Demolitions leave an urban prairie: Can any of Buffalo’s dilapidated houses be saved?


A house on Roetzer Street on Buffalo's East Side is surrounded by empty lots left after vacant houses on the block were demolished.<br>Photo by Derek Gee/ Buffalo News

Buffalo’s East Side is in demolition overdrive.

On Goodyear Avenue alone, 99 houses and other buildings have been demolished since 2000. On Fillmore, it’s 96 houses; on Sycamore, 81; and on Bailey, 79. And they’re hardly alone: On 27 other East Side streets, 40 or more demolitions occurred during the same period.

“I used to live here,” said Lena Merecki, visiting a friend on Goodyear, where she grew up. “It is much more beat-up than it was. It seems like emptiness now.”

Matt Cummings has a similar feeling when he returns to his old Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood: “It’s a ghost town. They just move the crane right down the street.”

Mayor Byron W. Brown’s administration has been on a demolition spree, with a goal of knocking down 5,000 buildings in five years, including those owned by private individuals and city redevelopment agencies. Coming on the heels of the Masiello administration, which demolished thousands more, a lot of buildings have come tumbling down.

“Other than Detroit, I don’t know any city that does the magnitude of demolitions that Buffalo does,” said David Mazur, president of Empire Dismantlement on Grand Island. He has worked in the demolition field for more than 20 years in 16 states.

Neighbors and even critics don’t doubt the need for many, if not most, of the houses to come down. But as the impact of the demolition program takes hold — with some blocks on the East Side virtually wiped out and others with lots left vacant for more than a decade — there doesn’t seem to be a plan for rebuilding the inner city, they say.

There are also concerns that run-down properties end up on the demolition list despite being structurally sound.

A trashed and boarded-up house on Michigan Avenue, in the Cold Spring neighborhood and within view of City Honors School and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, is one example.

There’s a hole in the ceiling where thieves ripped out pipes for scrap. Radiators and door plates are missing. A hole juts through one of the walls, debris is everywhere, and a bathroom sink sits on the kitchen floor.

But the floors are level, water damage is minimal, and the hardwood stairwell — part of a dual staircase common to some early 20th century homes — seems solid.

“The damage certainly adds a significant amount to the cost of renovation. But the house, besides the damage done by the scrappers, is in excellent condition,” said Daniel Ash, a community activist working to revitalize the Cold Spring neighborhood.

“It’s a crime demolition would even be possible here,” added David Torke, another neighborhood activist.

Torke says he occasionally gets copies of the city’s proposed demolition list and visits some of the houses. “At least 20” over the years were salvageable, he said.

Leonid Chatkhan, who has bought more than 100 houses as rental properties, agrees that the city is sometimes too quick to demolish.

Chatkhan in early April persuaded Housing Court Judge Patrick M. Carney to halt an emergency demolition on Butler Avenue over the city’s objections.

A back-porch addition to the vacant Hamlin Park house, located in a local preservation district, collapsed. Chatkhan, who bought the property at auction months earlier, had the rear of the house repaired in two days.

“The original foundation is solid like a rock,” Chatkhan said.

Tenants would be in the house this month, he predicted.

In City Hall, officials insist they’d rather see a vacant house fixed up than demolished.

When a request is made to hold off on a demolition, the city usually agrees, said James W. Comerford, the city’s commissioner of permits and inspections, who oversees the demolition process.

But all too often, he said, the story ends with nothing being done to the house. Thieves, vandals and drug dealers make it even more of a neighborhood hazard, he said.

Sometimes people pushing for the city to slow down demolition live far from the dangers the derelict houses pose, said Brendan Mehaffy, whose office helps decide which city buildings need to come down.

“Most people underestimate the public safety aspect of a vacant house. The people who live it on a daily basis and the people who drive through [blighted areas] have a very different reality. This is a physical threat they’re facing on a daily basis,” Mehaffy said.

“Demolition isn’t something the city wants to do. But there’s no question it has to be done.”

Still, a drive through parts of the East Side reveals a once-dense urban area with the look of rural poverty.

There’s just one house left on a block of Roetzer Street. It’s the same on a stretch of Koons. Many of these lots have been vacant for years.

The Buffalo News randomly selected 10 addresses where homes were torn down in 2006. All are still vacant lots.

