Old North Still Standing
by Rebecca Bratek
Last Wednesday evening, local preservationists invited Lackawanna city leaders, citizens, and the owners of Gateway Trade Center to a public forum to discuss the future of the Bethlehem Steel North Office Building, which is owned by Gateway and threatened with demoltion by city officials.
But Lackawanna Mayor Geoff Syzmanski’s and Gateway branch manager Patricia Schreiber’s seats were empty on the mostly preservationist panel. Romaine Lillis, a Lackawanna resident and member of the Lackawanna Historical Society who sat on Wednesday’s panel, said that the vacant seats spoke louder than the lack of words from both parties.
Gateway received an emergency court order to demolish the 111-year-old Beaux Arts-style building on May 21. Demolition has not yet begun, as preservationists have been fighting to save the historic structure.
Lackawanna Common Council President Henry Pirowski did sit on the panel and provided the only city perspective of the situation. Pirowski tried to address Lackawanna citizens’ concerns and protests about the demolition order, but said he felt ill equipped to answer questions.
“When this came up, I didn’t know about it until Monday at the council meeting when I checked my messages,” he said. “I got 35 messages saying: ‘You can’t knock down the building,’ because I missed Friday’s paper. There was no discussion with the council. There was no telling us the reasons why this is being done. It was simply done by the mayor’s part.”
Szymanski has not responded to a request for comment.
Pirowski said that the decision to demolish the building was made without the council’s consent. The city’s charter severely limits legislative control over such a decision; the council can establish policy, it controls the finances of the city, and it can override mayoral vetoes with a super-majority vote.
In ordering the demolition, the City of Lackawanna described the building as being in “deplorable shape” and “unsalvageable.” Yet Pirowski said that he has not seen an official engineer’s report from the city or Gateway; he can only go by what he is told.
“The level of disrepair has obviously been disputed back and forth by the city and by Gateway and by preservation societies,” he said. “I have not personally seen the property. I have to go by what our director of development and our code enforcers say, and they tell me the building is not salvageable. Now I’m hearing otherwise. I want to get an answer. I want to see an engineering report done by someone not [affiliated with] Gateway.”
No Gateway representatives were present at Wednesday’s meeting, and executive vice president Joseph Laraiso declined comment on plans for the building in a phone call Thursday afternoon.
It would cost $2 million just to remove the asbestos from the building—a necessary step in the process whether the building is demolished or rehabilitated. Pirowski worried about the lack of funds for such a project, and he acknowledged that the fate of the office building isn’t high on his list of priorities.
“I have, right now, a city budget of $24 million that needs to get passed. I have a lot of issues on hand,” he said. “This isn’t the forefront of what’s important for this city—just a fact. It’s very important, I’m not saying it’s not, but there’s other issues that are demanding our attention right now.”
If preservation groups—like the Lackawanna Industrial Heritage Group, the Lackawanna Historical Society, and Preservation Buffalo Niagara—can come up with a concrete plan to save the building, complete with a budget, the council would offer support and present it to Szymanski, Pirowski said.
Options include listing the building on the National Register of Historic Places and tapping into the benefits of the Brownfield Opportunity Area program already in place in the city. Either course could help fund the rehabilitation, alleviating the financial burden on the city.
About 30 Buffalo and Lackawanna residents attended Wednesday’s meeting to get answers from city officials and support the rehabilitation of “Old North.” Many worked or had family members who worked for Bethlehem Steel, and all agreed that, though the building may stir bitter memories for some, it carries an important legacy.
“I believe there should at least be discussion before you knock down a building on such a historic site,” Pirowski said. “Lackawanna’s history is in the steel plant. Everyone who is in Lackawanna—guaranteed one of your grandparents worked at the steel plant. So to knock down this building without public discussion—I just think that’s wrong.”blog comments powered by Disqus
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