North Park Baptist Church - History by James Napora

Press Release re: North Park Baptist Church Demolition
383 Colvin at Tacoma (SE), Buffalo, NY


Photo courtesy of Mark Paradowski

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: January 5, 2013
 
Press Release re: Former North Park Baptist Church
Contact: Tom Yots & Jason Wilson
Phone: (716) 852-3300
Email: Director@p-b-n.org
 
In April of 2012 the former North Park Baptist Church on Colvin Avenue was damaged by a three-alarm arson fire. No one was harmed during the incident thankfully since the North Buffalo church had been vacant for a number of years after the owner, the Korean United Methodist Church, vacated the property for unknown reasons. Late last November the owner applied for a demolition permit from the City of Buffalo citing in large part the damaged caused by that fire.
 
Earlier this week the City of Buffalo Preservation Board announced their intention to nominate the former church for local landmark designation given the property's high architecturally design, rich history and physical presents in the neighborhood. The demolition of the former North Park Baptist Church began yesterday (Friday) afternoon at 3pm. The now familiar manner in which we neglect and sequentially dispose of our city has unfortunately begun to define the City of Good Neighborhoods as much as our actual architecture does.


  Photo courtesy of Mark Paradowski
 
As we begin to debate the true culprit of yet another Friday afternoon demolition, whether it is an irresponsible property owner, an utter lack of vision from elected officials, or the general absence of appreciation for our unique architectural gems like this former Italian Renaissance Revival church, or a combination of all of the above, we can't help but share a critical piece of dialogue that is missing from this familiar conversation.

This piece is the incompatibility of the otherwise overwhelming successful Historic Tax Credit program and the economic and design realities related to rehabilitating and repurposing a vacant religious space.

 
Photo courtesy of The Frizlen Group from the Spring of 2010
 
The decline of the neighborhood church building type during the last 40 plus years is very similar to that of the decline of the industrial and commercial buildings in the downtown cores as well as our cities' neighborhoods themselves. This trend was caused in large part by the movement patterns of our country's population from established, urban neighborhoods to newly formed communities in the suburbs surrounding our cities. Unfortunately, the recent sequential story of our cities' gradual renaissance rarely includes the successful repurposing of neighborhood religious spaces.

With the aid of the Historic Tax Credit program, once idle manufacturing buildings are being converted into trendy downtown living lofts and homeowners in at-risk neighborhoods are provided incentives for renovation work on their historic homes. But almost all vacant churches and other religious spaces are left vacant, many neglected to the point of demolition.
 
The primary reason why more religious spaces aren't repurposed as part of the Historic Tax Credit program is that the majority of the prospective buyers' rehabilitation plans are currently incompatible with the design standards which govern the incentive program. These Standards (known as the Secretary of the Interior's Standards) mandate that the congregation space or sanctuary, typically a large rectangular basilica space which is often two-stories or more in height, can not be easily subdivided into smaller spaces. The Standards applied in these cases expect those congregation spaces to be reused in a way that respects and reflects the original historic use. This presents an obvious problem for potential developers and owners of these properties because every available square foot needs to be leveraged in order for the project to be financially feasible.

 Photo courtesy of Preservation Studios from the Spring of 2010,
Interior of the former North Park Baptist Church
 
The former North Park Baptist Church is actually an example of a failed attempt to use Historic Tax Credits in a proposed rehabilitation project. In 2010 while working at Preservation Studios (a local historic preservation consulting firm) we participated in a walkthrough of this property with local architect and developer Karl Frizlen of the Frizlen Group. We ultimately partnered with The Frizlen Group in proposing a design that would have placed residential units into the congregation space. The proposed design called for keeping the original interior wall surfaces and stained glass windows and inserted an independent structure within the open space of the sanctuary (see below renderings). The New York State Historic Preservation Offices was supportive and presented the project for informal review to the National Park Service who oversees the historic tax credit program. The National Park Service eventually rejected the design primarily because the openness of the congregation space was lost. With their proposed project being ruled ineligible for the Historic Preservation Tax Credit program the Frizlen Group decided to not move forward with purchasing and repurposing the church. It was determined that Historic Tax Credits were essential in making the proposed project financially feasible.  

  Renderings courtesy of The Frizlen Group


 
Local examples of once-vacant churches that were successful rehabilitated include the King Urban Life Center in the former St. Mary's of the Sorrows church and Babeville in the former Asbury Delaware Avenue Methodist Church, which was a Historic Tax Credit project. Both of these rehabilitation projects inserted new uses into the former sanctuary spaces that did not obscure the original historic open space. These layouts and designs are what the Standards are calling for in order for a church rehabilitation project to be eligible for tax credits. The obvious catch-22 is that the transparency in the King Urban Life Center and the openness in Babeville are not features that would be easily accommodated in an apartment design.
 
So what can be done? Do we to live with the "imperfections" of the nation's most successful and cost-effective community revitalization program even though it often doesn't allow for the reuse of vacant religious spaces? No, we don't live with it. We act to change it and to make it a better and more comprehensive tool in revitalizing our communities.
 
When word first surfaced of the possible demolition of this building Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBN) sent an alert across the state to various historic preservation advocacy groups and funders. As a result PBN has been invited to participate in an upcoming symposium in March at the Carey Center for Global Good in Rensselaerville, outside of Albany, New York.

The symposium, co-sponsored by the NY Landmark Conservancy, the Preservation League of New York State and the Partners for Sacred Places, will focus on the adaptive use of religious properties. Former State Parks Commissioner and land use advocate, Carol Ash, will also be partnering in the program.

PBN intends to bring to the symposium the serious problem faced in upstate New York cities, like Buffalo and Niagara Falls, where there are not easy commercial reuse solutions for vacant religious buildings. This problem is of course compounded by the fact that the economies in these communities do not support development projects without incentives like the Historic Preservation Tax Credit program. We are hoping that the collective knowledge and experience at this symposium along with the expertise of the New York State Historic Preservation Office and the National Park Service will allow for the development of viable solutions to this problem.
 
Like many religious buildings in our communities, the former North Park Baptist Church was located in a residential neighborhood and anchored the blocks that surrounded it. The character of a neighborhood is often highlighted by the religious buildings that serve as these anchors. The 'village' feel of the Elmwood Village comes not just from the small shops and supporting residential blocks but also from churches like Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian on Elmwood & Lafayette and the Unitarian Universalist Church on Elmwood & West Ferry. These beautiful and imposing buildings are integral to the neighborhood they serve and that integration goes well beyond their religious and social activities to include an important physical presence of architecture and landscape.
 
North Buffalo has lost an important neighborhood landmark today, and it is PBN's intent to pursue every available avenue in order to make the rehabilitation of our communities' vacant religious spaces more of a reality than it was today.
Preservation Buffalo Niagara's mission is to identify, preserve, protect, promote and revitalize historically and architecturally significant sites, structures, neighborhoods, commercial districts and landscapes in Erie and Niagara Counties.
 

Page by Chuck LaChiusa in Jan. 2013
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