Interview: Preservationist Tim Tielman

Few people in Buffalo elicit a stronger response than Tim Tielman.

To some, he is a champion of preserving the city’s urban fabric. Others consider him an obstructionist.

Tielman, 53, is executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture and principal of The Neighborhood Workshop, an urban design consulting firm best know for its design of Larkinville, aka Larkin Square. He is also a member of the Buffalo Preservation Board. 

Tielman has been involved in every preservation issue in the city for the past 25 years, usually as an advocate and sometimes as a plaintiff. His causes have included  the Richardson Complex, the Central Terminal, the Cobblestone District, Asbury Methodist Church and the Commercial Slip and Canal District. He also served as a member, then executive director, of the Preservation Coalition of Erie County.

Prior to preservation and design work, Tielman published Sharp Comix, a  twice-monthly featuring political cartoons, humor and opinion. He also managed a downtown bookstore and authored “Buffalo’s Waterfront,” a guide to the industrial heritage of the Buffalo River.

A Buffalo native who lived four years as a teenager in the Netherlands, Tielman earned dual majors from SUNY Binghamton in political science and geography. He is presently working on a master’s degree at Buffalo State College.

Investigative Post Editor Jim Heaney interviewed Tielman Jan. 14. A 4 minute video clip featuring interview highlights is posted above. The full 21 minute, 18 second interview is posted deeper in the transcript, which has been edited lightly for clarity.

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Heaney: Tim Tielman is known as one of the leading preservationists in the city. Some people love what he does and some people hate what he does, but he does what he does.

Tielman: You know what? It’s the right people that hate me, the right people that love me, and I’m happy with that.

Heaney: That’s good. Let’s talk first about Larkinville, the space right behind the Larkin at Exchange Building. It was relaunched as a really nifty urban space last summer by Howard Zemsky. And I’ve come to find out that you were actually the designer for that space, which I think would surprise a lot of people. Talk to me about that space – how it came to be and why it’s so successful.

Tielman: Well you know what’s interesting, Jim, people do know me as working in preservation. But I came to preservation actually through urban design and understanding human geography. That’s what I studied in school. It’s how far people are willing to go for a given item – what makes a successful city, a successful settlement. And in the case of Larkin Square, I was able to use the knowledge I had accumulated in 20 odd years of preservation work and observing how cities and markets and people behave. And I used that to transform really an industrial area.

Howard and his partners had redone a very large building that belonged to the Larkin Company. But they also owned essentially a lot of vacant land that was being used as ad hoc parking. And the issue there was to take blocks that really had had their peak use 70 – 80 years ago. And during the railroad era, when the blocks were 600 – 700 feet long like that Larkin Building, and break it up into smaller pieces so people would find an interesting thing to do every couple dozen feet, which is really important to get people to go through space.

We looked at things in the environment. Oh, there’s a church steeple, there’s an interesting street façade and here’s the main entrance to the building. Dog gone it! It’s in the middle of the building and the middle of the block and a parking ramp separates it from Seneca Street. It’s like, well what do you do? And so you look at things that work in other places with your understanding of this notion of this friction of space – how far of a distance people can overcome. And one of the great things unfortunately that was demolished in Western New York was the Art L at Artpark. And I thought, boy, if we had something like that, it would be really cool.

Heaney: Explain what that was.

Tielman: The Art L,  or the thing that was constructed at Larkin, was kind of an elevated boardwalk. It’s covered with translucent fiberglass. It’s kind of like half of a gothic barn laid on its edge, so it has this kind of rough hewn look to it. And it’s laid on a diagonal, oriented toward the entrance to the Larkin at Exchange Building, through this parking ramp and now we have a pathway laid through the parking ramp out into this former parking lot and to the corner of Emsley and Seneca Street. So that’s the new spine. It breaks up this very long block. It divides an all-weather shelter. We strewed it with various types of chairs that someone 80 years old can use, someone 5 years old, all different types of seating.

We’ve done a horrific job in unintentionally getting rid of that (urban) ecosystem.

Heaney: And then you reused a gas station. What strikes me, and I know nothing about any of this, but when you show up, you can’t go more than 20-30 steps without stumbling into something else that you want to explore. And I guess that’s probably what makes for a neat urban environment – you don’t have to go very far to come across something that you might find of interest.

Tielman: That’s exactly it. You know the challenge, Jim, was to No. 1 understand that the thing that really attracts people is not a gadget or a piece of sculpture; it’s other people. So if you can give people a pretext to be some place, to sit down. There’s free wifi of course in Larkinville. Or you can have a sandwich, an ice cream cone, a cup of coffee – these are all ways that people can stop. They can look at their environment. They can see other people.

