Judge grapples over fate of Cobblestone buildings: ‘I’m begging for anybody to propose a solution’

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Housing Court Judge Patrick M. Carney inherited the vexing case of endangered, crumbling 19th-century Cobblestone District buildings in 2010, two years after city inspectors first cited them.

He does not want the case to outlast his tenure on the bench.

But Carney, who plans to retire in two years, is struggling over how to proceed.

110 and 118 South Park Avenue deteriorating buildings

Despite fines and court-ordered repairs, the buildings remain threatened by collapsed and water-seeped walls and damaged roofs. Majority owner Darryl Carr insists the buildings on South Park Avenue near the KeyBank Center are beyond repair, even as preservationists and city officials put them at the top of their lists to save.

“To this date, nobody has presented me with a palpable solution to 110-118 South Park,” Carney said. “The city doesn’t have one, preservation doesn’t have one, and Mr. Carr doesn’t have one, other than to tear it down. I’m begging for anybody to propose a solution.

“I have gavels,” the judge said as he gripped a gavel on his desk and lifted it in the air. “I don’t have magic wands.”

On Friday, Carney will consider pending motions to either stabilize the buildings or order an emergency demolition.

He indicated he’s running out of patience, and the buildings are running out of time.

“You either have to rebuild them or tear them down,” Carney said. “One of those two things has to happen.”

110 and 118 South Park Avenue caved in roof area

Local landmarks

The buildings are the most historic of the 11 that remain in the Cobblestone District, bordered by South Park Avenue and Perry, Mississippi and Illinois streets.

The district, designated a local landmark in 1994 by the Common Council, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.

Metalworking shops, product manufacturers and maritime suppliers once occupied the buildings along the cobblestone streets. They were there as Buffalo emerged as an industrial powerhouse and hub for grain storage in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Several buildings redeveloped after the district’s historic designation brought state agencies and several businesses, including a music club, comedy club, brewery, bakery and distillery.

As Carr’s buildings languished, millions poured into nearby Canalside. And millions more are about to be spent on rehabilitating the DL&W Terminal across the street.

The city has taken heat from preservationists for not doing more over the years to save his buildings and other historic buildings.

Mayor Byron Brown vowed to “crack down hard” on negligent owners in December 2020, following the partial collapse of a neglected Civil War-era building on Ellicott Street. At the time, James Comerford, then the city’s commissioner of permit and inspection services, identified Carr’s properties as crucial ones to protect.

“When we talked to the mayor about his get-tough policy, we gave him a list and said this is the one we want to go after first,” Comerford said in 2020.

If the city did not have a strategy for the Cobblestone buildings before, it’s working to come up with one now.

“The desire of the Brown administration is to preserve the buildings,” said Brendan Mehaffy, who heads the Office of Strategic Planning. “We are intentionally moving down a path with multiple strategies with the goal of finally resolving this issue.”

The city has brought in outside counsel to work with its law department, which in turn is working on a plan with the mayor’s office, permits and inspections and strategic planning.

“We have had the NCAA Tournament several times now, and every time they come back the buildings are the same or worse than they were before,” Mehaffy said. “I think our goal – certainly by the next time the NCAA comes through – is that they are fully revitalized and active buildings.”

Preservation Buffalo Niagara hopes Carney will put the troubled properties into receivership.

“This tiny block of the Cobblestone District represents, really, the last intact block of buildings related to the Erie Canal,” said Jessie Fisher, the organization’s executive director. “This is our last connection to that part of our heritage.”

Carney asked the preservation organization to develop a stabilization plan for the Cobblestone properties. A structural engineer and contractor allowed inside the properties concluded it would cost $200,000 to stabilize them.

Buying a block

In 2002, Carr bought the Cobblestone Bar & Grill, used nowadays for arena and private events.

He purchased the three-story 1869 building at 118-120 South Park the following year for $150,000, shortly after the death of Edmund Rudnicki, who operated the Buffalo Blacksmith Shop for nearly a half century until his death in 2001. A brass foundry was also in the building at one time.

