Buffalove Development Co-Founder, Bernice Radle, speaks at TEDxBuffalo. Photo: TEDx Talks.
At the turn of the last century Buffalo boasted an envious concentration of masterful architecture. Quirky Art Deco stood next to stately Victorian buildings, and cozy cottages nestled alongside grand Italianate houses. Buffalo was even home to America’s first female architect, Louise Bethune. The city claims the largest percentage of historic structures of any town in the country: 62 percent of Buffalo’s buildings were constructed before 1940.
Though much is owed to its heritage, Buffalonians do not live only in the past. In the here and now, there are many amazing individuals and organizations that are working to catapult the strength of Buffalo’s past and present into the future.
Recently Buffalo has regained national recognition for micro-developers (press from The Atlantic Cities and Huffington Post are just two examples) who buy houses that are vacant and dilapidated in order to bring historic buildings — and the neighborhoods in which they stand — back to life. These efforts at urban revival have put Buffalo on the map as a city preserving its individuality, where people should invest their love.
Buffalove Development is one such organization, showing the City of Good Neighbors some love by rehabilitating historic houses and revitalizing neighborhoods. Jason Wilson and Bernice Radle began Buffalove Development in 2012, after Ms. Radle made an attempt to buy a home for $1 through a federal homestead program, which supports the buying of vacant city-owned houses and the fixing of code violations over an 18-month period. Owners then are required to reside in the houses for five years. (Even though this program looks great from the outside, we are told it is difficult to navigate the system, and financing is seldom available.)
Mr. Wilson works for Preservation Buffalo Niagara and Ms. Radle is a consultant in green building initiatives for Buffalo Energy. Both are founders and dedicated members of Buffalo’s Young Preservationists (to get involved in their frequent events, follow their Facebook page). Ms. Radle has dreams of one day running for Mayor. Scouring the city for neglected homes, this dynamic duo purchases structures from the city demolitions list as well as the annual auction of foreclosed properties. Over the past two years, they have helped with six rehabilitation projects funded in part by private investors. Another portion of Buffalove’s capital comes from the renting out of the restored properties.
This tale of urban renewal is a love story for both the city and for Buffalove’s founders. Mr. Wilson and Ms. Radle, both of whom earned degrees in urban planning (from University at Buffalo and Buffalo State College, respectively), met at the National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference held in town in autumn 2011. It was a match made in heaven, professionally and romantically.
The couple’s most recent renovation project is a cute little blue and white cottage on Buffalo’s upper west side that needed some attention. Sold by the owner at a bargain (demolition costs can stack up to $15,000), it’s going to be Mr. Wilson and Ms. Radle’s new home — they recently announced their engagement. They’re getting married in one of the historic grain elevators this summer. After the purchase of an adjacent lot to the back, the couple will even have a large backyard.
Buffalove is currently working to solve “The Vacancy Vortex,” a term coined by Ms. Radle. There are many reasons a house is left empty and unprotected, a recipe for it to fall into disrepair: back taxes, liens, owner death, housing violations, city-owned (often in foreclosure), abandonment by owner, no financing available, no housing insurance and so on. Just because a house is vacant doesn’t mean that it is not wanted.
One of the goals of Mr. Wilson and Ms. Radle, as well as the Buffalo Young Preservationists, is to board up vacant houses correctly to protect them from the elements, thus making it easier to sell when they do become available. They’ve worked with a number of other people and organizations all over the city, including: The Buffalo Central Terminal restoration, Painting for Preservation, Preservation-Ready Sites.
One of the residences Buffalove purchased from the demolition list in 2012 — 351 Massachusetts Avenue — is telling of what can happen to houses when people are negligent. Between Buffalove purchasing and acquiring the deeds to the property, the heat had been shut off but the water was left on. A burst pipe resulted in sheets of ice and frozen mushrooms of condensation. The damage was catastrophic, and Mr. Wilson and Ms. Radle weren’t sure if the structure could be salvaged. The approximately $85,000 renovation included rebuilding the foundation in three areas, adding a new roof and gutting the interior of the three-bedroom home. With help from the Buffalo Young Preservationists, 351 Massachusetts is finally coming together — and its newly-painted magenta facade is a beacon of personality in the neighborhood.
They try to reuse and reveal the original materials in each of the houses: exposing brick walls and polishing original pine floors. If that doesn’t work, they source materials from thrift shops or Craigslist. Above all, they aim for sustainability, trying to get as close to net zero consumption as possible. Mr. Wilson says, “It’s about having a quality building. We have a triple bottom line — people, planet, profit.”
It’s important to stress that these homes cater to the people of the respective neighborhoods — meaning there is no outrageous price gouging when the buildings are ready to be rented out. They are restored with great care, both in quality and loyalty to the historical structure. In one building Max Collins, a local muralist, painted a cityscape in the kitchen to add modern personality. “People start thinking gentrification,” Ms. Radle adds, “but we’re here for the neighborhood.” The historic houses are sold at market rate.
To battle this phenomenon of “Vacancy Vortex,” they’ve come up with “the heart bomb,” a twist on “street bombing.” Ms. Radle introduced the idea in her presentation at TEDxBuffalo in October 2013, by holding a cutout heart proclaiming, “Preservation is Sexy.” (See her talk here.) She proposed affixing these hearts to the exteriors of buildings that should be saved. They show personality, with sayings such as “Love me!”, “Don’t Leave Me!” and “Fix Me!”
The Buffalo Young Preservations convene and create the hearts. They democratically identify the houses they will work to save, and then post hearts on those buildings. “Heart bombing” has spread as a grassroots movement across the country. According to Design*Sponge, such events also have taken place in Ohio, Louisiana and Texas.
Buffalove Development’s work is being recognized nationally — most notably with a November 2013 feature in The New York Times — though much remains to be done. Their story shows that one or two strong people can truly make a difference. The strength of Buffalo’s past is evident, but the city is ready to show its colors. “We get this question all the time,” Mr. Wilson says, “People ask, ‘What if Buffalo isn’t coming back? What if you’re investing in the wrong neighborhoods?’ But Buffalo is coming back. This is where people are going to want to be — where people want to be now.”
It will take a great deal of investment and care, but individuals like Mr. Wilson and Ms. Radle and organizations like Buffalove Development show the possibilities — and that strength is pervading their hometown.