And when you listen to people saying, “Oh, why did they go to the Allentown Art Festival? Or why were they at Chippewa? Why were they at the Canal District?” People watching.  Meet up with friends.

Heaney: So is that the reason why sidewalk cafes in Paris are so neat, just because it’s people and it’s close and all that?

Tielman: That is the absolute reason. It’s that lifestyle, kind of this café lifestyle, that really contributes to a wonderful sense of urbanity. But it’s not just “Oh wow, it’s something I can do in my free time.”

In cities, when you get people bumping into each other, talking to each other, particularly people who don’t work in the same industry, don’t live in the same neighborhood, you get serendipity happening. And serendipity is where people exchange ideas. There’s a different type of perspective, and it’s like, “Wow.” That leads to economic productivity, the development of new ideas and products, and that is why cities exist.

Heaney: And that’s why suburbs are not very cool places, I take it.

Tielman: Well, I’m glad you used that word “cool.” You know, the majority of Americans now live in suburbs. But suburbs for a long time had been places to sleep, to work in an office park, to shop in a strip of nationally-based stores. All those ideas have already happened. They’re bankable. Developers do them. And they’re stamped out across America in their hundreds and their thousands.

What you look for in a real free market urban environment, such as what we’re trying to do in Larkinville, in recreating or in fact creating for the first time there. But along Elmwood Avenue, Hertel Avenue, what you’re going to see is a predominance of actually mom and pop local businesses. And we look at the most successful neighborhoods in Western New York – Elmwood Avenue, Hertel Avenue. Why? People want to be there. They run into other interesting people. They have interesting conversations and from those conversations, ideas are born.

And, yes, they can happen in a suburban office park. They can happen in Friendly’s ice cream store, just not as often as they can in a dynamic urban environment.

The public is certainly much more informed about issues of historic preservation and environmentalism.

Heaney: Let’s step back and look at the history of Buffalo’s economic development and preservation for the last 20 to 30 years. When you look downtown, you see these big plazas in front of the now to be vacant HSBC Towers, in front of M&T Bank, Fountain Plaza, where you’ve got long expanses of plazas and water fountains, but not a lot of doors to get in and out of, not a lot of places to go in and out of. How good or bad of a job have we done as a city to take advantage of those things that you just talked about?

Tielman: Well to date, Jim, we’ve done a horrific job in unintentionally getting rid of that ecosystem that I was speaking about. The ecosystem of small stores, lots of people on the sidewalks, grab a sandwich here, buy a thumbtack there, whatever you can do in a rich urban environment. We got rid of that – for Fountain Plaza, for M&T Plaza, for HSBC Plaza, big single use zones. Big vertical boxes, big horizontal boxes. And you know these urban plazas, while they may have satisfied 30 years ago some architect’s vision of what was cool, they really weren’t good for the city. They were stillborn. They’re there – HSBC, M&T Plaza, Fountain Plaza, Gold Dome – they haven’t changed a lick since the day they opened.

Whereas you walk down Elmwood now, it’s a very nice and vibrant neighborhood. But the cast of characters has utterly changed over the past 25 years and that’s dynamism – people experimenting with ideas, producing products, and maybe they don’t work, or maybe they move on to something else. And that’s not the case in downtown Buffalo with these plazas.

So there’s a growing awareness by the general public that people will seek out quality of life where it is. That is why we are on weekends bumper to bumper going to Niagara on the Lake. It’s a relatively undisturbed historic village. We take a weekend flight to New York to shop in SoHo or Greenwich Village or Chinatown or Manhattan.

Heaney: Or go to Toronto and Bloor Street.

Tielman: Yeah. So there’s a thirst for that urbanism.

Conversely, if you’re from an outlying area of Buffalo, you will want to come to Buffalo. In our case, a great example of this as a regional draw is Chippewa Street as an entertainment district. If you’re a college student in let’s say Fredonia or Niagara Falls, where are you going to go for the weekend? Where are you going to bring your parents for the dinner? Maybe it’s to downtown Buffalo, to Chippewa Street. So that’s a beginning.

And you know Mark Goldman was very perceptive when he started the Calumet. He said, “Listen, I’ve got a historic building. It has a number of store fronts. I can do three little businesses here and let’s see what happens.” And he was the one who really turned Chippewa Street from a kind of tawdry bar strip into an entertainment destination.

There’s some of course tweaking that can always be done, and neighborhoods should continue to tweak themselves, and we can extend that to people living downtown and doing other things downtown. So we’re learning. We’re getting there.