Carr later received approval from the city to demolish the “smithy,” a corrugated metal addition to the blacksmith shop.

In 2008, Carr bought the four-story building at 110 South Park for $500,000. The property consists of buildings added on over the years that extend nearly halfway along Illinois Street.

The 1852 building was originally home to George Mugridge & Son Steam Bakery, makers of hardtack – a type of biscuit – for the Union Army during the Civil War. The building was also used by Phoenix Die Casting Co., which operated a machine shop in the front and a foundry in the back from 1950 to 1988.

The wrecking ball nearly came down on the properties in 2009, when then-Housing Court Judge Henry J. Nowak issued an emergency demolition. That order was later reversed on appeal.

“If Carr had had bulldozers ready to go after Judge Nowak’s decision, we wouldn’t be talking about it,” Carney said.

Instead, Carr and the city agreed to mothball the buildings, leaving them in limbo for several years. That changed after signs of deterioration for the patchwork fixes became evident by 2015.

Carr contends the buildings are not salvageable, and he has an engineer’s report that supports his position.

JEB Consultants in Grand Island, most recently in October 2021, found little if any of the lumber in the buildings salvageable. Most of the brick, the report found, is unusable or would need “cost-prohibitive treatment” if the property was rehabbed.

Concerns were raised about the contamination in the buildings from heavy metals used in kilns and furnaces. Doubts were cast on the foundation’s ability to support a new commercial building.

The report concluded “these buildings should be demolished.”

Instead of rebuilding them, Carr is pursuing a plan to erect a 55-story glass building on the site.

Unity Tower Street Level

Carr’s Unity Tower project, developed with architects and engineers in Toronto, calls for nearly 500 condominiums and work-live suites, with rooftop gardens, indoor parking and renewable energy technologies.

Renderings show the outer walls of the historic buildings incorporated into the design at the base of the towering building he wants to build.

Carr, an environmental scientist, said he will  submit his plan to city licensing authorities this year. He declined to say if he has investors for the project.

“Everything’s in place to do everything I want to do,” he said.

Architect Paul McDonnell, allowed by Carney inside the properties, scoffed at the idea of a skyscraper at that location.

Darryl Carr wants to build a 55-story skyscraper in the Cobblestone District that would contain 500 condominiums, indoor parking, renewable energy technologies and rooftop gardens. He would clear the 19th-century properties at 210 and 218 South Park Ave., and incorporate their reassembled outer brick walls into the design.

McDonnell, president of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture, didn’t see sagging walls and other tell-tale signs in buildings with bad foundations.

“I have confidence the foundation is fine,” said McDonnell.

McDonnell, also the incoming president of the American Institute of Architects, said the problems he saw were significant but repairable.

Carr knew the buildings were in a historic district when they were purchased, McDonnell said, and should be held responsible for not maintaining them.

Elusive solution 

Carr’s buildings were cited again by the city earlier this year, with 11 city and fire prevention code violations at 110 South Park and eight at 118 South Park. Scaffolding surrounds both buildings, which Carr put up last October at the city’s request to provide overhead protection.

Carney can impose a sentence of 15 days in jail or a $1,500 violation per count against Carr.

But if that happens, the case ends without a resolution of the buildings’ fate.

“The city has to rewrite it and start all over again,” said Carney, suggesting that may be why the city has never sought a trial date, which they could have asked for at any time.

Carney wonders how much Carr can be expected to spend on rehabbing the properties.

“Does the owner have an obligation to preserve? Yes,” Carney said. “But some preservation buildings are so deteriorated that they can’t be repurposed except by an exorbitant amount of money.

“I don’t think I can hold property owners to re-create a preservation property,” he said. “I can hold them to maintaining or caring for it.

“Up to today, Mr. Carr has not exhibited the financial ability to repair the buildings,” Carney said.

But Carney’s not sure receivership is a long-term answer, either.

“Let’s say I put it into a receivership for Preservation Buffalo Niagara,” he said. “Let’s suppose they stabilize it. Then what? We sit here for another 20 years?”

Published by The Buffalo News

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