waste anything – especially the stuff that makes a city a city – its buildings.

    And as we all learn about the Asylum, I hear a rising cry of outrage. We can only hope that this becomes a choir, a chorus of voices that someone in City Hall might heed at last.

    City of Rochester: stop wasting our assets. Reconstruct them, restore them, add to them, reuse them, adapt them. Care for them. Stop tearing down the city.

  8. “How can a municipality justify this wastefulness?”

    How can an impoverished, shrinking city afford to spend the resources necessary to stabilize and renovate these buildings?

    That being said, if someone can show me in a simple, straightforward, pro forma that it is as cost-effective to stabilize/renovate and maintain these structures as it is to demolish and build new (including embodied energy and life-cycle costs), I am entirely open to that argument.

    The quality and longevity of the new construction must somehow be quantified in this fiscal equation though. I’m aware of serious foundation problems and questionable construction quality with the new homes built as part of Anthony Square off West Main Street, probably only 15 years ago. Politicians love to cut ribbons on shiny new houses, but it is the working class homeowners who must then suffer with shoddy construction.

    I believe that now, and for the foreseeable future, regardless of who the next Mayor is, fiscal arguments will be the most effective in changing the city’s attitude towards development and redevelopment.

  9. Jason, you have hit the problem in precisely the right place -economics – but you have come to a slightly mistaken conclusion, I think. Let me see if I can illucidate my view a bit.

    Our impoverished, shrinking city cannot, in fact, afford to renovate these buildings. But in my opinion, this is exactly the point.

    If the City (big C, meaning this city – Rochester) were to take on the work of renovating the 3,000 or so empties it now has slated for demolition, it would have to put the work out for bids, it would have to include labor as part of its financial analysis, it would never be able to make this work happen for the same amount it can spend to simply tear the empties down.

    The current budget for demolishing each structure is $23,350 apiece. But the City would probably have to spend several times more than that to make each of the abandoned structures viable.

    Now comes the bite. If you look at Jim Fraser’s budget for renovating 72 Conkey (www.tocquevillagechronicles.wordpress.com) , he pegs the cost of materials at $23,282.96. Hmmm. As you know, Jim does all the work himself. So that would mean that for just about the cost of tearing 72 Conkey down, Jim could fix it up.

    The discussion here previously has suggested ways to rebalance and abate the tax equation in ways that could favor the rehabber, and punish the absentee landlord that abandoned the building in the first place. And we have talked about revolving loans and a host of other tools that the city could institute to induce renovation.

    Instead, in what seems like a policy aimed at doing the easy thing instead of doing the right thing, the City plans to spend $70,000,000 over the next 20 years to tear 150 buildings down per year.

    This is where the economic argument gets really sticky. If I had $70,000,000 over the next 20 years, I would have $3,500,000 per year. Now if I simply took a percentage of that amount and put it in a revolving fund, and then I started a program to help find the Jim’s, and I decided that I could even afford to give buildings away instead of selling them for outstanding taxes, I would certainly be tearing down less than 150 buildings a year.

    Granted, some would have to go – too damaged by fire, too mutilated, too far gone. Okay. But most of the board-ups and empties are in salvageable condition.

    This city is not a sea of empty lots like so many other impoverished, shrinking cities. But here, and in those other cities, we do not see eager builders jumping at the chance to build new homes on now empty, cheap land. It is not happening, and won’t any time soon.

    So why not work hard to keep what we have intact? Why not institute programs aimed at conserving and caring for the physical fabric of the city, instead of ripping it to shreds?

    The economics of demolition only work at retail. The moment some kind of wholesale factor – like sweat equity types, give-aways, altered tax structures and any other economic possibility – enters the equation, the impossible moves much closer to the achievable.

    So in the end you’re right. The City, a city, cannot afford to fix up all of its empty homes. But it can find dozens of ways to let others make this happen. Can’t we at least try?

  10. Excellent points, and I’m in total agreement that the bureaucracy at many levels, city, state, federal, is set up to favor demolition and frustrate the small scale re-habber. That should change. You are right, we should at least try.

