Posts Tagged ‘Cataract Street’

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.

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As the Rochester Zoning Board of Appeals reviews the Genesee Brewing Company’s application for a zoning variance so that they can tear down two of three historic landmarks on their property at Cataract Street in our city, let’s do the same and review the situation here.

In this aerial photo, the building they will be reusing for their tasting room and visitors center, 25 Cataract Street, is to the left of the footbridge (once the Platt Street Bridge, now called the Pont de Rennes, in honor of a Rochester Sister City) on the eastern banks of the Genesee River. The landmark buildings they propose to demolish are to the right of the bridge, in that triangle of land against St. Paul Street that is part building and part parking lot.

The best of the landmarks is 13 Cataract Street – that’s the one casting the longer shadow in this image. (Scroll down to see our earlier blog entries showing all these buildings, if you’d like). It dates from the late 1880s, and was designed by the noted brewery architect A. C. Wagner (also the architect for the Stegmaier Brewery in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, thankfully preserved and reused, and now on the National Register of Historic Places).

The other building, 7 Cataract Street, is a two-story masonry construction built in the early 20th century. It was the bottling house.

Okay. Now since the Genesee proposal went public, there has been an outcry from some local residents here that goes like this:

“It’s their property. They can do what they want – let them tear it down. If you historical fanatics want to save these buildings, then why don’t you buy them?”

Two important facts refute this kind of rubbish.

First, we did buy them, in a way. All of us citizens.

When the NYC equity firm called KPS purchased Genesee Brewing in 2009, the City of Rochester gave them over $9 million in forgiven loans, water bills and taxes. Around Genesee Brewing, KPS created the North American Brewing Company, now the 8th largest brewery in the country. We’re glad for all their success, and all the jobs saved and created, but we do have more than a bit of skin in their game.

And second, there is a little thing called the law. In Rochester, in order to destroy buildings designated of historic value, an applicant must meet certain standards. This applicant fails to meet these standards. Here’s why.

Section 120-195B(4)(b)of the Rochester Zoning Ordinance says:

(b) An area variance shall be granted only if the applicant establishes the existence of each of the following conditions:

[1] Benefits. The benefit to the applicant if the variance is granted outweighs the detriment to the health, safety and welfare of the neighborhood or community by such grant.

No problem here, since the applicant gets the benefits and we get, well, nothing. There will be no neighborhood left when they are done. Fail.

[2] Essential character of the area. No undesirable change will be produced in the character of the neighborhood or a detriment to nearby properties will be created by the granting of the area variance.

You decide this one. Would you call removing the neighborhood undesirable? Would you call a giant empty parking lot a detriment? Would you call losing two landmark buildings in favor of – nothing – an undesirable change? Fail.

[3] No other remedy. The benefit sought by the applicant cannot be achieved by some method feasible for the applicant to pursue, other than the area variance.

As we heard during the ZBA hearing on this matter, there are many other remedies still available. Some of them are being pursued even now. The applicant could yet: work out some kind of  a deal for the buildings; stabilize the buildings for reuse as their success continues to brew; donate the buildings to a variety of interested groups. Too soon to tell about possible remedies. Fail.

[4] Significance. The requested area variance is not substantial.

Seems pretty substantial. Fail.

[5] Physical and environmental conditions. The proposed variance will not have an adverse effect or impact on the physical or environmental conditions in the neighborhood or district.

Look at the aerial image of the neighborhood or district. Imagine the physical environment without the landmarks, and with more parking spaces. We hold certain truths as self-evident. Fail.

[6] Not self-created. The alleged difficulty was not self-created, the consideration of which shall be relevant to the decision of the Board of Appeals but shall not necessarily preclude the granting of the area variance.

When KPS bought Genesee Brewing, they knew that the buildings were designated as of historic value. They had been left uncared for, and after their purchase they continued to be uncared for. Now we hear that they are in such a deteriorated condition that they must be destroyed (this is patently untrue, by the way). Can’t have it both ways, brewery guys. Either you could have solved this “difficulty” by caring for the buildings, or you can solve this difficulty now by caring for these buildings. But if they are too deteriorated to save, exactly who else could have created that problem? Fail.

So there are six standards under our law by which to test any desire to demolish the Cataract Street neighborhood. The applicant fails to meet all six standards.

Next case.

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