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Steel Standing

Last Thursday, workers were set to begin demolishing the historic administrative headquarters of Lackawanna’s Bethlehem Steel Corporation, despite local preservationists’ outrage. Empire Dismantlement has had its wreckers on the site of the 111-year-old Beaux Arts-style building for a week now, yet haven’t moved farther than putting up red caution tape around the area, warning of asbestos contamination.

The City of Lackawanna obtained a court order—confirmed on Monday, May 21—that forces the building’s owner to tear it down as part of an emergency demolition. On Tuesday, May 22, demolition was delayed because the $500,000 in Restore NY funds the city and the building’s owner planned to use is not available unless they first conduct a building reuse study. Restore NY is a state government initiative that provides municipalities with financial assistance for revitalization of commercial and residential properties. Restore NY funds are not meant to pay for demolition alone, but to help rehabilitate properties, if possible. The city has not rescinded the emergency demolition order at this time, but demolition efforts have been postponed until further notice.

“It would cost more to remediate the asbestos and then demolish the building piece by piece, rather than the controlled demolition they plan to do,” said Dana Saylor-Furman, a local genealogist and preservationist fighting to save the landmark. “Controlled [demolition] is when they wet down everything, demolish it all without saving or separating any pieces of the building, and take it all to a hazardous waste dump—meaning nothing can be reused. Makes you wonder what will be done with all that gorgeous and expensive copper and steel, you know?”

City officials have stated that the building is in “deplorable shape”—that missing windows, a partly collapsed roof, dilapidated stairwells, rotted floors, and asbestos within its walls make the building unsafe and makes rehabilitation too expensive.

“We have to wonder where code enforcement was with a building that prominent,” said Tom Yots, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara. “I mean it’s not a building hidden away somewhere. How can that building get into that present state? If it is indeed no salvageable, according to what we’re being led to believe, there had to be some code violations along the way that led it to that. I don’t see what is different today with that building than it was a year ago, so why are we having this emergency court order to demolish it? ”

Gateway Trade Center has held itle to the building since 1983, though the building has been vacant for over 30 years. In 2009, Gateway wanted to tear down the building in order to construct a manufacturing site or warehouse in its place, according to an April 21, 2009 letter from Gateway’s property manager, Patricia Schreiber, to then Lackawanna Mayor Norm Polanski. Back then, Gateway and the City of Lackawanna needed over $2 million to complete the demolition—the cost to safely remove the asbestos in order to salvage parts of the building. The site was eligible to be put on the National Register of Historic Places, according to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Preservation. If the building was put on the register, it would have been protected from demolition and eligible for various forms of financial help needed for preservation. But the application to have the building listed was never completed.

David Torke—a local preservationist, activist, and blogger who wants to stop the demolition of historic structures in the Buffalo area—helped bring this issue to light and has worked to organize community efforts to help save the office building. Community members have been camped outside the building, urging the City of Lackawanna not to follow through with demolition, and many attended Lackawanna a meeting in Lackawanna’s City Hall earlier this week to voice their concerns.

Torke takes issue with Lackawanna officials who say the building is in danger of falling down; he has posted photographs of the interior which contradict some of the claims city inspectors have made about its condition. Preservation Buffalo Niagara is working with New York State Assemblyman Sean Ryan to bring in a structural engineer to perform an informal evaluation of the building in order to determine if it is salvageable. They’ve also extended an invitation to the city to look into becoming a Certified Local Government. This would give the city access to support from the New York State Historic Preservation Office.

“Sometimes we need to have the local community speak up about what is really, really important to them,” Yots said. “Maybe something in our neighborhood is really important to you and it may not be on the radar of anyone else. And I think this building is the perfect example of that. I think it’s important for us to see that when it’s gone, it’s gone and there’s no bringing it back.”

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