hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires

 

Editorial September 2019

 

E D I T O R I A L

To save old buildings, don’t wait for a crisis

 

The situation is a familiar one: A great old building near a prominent intersection falls into disrepair, and a new owner decides it would be simpler to tear it down and put up something new. By the time the public finds out about the plan and starts asking why the old building couldn’t be saved, it’s too late to stop the demolition.


That’s roughly the scenario now playing out in Lenox, Mass., where local officials have approved demolition of a massive old house from the 1860s, just down the hill from the town’s main intersection, to make way for a new orthodox Jewish center being planned by the Chabad of the Berkshires.


Local preservationists are in shock. As a story in this issue details, the Lenox Historical Commission has responded by proposing a new local law that would give the town power to temporarily block the razing of historically significant buildings. Under the measure, the commission could give doomed buildings a reprieve for up to a year while it works to seek alternatives to demolition.


The demolition-delay law, if it’s supported by the Board of Selectmen and approved by town voters, would give Lenox a preservation tool that many other communities already have. About 140 towns and cities in Massachusetts – including Pittsfield, Stockbridge and Williamstown – already have demolition-delay laws on the books.


The proposed law would arrive too late to save the old house that sparked the controversy in Lenox, and the Chabad of the Berkshires, as a nonprofit religious organization, likely would be exempt from its provisions in any case. But supporters say the measure could be helpful in future cases and that, as one member of the Historical Commission put it, “doing something is better than nothing.”


That’s probably true. But in practice, the new law might not be very much better than nothing.
Consider the experience in Pittsfield, which adopted its own demolition-delay law in 2007. The law’s first test arrived five years later, when a company that operates area Dunkin’ Donuts franchises announced plans to buy and raze the former William Plunkett School, a 1909 brick-and-limestone structure that dominated the intersection of First and Fenn streets.


Although the old school had been vacant and for sale for many years, city officials deemed it historically significant, and the Pittsfield Community Development Board invoked its power to block the demolition for six months. This was supposed to give preservationists time to come up with an alternative proposal to save the old school.


No plan emerged before the moratorium expired, however, and the developer, Cafua Management LLC, demolished the school in 2013. Adding insult to injury, the company later opted not to build its new fast-food store at that site and instead has left a large empty lot at the edge of the city’s downtown core.


The proposed bylaw in Lenox would allow the demolition delays of up to a year, compared with Pittsfield’s maximum of six months, and the longer time might increase the likelihood of finding viable alternatives for threatened buildings.


But the kind of work that’s required to repurpose and save old buildings can’t be done very effectively in the midst of a public crisis. What’s needed in many area communities is a more pro-active approach, preferably handled by private nonprofit groups that could act as watchdogs and advocates while working cooperatively with the owners of landmark buildings -- long before they reach the demolition-permit stage.

 

 

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