by Elizabeth Finkelstein
Not long ago, I received an email from Seth Piccirillo, the Community Development Director for the City of Niagara Falls, NY. Most of you probably know Niagara Falls for the falls themselves, and are less familiar with the historical city that lies beyond and is filled to the brim with late 19th and early 20th century vernacular architecture. Seth told me that his city was working “to do something new with old, vacant, city-owned but beautiful houses” — something to deter them from being “demolished, sold to a slum lord or left to rot.” (Seth, you’re a man of my own heart!) He went on to describe the city’s fantastic new home ownership auction, open to people willing to live in abandoned homes while renovating them. I’m sold!
As an old house lover with a serious soft spot for fixer-uppers, I was blown away by Niagara Falls’ approach to an issue that plagues so many American cities coast-to-coast. Seth agreed to answer some of my questions about the program (other cities facing similar issues: take good notes!) and to pass along some photos to illustrate what’s being done.
I hereby declare the entire City of Niagara Falls “Historic House Heroes!”
Like neighboring Buffalo, Niagara Falls contains a wealth of early 20th-century domestic architecture, such as this Craftsman home in the Park Place Historic District. Image courtesy of Preservation Studios.
More typical homes in the Park Place Historic District.
SETH, I AM SO IMPRESSED WITH WHAT NIAGARA FALLS IS DOING. CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT THE PROGRAM AND YOUR ROLE IN IT?
Thank you! Like many cities in northeastern New York, Niagara Falls experienced decades of population loss. Tax foreclosure left many homes, rich with character, vacant and city-owned. Neighborhoods became blighted, and beautiful historic homes were faced with the prospect of demolition. For years, this has been costing the city money and hurting the our residents’ quality of life. It’s unacceptable.
The Niagara Falls Community Development Department created the Home Ownership Auction as an alternative to vacancy and demolition. In September 2013, we auctioned three houses, starting at a minimum bid of $100, with specific strings attached. For instance, you must live in the home for at least five years. You must renovate the house to code compliance within a certain amount of time. You must create a home renovation plan and budget.
The community responded and three people successfully bid on the houses. The sale of the first house (452 Memorial Parkway, pictured below) was just finalized and we are moving forward. It is a beautiful process to be a part of!
452 Memorial Parkway was the first house sold (for $2,650) as part of Niagara Falls’ new Home Ownership Auction.
I LOVE IT! WHAT INSPIRED THIS PROGRAM? HAD YOU SEEN OTHER CITIES DO SIMILAR THINGS?
Several cities are using different methods to a similar end, whether it be dollar houses or urban homesteading. Niagara Falls is using a home ownership stipulation because we believe that ownership and renovation are the keys to stabilizing a neighborhood, street by street. We were also inspired by the community. The Memorial Parkway Block Club helped us research what other cities are doing, and even helped us select our first three houses. These residents deal with vacancy and blight in their backyard everyday, but still are actively committed to their neighborhood. That’s true citizenship.
452 Memorial Parkway was constructed c. 1900 and features amazing woodwork and windows.
WHAT ARE YOU PERSONALLY MOST EXCITED ABOUT IN REGARDS TO THE PROGRAM?
Seeing the new owners get excited about their new home is something special. They are urban pioneers and willing to invest their finances and hard work into a house that time has forgotten. They see the potential.
The fireplace, awaiting restoration from its loving new owners!
WHAT MAKES THE OLD HOUSES AROUND NIAGARA FALLS SO SPECIAL? CAN YOU TELL US A BIT ABOUT THEM?
There is an impressive range of architecture in our city, from the 1800s on. Each neighborhood has several styles of homes, sometimes side by side. We are the opposite of cookie cutter!
HOW DO YOU SELECT THE HOUSES TO BE A PART OF THIS?
We’ve selected city-owned homes that have been passed over in previous tax foreclosure auctions but that maintain structural integrity.
The program has gotten some much-deserved local press coverage.
CONGRATULATIONS ON THE AUCTION OF THE FIRST HOUSE! CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE HOUSE, THE HOMEOWNER AND THE PROSPECT FOR ITS FUTURE?
Andrea & Tina are a married couple that make artisan soap and are opening an art gallery/café, 24 Below, just steps from the Niagara Falls State Park. I asked Tina to give you some insight herself. Here is what she had to say:
The house is a beautiful early 20th century Arts and Crafts Double Bungalow (top and bottom). The house still retains much of the original woodwork, each apartment still has original craftsman style gas fireplaces, marble basketweave flooring in the bathrooms, and all the hardwood flooring is still intact. Amazing condition for a house slated for demolition. There is a lot of hard work still to be done with the plumbing, heating sytems, replacing fixtures, cosmetic painting and patching.
I grew up helping my father renovate older homes and building new homes. With the assistance of my wife Andrea we first renovated a mid 1800s carriage house in a small community in Ohio. That was almost 20 years ago and we have been doing renovation projects ever since. We love the character and craftmanship found in older homes, as well as the priceless historic value. I would say this is the largest, must challenging project we have attempted, but we have quite a bit of support from the Niagara Falls community. We have been quite surprised how many people have approached us wanting to help with the renovation of this house.
Niagara Falls has suffered in recent decades from the loss of the industrial base that defined this community. We feel a responsibility to do every thing we can to be a positive force for change and growth. Saving a unique historical home, helping to stabilize a neighborhood, and having faith in the future of Niagara Falls helps to achieve this. Personally we will have a home we only dreamed of owning, but could never afford in other parts of the country, the wonder of Niagara Falls practically on our doorstep, and access to a growing list of downtown amenities.
New owners Andrea & Tina are excited for the opportunity to beauty their new home. Lots of historic detail to work with!
WILL THERE BE OTHER HOUSES UP FOR AUCTION?
Yes, we are selecting our next five homes for auction, within the next few months.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE FOR OTHER CITIES FACING SIMILAR ISSUES OF BLIGHT AND HOME ABANDONMENT?
Keep at it! There will be people that will give dozens of reasons why something like this will not work. Without a creative solution houses like this, throughout the country, will hurt neighborhoods and then require expensive demolition. Those are the reasons that you have to make project like this work.
THANKS SETH! CIRCA LOVES NIAGARA FALLS!
View from the porch of 452 Memorial Parkway. Look at those neighboring houses!!!
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AUTHOR ELIZABETH FINKELSTEIN
Elizabeth is the founder of CIRCA and a practicing writer, architectural historian and preservation consultant living in Brooklyn, NY. Elizabeth has loved historic houses for as long as she can remember, having grown up in an 1850’s Greek Revival gem that was lovingly restored by her parents. Elizabeth, her husband Ethan and their beagle Banjo remain on a relentless hunt for their perfect “Thanksgiving house.”