By Seth Wochensky
On June 22, residents gathered to watch the Springville Hotel be demolished. More than a century of stories and history was brought down in an afternoon after the situation reached a state of crisis. What too few realize is that the demolition began at least 15 years ago and started with policy failures with government and banks.
While many in government are rightly pursuing policies that promote historic preservation, pedestrian-friendly communities and redevelopment of downtown cores, older policies combined with the economic slowdown and horrific banking practices are leading to the destruction of these same downtowns.
Right now, within the Village of Springville and many other communities in Erie County, many buildings are on the same track as the hotel. These properties are lost in a sea of liens where the value of the property is far less than the money owed. Redevelopment is impossible because no one can buy the property, renovate it and hope to stay in the black with such crushing debt.
When school or village taxes go unpaid, the county reimburses those entities and collects the lien. During past county budget crises, all of the liens on properties were sold to an out-of-state corporation. This corporation foreclosed only on the most profitable properties, leaving distressed properties to languish for years. Then the county, seeing the problem, bought back the liens. The backlog for foreclosure is immense.
Banks are equally part of the problem and state government needs to take action to spur more timely foreclosure. It is very difficult for local code enforcement to force a bank to maintain a property or foreclose.
With the Springville Hotel, demolition doesn’t solve the problem – it adds to it. The high cost of demolition, estimated at more than $80,000, will be charged as a lien against the property, reimbursed by the county to the village and the lot will be more upside-down than before. The property is doomed indefinitely.
Proactive policies such as timely foreclosure, seizure of abandoned properties by eminent domain or emergency stabilization require proactivity not often seen in government. These strategies are more cost effective than demolition. Most of these properties are nothing more than paper assets and the absolution of back taxes would spur investment. The best thing we could do is return these properties to a new responsible owner, regardless of taxes owed.
County government needs to make timely foreclosures a priority or we will lose many more buildings, end up with many more vacant lots that are impossible to redevelop and the taxpayers will end up footing the bill for this systematic reduction of our main streets.
Seth Wochensky is a founder of Revitalize Springville and a former member of the Village of Springville Historic Preservation Commission.