    Sadly though, as I’ve said before, though, the political culture is also aligned against incremental, small scale rehab. With the short term attention spans of Americans in general and our political system in particular, change must happen fast in order for a leader to be deemed ‘effective.’ So demos can happen reasonably quickly and show dramatic change, which some (many?) neighborhood residents (i.e. voters) will view as positive change.

    It’s wrong, but as a society, we continue to blame the built environment for social ills. And in that respect, what’s happening now is little different than the urban renewal of 40 and 50 years ago. Our political leadership and instruments of civic administration (grants, programs, bureaucrats etc.) merely reflect this society.

  11. But also, as you’ve correctly pointed out, the City (big C) does not have the money to fix up 3000 vacant structures. But are there 300-400 small scale sweat equity rehabbers like Jim out there? I simply don’t have a sense. Would there be any way to assess the collective ability and interest of the rehab community?

    So much of life is data driven. The City knows there are ‘x’ number of demo contractors in the region who have the capacity to take down ‘y’ number of buildings in a given year and it will cost ‘z’.

    Allocating even a portion of the $70,000,000 you mention to small scale rehabbers requires something of a leap of faith. Not necessarily a bad thing, but hard for bureaucrats playing with other people’s (i.e. public) money to do.

    Is there a way to find out the number of interested investor-rehabilitators and assess their capacity (avg. 1 building per year?)

  12. Jason, thanks. You have articulated the political problem in a very clear way. Today, engaging in programs that rely on faith or good judgement, but are not sure things, is sure to land a pol on the front page of the local blab.

    But I can see that the current situation, in which the City wants to make sure there will be no slip-ups up front, simply won’t work with the rehabbers who can actually get the work done. The City wants every assurance that nothing will go wrong. They want all the financing in place up front, they want a long list of similar past rehabber successes, they want tenants in hand. This is what I call city-making at retail.

    But of course that is exactly what most sweat equity types cannot demonstrate. Most will work fairly slowly, will invest as they can, will search for tenants as opportunities arise. This kind of vagueness, while often but not always successful, is what I call city-making at wholesale.

    But in the end, what is really at risk here? Not much. Back taxes, which the City often can’t collect anyway without substantial expense. Empty buildings seen as lures for mischief, or worse. And the cost of demolition.

    So if the City takes a chance on someone that seems like a commited rehabber, they get the following: a chance to save the demo cost, a chance to have useful activity where there was none, a chance that the building will remain a useful patch in the fabric of the city, and a chance to have new residents instead of new vegetables.

    But there is risk, and we live in times that are clearly risk-adverse. Odd, given the very urgent needs of our increasingly obsolete urban places. But true, unfortunately.

    Can the city find 150 folks like this every year? Good question. Maybe, maybe not. We could try taking a poll in the the City Paper, or something like that. Offer give-aways and some other modest kinds of assistance, slack off on the retail approach and take a chance, and maybe some will emerge that are willing to give this a try.

    At any rate, finding some who can do this and saving those buildings is without question better than the current situation. As I said, and you seconded, it is worth a try.

  13. The city is willing to shell out $80 million for a company to build it’s headquarters downtown. That’s well more then half the cost of the project, and, as you stated, 1/16th of what the company is spending. I do not think money is the only issue. I believe it’s more a matter of finding the easy way out. Or even a lack of critical thinking. It also seems that the powers that be feel Rochester is not worth saving, improving or rebuilding.

    I have been doing a lot of research over the past year regarding Rochester’s history, current status and projects going on in other parts of the world and current technologies. While many see this as a city that’s struggling and has seen it’s day past, I see a potential that can surpass many of the greatest cities of the world. Imagine restoring, preserving and updating the treasures of our past while adding innovation and architecture currently available to propel us into the future.

    To be honest, while I think big, I don’t expect (but I hope) that this city will ever be a Dubai or Beijing. But we can learn from these cities, especially Dubai. A city that over the past 20 years has risen from the desert from less potential resources than we have right now. Ok, maybe that’s a biased opinion, but I feel I can back it up.

    Sorry if I sound like a raving lunatic with crazy ideas, or maybe I am preaching to the choir. I just want to see great things for this city and get frustrated at what I perceive to be the unwillingness to do great things anymore.

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