The Ernest Franks House, a piece of Buffalo's cultural patrimony, was willfully destroyed on Thursday, February 27, 2020, less than 36 hours after the Buffalo Preservation Board voted unanimously to designate it as a local landmark—which would have made demolition much more difficult—and send it to the Buffalo Common Council for final approval. A full description of the house is available on a previous post, and a pdf version is also available.
The spectacle of Mayor Byron Brown and his executive branch submitting to the boorish dictates of developer Nick Sinatra to demolish the building was nakedly visible to anyone who did not shield their eyes. It is an image that will linger in the public memory, just as the similar destruction of the Harbor Inn by Carl Paladino in 2003 lives on to this day. The Department of Permit and Inspection Services issued Paladino a demolition permit on a Friday afternoon, enabling a Saturday morning demo of the beloved First Ward landmark.
Niagara District Councilmember David Rivera, whose district includes West Utica Street, had announced his support of landmarking the Franks House at a rally held by the Campaign for Greater Buffalo on February 22. By Tuesday, February 25, the day of the Preservation Board hearing, Rivera said he had sufficient support from Common Council colleagues to ensure designation and protection of the building. TheCouncil makes final determinations on landmark designations.
That was all apparently too much for Sinatra. He wanted the building down and marched to City Hall that day to announce that he fully expected to receive "his" demolition permit—as if by right. He ended up getting Brown and permits chief James Comerford leading an end run around the legislative branch.
Fear of legal exposure was the line parroted by the mayor and his Commissioner for Permit and Inspection Services James Comerford in issuing a demolition permit for the house. It was a fig leaf so transparent as to be pornographic. The city charter grants the Commissioner up to 60 days to act on a permit application, and that he can approve or reject it. End of case. And what about the lawsuit that the Corporation Council's office knew The Campaign for Greater Buffalo was preparing in case the demo permit would not be revoked?
No, the Administration was quaking before Nick Sinatra—and, by extension, Carl Paladino, whose Ellicott Development is partnering in the controversial townhouse project on West Utica that is the nominal reason for the demolition.
Endangered Buffalo Buildings Not Protected by Brown Administration
Yet, here was Sinatra throwing his girth around City Hall the day of the Preservation Board hearing a month after registering for a demo permit. Why that day, and not at the 60-day limit? Mr. Comerford or someone in his office must have told Sinatra that the permit was his for the asking after 30 days. The Administration insists, all evidence to the contrary, that it must—by right— issue a permit within 30 days.
Under that interpretation, there is no statutory way a building under threat of demolition can be protected. None. The Brown Administration policy is that review by the Preservation Board is futile. It had just advertised that to the world.
The Campaign and neighborhood activists alerted the media on Wednesday morning, when Comerford confirmed that he had issued the demo permit. Campaign executive director Tim Tielman expressed outrage on a live interview on WBEN just before 9:00AM, and also did an interview with WBFO. After many calls and emails from citizens and media to the Mayor, spokesman Mike DeGeorge messaged that the demo would be put on hold until the Council could act. Media, including the Buffalo News, quickly put that up on websites. That spin quickly collapsed.
Campaign for Greater Buffalo Attorney Richard Berger, speaking with an Administration attorney, confirmed before 2:00 in the afternoon that Comerford had not, in fact, withdrawn the permit, and that Brown now endorsed the decision. The Campaign relayed the information to its network, while continuing work on its attempt to get a Temporary Restraining Order.
The flip-flopping was so seat-of-the-pants that Councilmember Riviera says he left City Hall at 3:00pm believing that the demo had been held. He told a 6:00pm Fargo Estate block club meeting that, thanks to his efforts and those of the Campaign and the Atlantic-West Utica Block Club, the Franks House had been saved.
Mayor: "Is that house really that special?"
WKBW-TV caught the Mayor in City Hall and asked about the demo permit. The mayor reiterated that he was fearful of a potential lawsuit by Sinatra and Paladino, and sought to shift blame to citizens and preservationists, asking where they were "10 years ago," when the building was bought by Kaleida Health to expand a parking lot. The Preservation Board rejected the idea then.
Early that evening the mayor showed up at an urban planning event and was questioned by GreenCode Alliance member Linda Gellman about his support of demolition. According to Gellman, Brown responded, ”Is the house really that special?” Gellman enumerated some of the things that made the Franks House special and unique. Mayor Brown: “Well, we have many of those houses.”
Riviera would learn the only from social media that the demo was on. Neither the Mayor's office nor Permit and Inspections had bothered to notify him, causing him humiliation before constituents. He had to call the Fargo Estate Block Club and inform them was telling them what he thought was the truth.
The Department of Permit and Inspection Services went above and beyond to service developers.An employee of the Permits department certified that the site would be rodent free 4 days before the required 6-day waiting period after baiting because the rats and mice would scurry over to another vacated house owned by the developer, rather than the two occupied houses one property over. There is no evidence that the proper paperwork was even on file for the issuance of a demolition permit.
Planning Board Strips Protection from Franks House
Ignominy is reserved not only for Sinatra, the mayor, and his commissioner, but for the Buffalo Planning Board. Its brain lock or willful ignorance stripped the Franks House of its only protection against demolition. The charter prohibits demolition of any property that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, by itself or as a contributing element in a National Register Historic District. The Franks House is, or was, within the Elmwood East National Historic District.
The Planning Board met on February 10 and refused to consider the gusher of information that was being uncovered about the historic and architectural significance of the Franks House, and the pursuit of a landmark designation by the Preservation Board. It was encouraged not to pay attention to that by Planning Director Nadine Marrero, who was literally sitting at the right hand of the Planning Board chairman at the board meeting.
The motion to approve the Sinatra-Paladino site plan and thereby strip the Franks House of its only official protection, was made by longtime Planning Board member Martha Lamparelli, who was serving at that moment with friends Nick Sinatra and Ellicott Development CEO William Paladino, Carl's son, on the host committee for Chris Jacobs's congressional campaign kick-off party. The motion was seconded by Cynthia Schwartz. The vote was unanimous.
UP NEXT: How the Common Council can regain control over landmarking and demolitions.