Editorial: Buffalo’s Tax Breaks

Frank Lloyd Wright's Martin House Complex is one of several Buffalo projects recently restored with the aid of tax incentives from multiple levels of government. Biff Henrich/IMG_INK
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House Complex is one of several Buffalo projects recently restored with the aid of tax incentives from multiple levels of government. Biff Henrich/IMG_INK

Buffalo, New York–often known for spicy chicken wings and raucous hockey games–is building a new reputation as an epicentre for historic renovation projects. Incentivized by tax breaks, foundations and developers are leaping in to restore the city’s 19th- and 20th-century architectural treasures.

The Martin House Complex, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed composition of residential buildings, shines among recent success stories. For decades following the death of its original owner, the property suffered from benign neglect. In 2002, a $50-million restoration project was initiated. Due for completion this year, the ambitious scope included demolishing three apartment buildings constructed on the estate in the 1960s, rebuilding a skylit greenhouse, creating a new visitors’ pavilion by Toshiko Mori, as well as extensive interior upgrades and restoration work on the main house.

“The funding is half public, half private,” explains Mary Roberts, executive director of the Martin House Restoration Corporation. On the public side, a key source is the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program, which since 1976 has offered a 20% tax credit for the rehabilitation of buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. A linked state tax credit program, established in 2006, kicks in an additional 20%. The Martin House also benefits from programs such as access to a state-run preservation facility, which is restoring the estate’s historic furniture.

These, along with other grants, are seen as investments in the regional economy: the restored property is expected to attract up to 84,000 visitors annually, generating $17.6 million in local tourism dollars each year.

Other cultural projects in the area have also benefited from federal and state incentive programs. Graycliff, a Wright-designed summer home for the Martins, is in the final stages of restoration. The Guaranty Building by Louis Sullivan was completely renovated, inside and out, following a fire. The sprawling Richardson-Olmsted Complex, a former asylum, is being adaptively reused as a hotel and conference centre, a $76-million undertaking. A grassroots group is exploring possibilities for revamping Grand Central Terminal, a 500,000-square-foot train station at the edge of downtown. A restoration of the complete building is expected to cost $100-$120 million, says executive director Marilyn Rodgers, who is already planning for the project to meet federal historic restoration guidelines in order to qualify for tax credits.

Developers have been in the game as well, converting older commercial buildings into apartments and office space. The historic Lafayette Hotel was put back into use with the help of $8 million in tax credits for the $42-million project. The former Alling & Cory warehouse was turned into student apartments, using $3.24 million in tax credits for the $15-million project. $4.7 million in credits helped in the $28.3-million restoration of the Buffalo General Electric Headquarters into Class A office space.

Last year, the state approved another 30 rehabilitation projects, and this spring, Buffalo’s mayor rolled out a survey of 571 aging properties that would be eligible for historic restoration tax credits. Once rehabilitated, these legacy buildings will add to the city’s vibrancy as well as its property tax coffers.

Canada would benefit from imitating the historic preservation incentives of our southern neighbours. A beginning was made in 2003, when Parks Canada established federal standards and guidelines for preservation. “That was really supposed to be the basis for starting up a tax policy structure,” says Michael McClelland of ERA Architects, a Toronto-based firm specializing in heritage buildings. But political will faltered, and federal incentives for restoration currently consist of less reliable grants.

Beyond making many projects feasible, the incentive programs in the United States raise the quality of work and support heritage preservation as a shared value. “People jockey like crazy in the States to be on the National Register–it’s very prestigious, and the potential that they may get a significant grant is a serious deal,” says McClelland. If tax breaks can yield such spectacular results in Buffalo, similar programs in Canada would change the face of heritage across the nation.

Elsa Lam elam@canadianarchitect.com