Posts Tagged ‘historic preservation’

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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“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” Albert Einstein.

As if to conclusively prove Professor Einstein correct, we stand to lose yet another wonderful part of our particular urban narrative here in favor of  – wait for it – another parking lot.

I will be brief. I simply want to say yet again that one of the surest foundations for our best urban future lies in our rich, textured, and meaningful past. Tearing buildings down has rarely made any place better, and especially when the razed building is replaced by asphalt and yet more cars. We really must stop doing this.

Here’s the potential next victim in Rochester’s sad but ongoing effort to erase its past:


The library’s print was backwards. Now corrected.

The building, at 13 Cataract Street here, is part of the Genesee Brewing campus. Its owners, who say the building is in bad shape (they own it of course, so why are their problems now our problems? Take care of your damn assets, already) want to demolish it so that they can build a visitors center and tasting room in another of the old buildings on their beer campus.

The building, and the campus, are immediately adjacent to one of our most astonishing physical assets – the High Falls of the Genesee River, seen here in 1925.

This is High Falls. The brewery campus is to the left of the falls, adjacent to the horseshoe in the river.

Another view, this time from 1917.

13 Cataract Street, our endangered subject, is the building at the far right of the picture, with steam emanating from its roof.

To get a better idea of the High Falls, take a look at this:

The brewery is out of the picture to the left. I invite you to go and look for other images. This is an amazing place, freighted with the origins of this city.

This is where our city began, in the 18th century. Ebenezer “Indian” Allen built a mill not far from the High Falls in 1789, on what was known as the 100 acre Tract. It looked like this:

Later the High Falls themselves would run an assortment of mills as the growth of the city began in earnest.

And much more recently, the city and private developers have worked diligently in the 100 acre tract to restore and revitalize the High Falls area as a kind of campus – not just one building, but a collection of landmarks.  Like this:

Restorations, new infrastructure, streetscaping. It worked at first, sagged for a while, and now is reviving. The buildings pictured above look across the river at the brewery, and our endangered subject. Lots of public and private money has gone into this place. Leverage that investment? I guess not.

So here are a few reasons why demolishing 13 Cataract Street is kind of stupid:

1. The building’s owners know nothing about preservation and reuse, or repairing neglected buildings. They make beer.

But if they did know anything about preservation, they would not be able, with a straight face, to say this building is too far gone to save. Hah. Many of us who have saved buildings in so much worse shape know that their claims are just laughable, and a perfect illustration of their ignorance. Take a look at this:

Interior of 13 Cataract Street, photo by thecolorblindphotographer.com.

Dirty? Yes. Needs attention? Yes? About to fall down? Emphatically no.

2. There are people who want to save and reuse 13 Cataract Street. The Landmark Society of Western New York has stepped in to offer help, and to offer expertise in saving old landmarks. They stand ready to help further, given a chance.

There is a group working to create an Aerial Garden, (www.gardenaerial.org/) a kind of local version of Manhattan’s wildly successful High Line project (you can look it up) on the pedestrian bridge across the river at the High Falls. They would be happy to get involved. Their plan connects the High Falls neighborhood with the beer campus. It makes clear sense that the two sides of the river will increasingly work together.

There are others. But with the announcement on Friday that the brewery is moving forward with their very flawed plan, it looks like the time to talk to them in reasoned tones about real alternatives is over. They make beer.

3. If their plan was part of a redevelopment that included the brewery tasting building in another old part of the campus, offices, residences, a visitor’s center for the Aerial Garden, and other uses, would the brewery benefit? Yes. In fact, drawings of this better possibility have been made, some time ago, and they are really pretty wonderful.

Would the city benefit? Yes. Would the redevelopment act as a balancing counterweight to the work on the other side of the river? Yes. Would the brewery need to find partners? Yes. Have they reached out to find such partners? They say yes, I say no.

They’ve tried to sell the building, it’s true. But have they really dug in to figure out how to make something better really work? No. They make beer. They don’t do historic preservation. But some here do, and I guess since the owners have said they are moving ahead with plans for demolition, our collective ability to help will go unused.

There are folks here who understand that the key to these kinds of redevelopments lies in utilizing the tax credits available for saving and adapting historic structures. Have they been invited to help get this done? Nope. On we go, rushing towards another legacy mistake, in this city filled with legacy mistakes.

4. In Chicago, where I grew up, one of the most enlightened of all of that city’s citizens was a beer baron, Charles Wacker. It was Wacker who was charged with building Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago. And he did. He reached out to every corner of the city for support, got it, and built much of the plan, making Chicago great then, and greater now. He made beer, he made sense, and he made a great city.

Enough. Any of you who visits us here often knows by now that this was once an incredible city, crafted by the enlightened and otherwise, filled with character and texture and a particular kind of vitality. And now, again, we are doing what we can to wreck our legacy, our heritage. This is happening in every city in this nation, but less in some places than others. And every time we lose yet another landmark, we sadly prove Dr. Einstein right.

Alas. God save the Cataract.

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