“What you end up doing is removing a lot of the character of the neighborhoods. If [decision makers] are not seeing the people that live there, then one block looks the same as another block,” said Terry Robinson, a community activist and lifelong East Side resident. He called the demolitions scattershot and harmful in the long term.

The demolition protocol calls for first removing houses that pose an imminent health and safety hazard, such as from fire damage, said Mehaffy, executive director of the city’s Office of Strategic Planning.

After that, the priorities are vacant, dilapidated houses next to schools or community centers, followed by areas slated for future development.

12,000 vacant houses

The city is trying to stabilize some neighborhoods and save “keystone buildings that help to define a neighborhood,” Mehaffy said.

Near Cold Spring, the city is rehabbing nine homes, and in the Fruit Belt, it’s helping to finance new townhouses, he said. Other neighborhoods where demolitions have laid the groundwork for city investment, he said, include Masten Park, Hamlin Park, School Park, Leroy and Broadway-Fillmore.

Also, some streets that retain “a good urban fabric” have had sidewalk improvements and a visit from the city’s Clean Sweep crew following demolitions, he said. The blitzes have brought fire inspectors, animal control officers, social service workers and cleanup brigades to address issues such as blight, safety and crime.

Still, Eric Lander, vice chairman of the Buffalo Preservation Board, which has a chance to review proposed demolitions, said he doesn’t see much evidence of a revitalization plan to accompany all the demolition.

“The impression we get on the board are a lot of the demos are knee-jerk reactions, usually because of complaints from neighbors. I’m not saying all the buildings can and should be saved. I’m saying, let’s have a plan first.”

Lander said he visited houses in the Fruit Belt marked for demolition and didn’t think they all had to come down.

“A lot of smaller houses that would make good starter houses were on the demolition list. The two- or three-bedroom bungalows, to me, are the most ideal to save and rehab because they’re less expensive and ideal for a young family,” Landers said.

He suggested concentrating resources in neighborhoods that haven’t been decimated.

Sam Magavern, co-director of the Partnership for the Public Good and a law professor with the University at Buffalo’s Affordable Housing Clinic, agreed. “It makes sense to pick fairly small areas to focus investment on,” he said.

Recently passed land-banking legislation makes it easier for cities to purchase abandoned properties for development, and that could help improve matters, Mehaffy said. Also, he said, the city will have a better idea of where all the vacant properties are, and who owns them, as part of its ongoing zoning ordinance overhaul.

Mehaffy said the future of the large areas of green space created in distressed neighborhoods will be discussed at an upcoming public meeting.

But saving houses in areas where home values have dropped drastically, and when there is better housing stock at affordable prices in safer neighborhoods, makes the problem more daunting, Mehaffy said.

With as many as 12,000 vacant houses in Buffalo, following a population loss since 2000 that Mehaffy compared in size to the Town of Clarence, the problem is enormous, he said.

A house for a dollar

Some people are buying homes in struggling areas through the city’s Urban Homestead Program, a little-publicized partnership with the state and federal government. In the past five years, 275 people have bought houses for $1.

Darren Cotton, finishing a master’s program in urban planning at the University at Buffalo, has designs on a homesteading property in a “very walkable community” on Dodge Street. The house is on the demolition list.

He said he will go ahead with the acquisition and do a “full gut” of the house — from replacing the roof to ripping out the walls to putting up new drywall — unless significant foundation problems are uncovered.

“I think this program and a lot of the grassroots activities in the city speak to a [do-it-yourself] urbanism, in which people are not waiting for someone else to do something and are picking up a hammer, picking up a shovel,” Cotton said.

Creighton Randall and fiancee Chiara Moetzell are also rehabbing an East Side house they bought through the homestead program.

“It’s great to not pay rent and put my paycheck toward fixing the house. I love my neighbors, and my neighborhood, and the process turned out great,” Randall said.

Meanwhile, in Broadway-Fillmore — the part of the East Side hit hardest by demolitions — seven out of 10 houses on Ashley Street are boarded up, some with broken windows on the top floor, on a two-block stretch where young children live.

Sweet Street, near Broadway, has a string of five boarded-up houses, including one with a collapsed lower roof, interrupted only by a trash-strewn lot.

There are about 700 houses on the city’s demolition list, which Comerford said is updated constantly by a four-member Slum and Blight crew. All totaled, while it’s always preferable not to knock them down, Comerford said, about 5,000 vacant houses likely qualify for demolition.

“If I had $100 million more, I could take care of the vacant housing problem,” Comerford said.