“Only the dead have seen the end of war:” Plato

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.

30 thoughts on ““Only the dead have seen the end of war:” Plato

  1. “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.” SO true… and I’m sure you didn’t intend it this wasy, aandh, but this is a wonderful metaphor for American civic life today.

  2. Martha, thanks. And yes, we are acutely aware that these matters are central to the civic conversation in our nation, and abroad as well.

    In the last several years, as we have visited and scrutinized scores of cities around the world, we have seen this struggle happening nearly everywhere. One of the most sobering and saddening accounts of a failure to recognize and conserve historic urban fabric can be found in Michael Meyer’s extraordinary book: “The Last Days of Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed.”

  3. Thank you for the excellent summary of a complex situation. Through out this process I was fustrated by the media’s and therefore the general public’s incomplete, simplistic and often incorrect understanding of this issue.

  4. Oh, another comment. 10 to 15 years ago the preservationists, urbanists and neighborhood people were working to save the Monroe Theater building from being demolished and replaced with a suburban strip style Rite Aid and Wendy’s with large parking lots. A lot of positive things came out of that fight.

  5. Linda, thank you, and thank you for the FB posting.

    Often good things come from pubic struggles. I hope that is the case with the Cataracts. There is much at stake.

  6. This would also be a good time for the city or interested not-for-profit to engage in a more comprehensive study of Rochester’s historic resources, making some decisions about potential local districts or individual landmarks. If Cataract had been locally-designated, under the Preservation Board’s jurisdiction from the beginning, this situation might have turned out differently. Pro-active survey and designation advocacy is key and works successfully in other communities around NYS. New York State’s Certified Local Government program has grants available for survey work, as does the Preservation League of New York State’s Preserve New York grant program.

  7. Erin, thank you for your contribution to the conversation. Much appreciated. Your suggestions are quite clear and helpful.

    Readers, our ad hoc group has discussed Erin’s ideas at some length, and we have begun to think about next steps. I note that because of the tangle in our local land-use and preservation statutes, it could be more difficult than elsewhere in NYS.

    Erin, the first part of your suggestion is complete. We do have a survey of this city’s historic resources – it has been complete for some time. It’s what comes next that we are considering now.

  8. Does anyone know if the City of Rochester does _any_ urban planning? As I look around, I get the sense that anything goes, any time someone wants to spend money in the city. There appears to be no sense of history, or sense of aesthetics based on place and time of a neighborhood. All I seem to see is that “anything new is good.”

    There are neighborhoods with wonderful old houses (from the outside at least) that are left to wither while (as Rachel Barnhart described recently) the City pays folks (with tax abatements) to live in new buildings. Seems sorta like slash-and-burn agriculture to me.

    Wouldn’t it be better to have a list of significant buildings in each neighborhood with a directed plan on how to get to a sustainable improved environment in the future? A triage of what buildings are too far gone, which ones can be saved with investments, and which ones that need the locale maintained so that they not only thrive but improve?

  9. Patrick, thanks for joining the conversation. Two things.

    First, yes the city does plan. For example, a number of the city’s plans for the High Falls area show the Cataract buildings being saved and reused (the Center City Master Plan, for one). But the plans don’t seem to matter much when two words accompany the discussion: money, and jobs. Even if these two words fail, in reality, to mean much, they are often seen as reasons enough to throw out the plans and proceed with abandon. Especially when threats are involved.

    Second, there is a list of significant buildings, and it has been around for quite some time. The list, kept by the city, is called the list of “designated buildings of historic value.” The Cataract buildings were on that list. Did it stop the city from approving demolition? Nope.

    Money, Jobs: the water parts, buildings fall, and a flood of bad city-making is unleashed.

    Not that money and jobs are unimportant. But in the case of the Cataract buildings, our assessment, using software developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, illustrated that if the buildings were reused along with the visitors center, up to 100 jobs would be created, and nearly $2m in tax revenue would follow. Many times better than what we’re going to see now.

    A bird in the hand is not worth two in the bush when it comes to making a city’s future. It does, however, take patience, skill, dedication, and imagination to get those two in the bush.

  10. Pretty depressing how Genessee Brewery is kowtowing to automobile culture. That automobile culture is one of the most destructive forces to ever impact America and the world. It’s loathsome to even consider a parking lot as more significant – even more culturally significant – than an old, beautiful brewery. American society needs to move on from the automobile, as it’s proving to be anachronistic and overly consumptive of resources, especially resources as limited as those in the stagnant American economy.

  11. Thanks for your work on this valuable project. Are you aware of photographer Richard Margolis’s work on the Hojack Swing Bridge– another preservation battle which seems doomed to fall into the Genesee River? CSX, owner of the bridge, pretty much announced as much in their most recent update, after a battle lasting over ten years with the Coast Guard. If I was more sophisticated I would send you a link to one of his many websites, but since I’m just a mason I will leave it up to you to ferret this out..

