on January 4, 2013 - 1:20 PM
Demolition of a church building that stood for nearly 100 years on busy Colvin Avenue in North Buffalo got under way Friday, after the city issued a permit for the work earlier in the day.
The city Preservation Board had tried to stop the permit from being issued, but administration officials said the property owner had met all of the requirements and there was no legal reason to withhold it.
Neighbors had mixed feelings about the demolition of the former North Park Baptist Church. The future isn’t clear for what will be a large vacant lot at Colvin and Tacoma avenues.
“They call this progress? I really don’t know,” said Karen Balzer, who lives on Saranac Avenue behind the building. The demolition work began at the rear of the structure.
The building has been vacant since 2006, when a Korean Methodist congregation left for a location in Amherst. An April fire that was ruled an arson caused $250,000 in damage, and the owner’s representatives said the fire and subsequent water damage made the building unsafe.
The building’s owner, the United Methodist Church Upper New York Annual Conference, sought a permit for demolition in the standard process. While the city notified the Preservation Board of the demolition application, board members said that even with a full 30-day notice, it is difficult to hold a public hearing and send the landmark application to the Common Council for its review and a vote during that period.
“This is really something that we really do think is worthy of being a landmark,” said board Chairman Paul McDonnell. “This totally usurps our ability to hold a public hearing for the landmarking.”
The Preservation Board received notice of the church’s application to tear down the building, at 375 Colvin Ave., on Nov. 26. But the board canceled its meeting that week.
“We didn’t realize the repercussions of canceling the meeting,” McDonnell said.
Subsequent attempts by board members to tour the building were either canceled by the owner or not attended by board members because of communication issues, he said.
The board voted on Dec. 27 to schedule a public hearing for a landmark designation on Jan. 10, and requested that Permits and Inspections Commissioner James Comerford Jr. hold off on issuing the permit until the designation could make its way to the Common Council.
The building, constructed in the early 1920s, meets five out of nine criteria listed in the city preservation code for landmark status, and only one of the criteria is necessary for a designation, McDonnell said.
In addition to Baptists and Methodists, the building also hosted Scottish Rite Masons and Jews.
Vince Gregory, president of the Saranac Central Block Association, said his neighbors generally wanted to save the building and see it turned into apartments or a community center, though some thought it should be torn down.
The neighborhood had some concern about the recent upkeep of the building, and about the activities there by people who broke into it to hang out, Gregory said.
“Our concern is, is it going to be leveled, is it going to be fenced off?” he said. “Who’s going to be maintaining it?”
A 17-year-old boy who was charged in connection with the arson claimed that he had a dispute with another person and did not mean to cause damage to the building.
Balzer, who lives behind the property, said the site would be good for a playground. She didn’t know if the demolition will be good for the neighborhood or not, and said everyone’s view is going to change.
The length of time the demolition will take is up to the contractor, said Maidstone Mulenga, director of communications for the building owner.
A future use for the land, or a decision to put it up for sale, will be made by the church’s board of trustees, Mulenga said.
Under Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, a change was made in city law to require that every demolition – not just city landmarks and those in historic preservation districts – be brought to the Preservation Board for a 30-day review before a permit is issued.
The board can recommend whether a permit should be issued for every demolition but has more authority to prevent demolitions in the case of landmarks or buildings in historic districts.
Comerford told the Preservation Board that, upon advice of the city’s lawyers, a demolition permit cannot be “unreasonably withheld.”
“You don’t want to rush into a demo,” said Preservation Board member Tim Tielman, adding that the board needs time to research the history of the building in order to make a proper case for the building to be preserved.
“What is it to the owner to wait 30 days?”
Mayor Byron W. Brown said earlier this week that while he wouldn’t like to see the building demolished, the city must honor the request of the owner if the owner met the requirements of obtaining a permit.
Guy Latona,a Colvin Avenue resident, said he and his neighbors had hoped the structure would remain standing.
“We don’t need another vacant lot,” Latona said.