Here I was, thinking the joys of preservation are understood by everyone. Along comes Geoffrey Szymanski, shattering my illusions.
The Lackawanna mayor's throwback attitude makes it seem like the last 20 years never happened. It's as if he lives in Latvia, not Lackawanna.
Across the city line in Buffalo stands a collection of reclaimed buildings – and the rents, jobs and visitors they bring – longer than Eloise's Christmas list. From The Mansion on Delaware to the Hotel @ the Lafayette, from the Statler to the Larkin at Exchange, the benefits of revival are impossible to ignore.
The good news from the neighboring city has apparently not reached the mayor's office. Szymanski is leading the charge to obliterate Lackawanna's 1901 Bethlehem Steel Administration building. The striking three-story structure off Route 5 is the best remnant of the steel giant's once-massive footprint. Abandoned for decades, it will – barring intervention – come down by week's end.
Given what preservation has done for Buffalo, you would expect Szymanski to call a halt; to insist on a reuse study before a brick is touched. Instead, the mayor sounds like he's ready to drive the bulldozer.
“It's time we got more progressive,” Szymanski told The News. “Bring down that building, bring down ... the grain elevators, and let's get this city moving.”
Moving to where – Blandville?
Why stop with the Bethlehem building and the grain elevators? Why not just demolish any evidence of the city's character, history and sense of place? Hey, there's nothing wrong with that old Basilica that a few whacks from a wrecking ball wouldn't cure.
But seriously: Demolishing an iconic building without so much as a reuse study is like a conviction without a trial. Buffalo's historic Trico complex will likely be partly saved because of a redevelopment report.
Szymanski does not need a passport or a plane ticket to see how restoration revitalized Buffalo's downtown. Yet still he confuses demolition with “progress.” Meanwhile, Buffalo's past is paving the way for its future.
I know that it usually is easier to knock down a grand old building than to save it. But at what cost?
The first step in any place's recovery is embracing and preserving its identity. The empty Bethlehem building is not an embarrassing symbol of decline. It is emblematic of the place which produced the steel for everything from the WWII battleships that obliterated tyranny to the vehicles that powered America's auto industry. What's not to be proud of?
Buffalo discovered that its stock of great old buildings – converted to everything from hotel rooms to apartments to offices – are assets, not eyesores. It is the edge we have over faceless Sun Belt burgs, with their endless strip malls, cookie-cutter suburban tracts and Lego-like downtowns. Our convention bureau built its marketing pitch around it.
“We present Buffalo and create a 'brand' based on its authentic American assets,” said Ed Healy of Visit Buffalo Niagara. “A big part of that is our architecture and culture.”
The same historic tax credits that revived Buffalo's Lafayette Hotel could help to salvage the Bethlehem building. Why the rush to the wrecking ball?
Lose an iconic building, gain a vacant lot. In Lackawanna, it passes for progress.