  12. Very sad not only for this building but because the general public which condones this kind of shortsightedness does not even know what they are throwing away. This is a symptom of a major flaw in our society. We do not value what is actually valuable.

  13. Condolences to Rochester on the loss of something that made you unique, that distinguished your past, and that could have been an eloquent statement of public respect for the past and for the future.

    Someday, future Rochesterians will look back in disbelief that the public decision making process allowed this one-of-a-kind landmark to be traded away for a parking lot. This decision ensures a long-term and irreplaceable loss in favor of expediency and short term gain.

  14. Pat, thanks. We are aware of Richard’s work on the Hojack, and are following his progress. The villain in that struggle may be the State of New York – we suspect CSX is in no rush to spend money taking the bridge down. Oh, and just a mason – hah – hardly.

    David, creating or preserving value in an urban setting, as you suggest, takes a bit more foresight than we seem to be able to muster at the moment. Sin in haste, repent at leisure.

    And Doug, thanks for your words. This morning’s news tells us that the County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency (COMIDA) has decided to grant the brewers a $95,000 sales tax exemption. If the brewers can keep this up, the financing gap they claimed was keeping them from being able to save the landmark buildings (variously estimated at between about $300k and $750k) will be down to zero. No wonder some of us are a bit cynical. So it goes.

  15. David, a perfectly good question, with absolutely no answer. I first wrote here about using tax credits for the project back on November 20th. By then a number of folks had spoken to the brewers about the credits, pointing out that they would represent 40% or so of the cost of any restoration/renovation.

    Only a part of the mystifying math of the Cataracts case.

  16. I have heard another argument that the brewery has invested and created jobs and therfore should be allowed to do what they want. Any business that does this is for the sole purpose of increasing revenue. The impact on the community is a bonus. Therefore this argument does not make sense to me.

    Why does this city continue with a policy that has been ineffect for close to 60 years? I see an area with so much potential and opportunity that is constantly overlooked! And I am tired of watching it being wasted!

  17. Paul, thanks for joining in. A couple of things.

    First, not one of the people or organizations opposing demolition ever expressed any opposition to the brewer’s plan to make an investment and create a visitors center. Reusing the building they are making over was their idea, creating a visitors center was their idea, and in this regard, they are doing what they want.

    What we did oppose was allowing the brewers to spend over $1m (their estimate) to knock down two landmark buildings to create a parking lot, instead of stabilizing them for reuse, for a cost that would be less than the cost of demolition.

    Second, the money they would save in stabilizing instead of demolishing would cover the financing gap between their asking price for the buildings (what they term “an acceptable offer”) and an offer rumored to have come from a local developer.

    Mystery math.

    At the moment, for the sake of the brewers and the future of their property, the neighbors, and the city, we need policies that give us both/and solutions, not either/or solutions.

  18. From what I understand tax credits are quite difficult to use if you are not familiar with the process. There are companies out there who specialize in the work. A novice might look at it as a steep mountain climb. If there is no interest in the first place, if they see no value in saving the building they won’t put the effort in.

  19. David, tax credits are not hard to use, but there are requirements and steps in the process. There are many here with expertise in employing tax credits for development projects, and that expertise was offered to the brewers.

    Some of us have used tax credits on very, very large projects, and could easily tap expertise from elsewhere if there was a will to employ the credits.

    All of this was made known to the brewers. No dice.

  20. How did your paper come down on this? You have a Gannet paper? In our town the G paper has ALWAYS editorialized against preservation which hasn’t been helpful to the community conversation…

  21. Yes, our paper, the Democrat & Chronicle, is Gannett. And yes, they have not been helpful to the preservation cause on this one. Their Business Editor, Steve Sink, came out with a front-of-section piece that was an op-ed disguised as reporting, blasting the preservationists.

    Even more mysterious has been the lack of curiousity on the part of any reporters. The brewery guys have offered so much PR that is debatable, incorrect, or misleading. You would think that someone would want to know what’s up with that.

    So it goes.

  22. The real issue is the ENTIRE economic and social system of norms that see demo and/or new construction as generally a good thing.

    Jobs for contractors, money for the developer/corporation and a perceived improvement in the short run beat smart and well meaning preservationists almost every time in every city in America.

    This is not because it is a good thing but because it is and has been for over 100 years the way people get jobs, developers make money and political leaders get to fulfill their edifice complex – to build new buildings or to kowtow to any “plan” by a “job creator” to do things that, in the short run, are seen as benefits or improvements, at the cost of buildings our current culture would never have the vision or nerve to create today.

    ONLY when the economic interests and the political leaders are forced, by reality, to embrace reuse and renovation as job creators and sources of profit will we see the “attitudes” change.

    Should the future be one of scarce resources, we will see this happen and will feel the “unintended” effects of getting what we always wanted: rents so high in the historic inner city that only the powerful will be able to afford to live there while the rest of us live rural lives in the pastures of Webster and Greece.

    Good Luck.

