Reflections on the Demolition of 647 Lafayette

Demolition is destructive. I watched with awe as a relatively small machine so easily ripped through the large old growth timbers, hardwood flooring and red cedar siding. A building that took such tremendous care to build and represented impeccable craftmanship and the best of 20th century architectural design, so quickly was destroyed.

I’ve built a business on what our culture and community relegates as useless and unwanted. Truth be told, it’s not my passion to destroy buildings, to pry them apart, dismantle them into their elemental pieces, or even save their parts. But it does serve as a means to an end, which has been the centerpiece of my work here in Buffalo for nearly a decade and that is to provide a source of high quality, affordable materials to the Buffalo community and its residents, while creating economic opportunity for myself and my hard working staff.

For the record, my business strongly values preservation. When we first met with the Manleys, I provided my insights and professional opinion regarding the full demolition of the structure and a gut rehab that would have resulted in the rehabilitation of the structure. At the end of the day, the Manleys chose demolition. Though I did not agree with their decision, I did honor the fact that the Manleys would be spending their money, in accordance with existing laws, to create a space that they believed would be best for their family and the community in the future. It’s not my position to judge, I can only do my job, balance it with my experience, the current laws and requirements of the City, and my intention to create value as the project moves forward.

What was most disheartening to me about this project, was not the untimely destruction of a grand structure, but rather the conversation and exchange generated in the preceding weeks. I moved to Buffalo eleven years ago, because in a very short period of time I witnessed something special, something I’d never witnessed in over a dozen cities I’d lived in prior: acceptance and love.

On my first visit to Buffalo, a store owner on the corner of Allen and Elmwood went out of his way to welcome me as a new resident, even though I had just arrived. Another couple invited me to live in their home until I found a place to stay. In a few short hours, I felt from an entire city and its residents open arms, the support of community, and the comfort of home. I didn’t know it until I felt it, but this was where I needed to be.

It wasn’t just a fluke, in the years that followed, absolute strangers stepped up in big ways to create opportunity from what was at the time considered a liability. We created community, supported residents rehabbing and repairing their homes, and worked to create beauty in an East Side community that appeared to have been long forgotten. The founding of something new, something that didn’t exist before, was definitely the most inspiring, meaningful, and important work of my life. It gave me tremendous hope for the future of Buffalo, directed my own life, and reinforced my down deep belief that things could be different when we all work together, direct our energies, and model the world that we want in our own communities.

Since the height of our effort in 2009, things have felt different. Perhaps I’m tainted by my own perspective and experience, maybe I hear and see things now that I just shrugged off before, or perhaps there’s a more concerning shift in our consciousness that should give us all pause. From the chaos on the national level with the Clinton/Trump campaign to the vitriolic local exchange around the future of 647 Lafayette, the daily reminders and growing culture of division seems more powerful now than ever before.

It concerns me when we make assumptions about others, look past the humanness we all share, and attack a person because we don’t agree with their decisions. I saw this over and over in the conversation around 647 Lafayette. Instead of a discussion about how to improve a neighborhood, how to preserve buildings for the future, or how to work together to create change, there were persistent attacks. Are we going to attack folks that live across the street or across town, because of differences in opinion? Well damnit, we are human beings! We’re going to have differences of opinion . . . thankfully. But our differences strengthen the process, they create a richer debate, and they advise a process. If you’re attacking, name calling or pointing fingers, you’re not part of a process, you are a problem and will ultimately impede progress.

My daughter turns two in a few short weeks. She’s growing so quickly, she’s learning so much and I want to surround her with amazing opportunities, experiences, acceptance, and love. As she grows and experiences Buffalo, I want her to see and feel what I did when I first came here, a community that believes in itself, works like hell to make something out of nothing, and learns from our differences to create a community that is safe, supportive, and welcoming. This is my hope for her future and I’m all in to do my part to make it happen. I still believe we can create a unique city together.

Some points of clarification that should serve as our starting point as we discuss ways to move forward:

The demolition of 647 Lafayette was not enabled by corruption at the City or in government. The permit was issued in accordance with current laws, guidelines, and requirements. No laws were broken and there was no foul play. There are currently no laws that prohibit demolition in the City unless the building is located in a preservation district or historic district.

The demolition complied with all existing environmental protections and requirements. Asbestos was abated, as required prior to a permit being issued. The siding was not asbestos siding, but rather red cedar shingles. Asbestos siding was designed to mimic the appearance of red cedar siding, in the same way that vinyl mimics clapboard.

There are currently no requirements for lead remediation prior to demolition. Debris is largely contained within the foundation during the demolition, but most certainly given the age of the structure, there will be some lead contamination to the soils that surround the foundation. At this time there are no requirements for lead testing or remediation prior to demolishing or rebuilding a structure.

ReUse Action salvaged a large quantity of interior materials and architectural finishes. A partial list of materials salvaged for reuse: Mantles, interior and exterior doors, sinks, cabinetry, wood window sashes, leaded windows, radiators, heating systems, support columns, and a variety of tools and other contents. The Manleys retained numerous items to incorporate into their new build.

It should be noted that had the building been fully rehabbed, the majority of the materials we removed would have still been removed. It’s not uncommon that new owners change interior finishes, layouts, and designs according to their preferences and tastes. Even in a preservation district, original interior finishes, interior architectural elements, original woodwork, etc. can be removed by owners. Preservation and historic designations largely apply to the “street view” – exterior windows and doors, window and door openings, roofing materials, siding materials, etc.

If you’d like to discuss this further, please feel free to email me at michael {at} reuseaction(.)com or call our store at 716-894-3366.

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