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PBA seeks demolition bids for properties it was ordered to repair

Demolition Derby

The Buffalo and Fort Erie Public Bridge Authority has begun to solicit bids from contractors to demolish seven derelict buildings it owns on Busti Avenue—the same properties that City of Buffalo officials ordered the PBA to bring up to code just four months ago.

Last November, James Comerford, deputy inspections commissioner for the City of Buffalo, dispatched inspectors and engineers to examine a seven of the eight Busti Avenue properties owned by the PBA. The houses, including the historic S. H. Wilkeson mansion at 771 Busti, had fallen into disrepair in the 13 or so years since the PBA purchased them, and neighbors opposed to the PBA’s plaza expansion plan had complained that the authority was intentionally allowing the properties to deteriorate, posing a danger to the community and dragging down property values.

Comerford agreed that the PBA was being neglectful, and issued a letter on January 28 informing the PBA that its properties were in violation of housing codes. Comerford told the PBA it had until May 1 to effect repairs or face housing court subpoenas.

Comerford told neighbors in February that four of the properties were salvageable and so should be repaired; three houses had major roof issues, he said, and the city would consider demolition an option if they deteriorated further and became hazards.

In the months since Comerford ordered the PBA to fix the houses, the PBA’s Ron Rienas has made it clear that the authority had no intention of investing in repairs. The Busti properties were purchased in the mid 1990s, he said, with the intention of demolishing them to make room for the plaza expansion. He said that demolition remained the fate of those buildings, just as soon as the long-delayed plaza expansion project moved forward.

Members of the Niagara Gateway Columbus Park Association responded that the plaza expansion is neither a done nor an imminent deal: They intend to continue fighting the expansion that threatens the integrity of their historic neighborhood, and believe they will win that fight; shared border management might yet become a viable option, removing all customs operations to Fort Erie and obviating the need for expansion into their neighborhood; and in any case it had been 13 years since the PBA bought the properties, and who knows if another 13 years might pass before some sort of expansion materialized? In the meantime, the neighbors argued, the PBA ought to be held to the same standards as any other property owner in the City of Buffalo.

The May 1 deadline issued to the PBA by Comerford has come and gone, and, true to Rienas’s word, the PBA has done no repair work on the buildings.

But a week or so ago, Rienas met with Michael Gainer of Buffalo ReUse, the demolition and salvage outfit that specializes in stripping reusable architectural elements and construction materials from structures that have dates with the wrecking ball. Rienas asked Gainer for some ballpark figures on demolition of the structures. Gainer complied, and Rienas told him the RFP for the job would be mailed out sometime in this last week.

Rienas did not respond to numerous requests for comment, but Gainer was, as always, more than forthcoming. “If the [City of Buffalo’s] Preservation Board approves it and the houses are going to come down anyway, I’d rather we did it and salvage as much as we can, keep as much of that material out of the landfill as we can,” he said. As of Wednesday, Gainer had yet to receive the RFP for the job in the mail.

The question of city approval turns out to be an interesting one. On Tuesday, Peter Cutler, communications director for Mayor Byron Brown, told me that Comerford recently had received an opinion from the city’s law department indicating that the city could do nothing to prevent the PBA from demolishing the buildings, if that’s what it chose to do. Because the PBA is a state authority, Cutler explained (and, more than that, a “binational” authority created by the US and Canadian governments), it had no need of city permits. The PBA, the law department told Comerford, can do anything it wants.

“The law department opined that we don’t have jurisdiction to compel the PBA on the properties that they own,” Cutler said.

Cutler offered to send Artvoice the text of that opinion but had not done so at press time. We’ll post it on AV Daily at as soon as we receive it. Cutler said he was not sure who had solicited the law department’s opinion.

Richard Lippes, an attorney who has been advising the neighbors opposed to the PBA’s expansion plan, says the city’s law department is wrong.

“Their opinion does not sound right to me,” he said. “I believe that the city does have the right to require the PBA to get a demolition permit from them, and to deny a permit if they feel it should be denied. The PBA has sought the approval of the city in a number of other instances. I don’t know why all of a sudden they would take the position that the Peace Bridge Authority is immune. They are not acting as an authority; they are acting as a landowner like any other landowner.”

Tim Tielman, a member of the city’s Preservation Board and director of the Campaign for Buffalo History, Architecture and Culture said he’d been receiving calls about the proposed demolitions for the last week. “On something like this we go to the mat,” he said. “We would pull out all the stops. There’s no way they’re going to take those houses down.”

geoff kelly

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