  23. Dan, well said.

    The future is, indeed, one of scarce resources. All the more reason to stop tearing down the city and restore and rebuild instead. Something about “huddled masses.”

    There is a substantial body of data that indicates that preservation and adaptive reuse actually create more jobs, and greater economic return than new construction. We said this quite clearly during the Cataract debates, and ran some scenarios for adaptive reuse that showed that reusing Cataract was many times more beneficial, both for the owner and the city, than the tear-down and parking lot scheme that is now underway.

    No one was listening.

  24. That is main the problem, aside from public perception.

    It seems like no one making the decisions is listening and because cities seem so willing to create incentives for demolishing an existing building and build a new building or nothing at all rather than incentives for reuse of existing buildings.

    This gaming of the system creates a popular perception that demo and new construction are economic stimulators when they simply waste resources and time (and reinforce the need for the ever-hungry monster known as the construction contractor), when compared with reuse.

    It also reinforces the ignorant belief that preservationists are elitist trouble makers who only care about buildings when someone wants to do demolish them.

    That they are standing in the way of…progress!

    Soon enough, if not already, the gaming and incentives will not be economically sustainable and we will have to use what we already have, as best we can.

    Only then, will the cycle of thought arrive at its conclusion: acceptance from the masses that reusing buildings not only makes sense but that it Always made sense.

    Where I currently live the city council of the town across the river from Troy is about to vote to change zoning so that a developer, the catholic church and a sub par grocery chain can knock down a gorgeous 1890 era church to build a supermarket, regardless of how bad the plan will be for the neighborhood it will be built in and all the promises made by the church that it would not close the parish anytime soon.

    My youtube page has proposals, public comments and views of the church that is threatened.

    You can find them all here:http://www.youtube.com/user/dannytenta


  25. Of course the preservationists there must be hearing a lot about how much they are stifling progress, hearing about how insensitive they are to needy neighbors (who will realize zero benefits from the new fillintheblank), hearing about how they should somehow have known – telepathically, I guess – that the building was threatened and began advocating sooner, hearing about how they should simply dummy up with dough if they want to save the building, and hearing all the other ridiculous, and bilious, cliches that arise every time something like this occurs.

    It is depressing, and it’s everywhere.

    But take heart, Dan. We now know that we can no longer afford all the crap we have already built, we can’t afford to fix our infrastructure, we can’t afford our libraries and our firemen and our policemen and our social services, we can’t afford – or figure out how – to fix our crummy schools. We can complain endlessly about our high taxes, but we just can’t seem to figure out the relationship between our moronic behavior over the last 50 years and our quarterly tax bills.

    But we all have great places to park!

    Nice church by the way. Hope you do better than we did.

  26. Gosh, it’s like you were there with me at the city council meetings in Watervliet!

    The people who own homes across the street from the church are worried about their property values and the safety of children from the added traffic the store will bring, they bought their home across from a stable Catholic parish, not a sea of asphalt.

    I will leave you with a few of the main problems.

    They should put the store along the main street sidewalk, with parking in back to make it more urbane, but they can’t because there are major flood sewers under the front of the property that they are afraid of damaging when trying to build the foundation (but I am guessing all the heavy equipment and the falling pieces of church will do that anyway).

    They had to move the loading docks from the rear of the store (where it would be about 20 feet from people’s front door) to the front of the store because, other than the proximity issue, it would necessitate semi trucks rumbling down narrow 19th.Century-scaled residential streets and the residents were worried about damage to their house’s foundation.

    Great, except the trucks will be doing two point turns (I call it a ballet) in the main parking lot, Directly in front of the store’s main entrance, where the customers will have to dodge death to get at all that healthy food!

    The best thing about this whole thing is that the grocer – who so desperately wants to build this new store to “provide improved access to health foods” and “create jobs” – already has a store in Watervliet, about two blocks from the church. It was built in the early 1980’s in a plaza that’s in a part of town that was completely leveled, rezoned and then filled with urban renewal and parking lots, along with the I-787 highway.
    An area that was remade specifically to handle retail traffic and delivery trucks with widened roads and shopping plazas.

    And they haven’t spent a dime to expand, maintain or update it since it opened in 81.

    But we are supposed to allow them to ruin a residential neighborhood – that just finished putting in bump outs and other complete streets type infrastructure that makes the roads around the church site narrower – and to trust them to take care of their store…this time.

    It is a waste of time to fight it when the mayor dismisses city staff who personally are against the plan, the head of the local parish is smug, money grubbing and deceitful and the whole thing comes down to THREE people – including said mayor – who will vote to change the zoning in a few days.

    Still, it could be worse, they could be building a $50,000,000 brick elephant of a bus shed in the middle of a thriving, upscale downtown neighborhood (with no plan for how to pay to maintain the shed in the future, other than taxpayer funded subsidies), while a few blocks away, millions more will be spent to build an “inter-modal” transit station that will not include local mass transit.

    Sometimes, it is the things they want to build that are more worrisome and damaging than the things they want to knock down eh, Smugtown?

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