You have blocks of the City of Buffalo that once had hundreds of residents, dozens of stores –  demolished, replaced with one single-story building in the Elm-Oak Corridor. That’s not the recipe for success.

Heaney: As a city, are we doing a better job in recent years with kind of getting with the plan, as you would recommend?

Tielman: I’d like to say yes. The public is certainly much more informed about issues of historic preservation and environmentalism. There’s kind of a link there.

Things are coming together because for example the greenest building is obviously a building you’re reusing rather than building new. And cities like New York, the greenest place you can live in the United States is on top of the Empire State Building. You’re using mass transit. You’re shopping locally. You’re entertaining yourself locally. The image is of natured subdued in Manhattan, but in fact the impact of someone in Manhattan on carbon emissions, water pollution, you name it, is very low relative to someone living in Buffalo or Amherst of Phoenix.

So I think you’re seeing that in Buffalo, but what we’re always having to overcome, and you’ll see it in the news occasionally, is bursts of activity. Oh jeez, a church is being demolished in North Buffalo, a small, nondescript building being demolished on Main Street – these are parts of the urban fabric that are being destroyed despite the public saying, “Hey, we want this stuff,” because there’s an underlying body of law which supports it. It’s kind of like the development industrial complex.

Heaney: Explain the government economic incentives that are at play.

Tielman: Beginning in the 1930s with the Depression, President Roosevelt was trying to think of all kinds of ways …“Jeez, can we get the housing industry started up again? The road building industry.” Of course, the people who helped write the laws were the people that built new houses and new roads. So a lot of the urban renewal legislation and the housing legislation which came out of the 1930s and 1940s, it’s embedded as this route to money for cities such as Buffalo.

You know what? We can get federal funding or we can get state funding if we declare this area of downtown Buffalo vacant and blighted. And who defines blighted? Is it some Washington bureaucrat? No. It’s whatever the local people say is blighted. So what you had, whether it’s Buffalo, New Haven, Baltimore, you had administers saying, “That’s blighted,” just as a mechanism to get the money.

Heaney: So we have been incentivized to knock down the old to build new.

Tielman: Yes. The image – and it’s just not a nostalgia thing, Jim – if you look at the images of old Buffalo you’re going to see block upon block of 3 – 4 – 5-story buildings marching 20 blocks down Main Street, 10 blocks up Genesee. And you’re going to see a luncheonette downstairs, a furrier upstairs, a dance studio, a hair salon. And the neighborhood – there’s laundry hanging outside. Someone’s living downtown.

The idea was that was a bit wild and wooly and unkempt. Let’s get rid of all that and what we have today for example is the Elm-Oak Corridor. Whoa. One-story high buildings along a highway arterial – no street life. Gone. Vanquished.

So where before literally, and actually, Jim, among the other things I’m doing is I’m doing a master’s thesis on urban renewal in Buffalo. You have blocks of the City of Buffalo that once had hundreds of residents, dozens of stores –  demolished, replaced with one single-story building in the Elm-Oak Corridor. That’s not the recipe for success.

The Preservation Board – it’s really strapped for cash. We can’t nominate or designate everything. So we do it – as so much happens in this city – on an as-needed basis.

Heaney: Alright. We’ve got five minutes to go here. I want to do some quick hits on historic preservation. I want to name some projects and in a minute just…

Tielman: Word association?

Heaney: Yeah, in a sense. First, the church on Colvin in North Buffalo that, as we speak, is in the final stages of being demolished. The Brown administration seemed very intent on allowing that to go forward without putting any speed bumps in the way. What does the Brown’s administration handling of that situation say in a larger sense about the city’s attitude toward historic preservation? Does it say something?

Tielman: Yeah. Boy, that’s interesting. And what we found is, again, citizens outraged at the demolition years ago of the Harbor Inn in the Old First Ward. A beautiful building. A lot of history wrapped up, but not officially designated as a landmark. Why?

There are 97,000 buildings in Buffalo. The Preservation Board – it’s really strapped for cash. We can’t nominate or designate everything. So we do it – as so much happens in this city – on an as-needed basis. That building (Harbor Inn) comes down, public outcry. Mayor Masiello says, “OK, here. Let’s draft this law requiring all demolitions to come before the preservation board.” Well why? So the preservation board – which is composed of architects, preservationists, historians, real estate experts – can look at a building and say, “Well wait a minute. Maybe people have a point here. We’ve got to hold a public hearing, see if it’s worth saving this building designating as a landmark.” It’s a cooling off period.

At the North Park Baptist Church, which later was Temple Emmanuel, at Colvin and Tacoma, the city goes in, we want to take the thing down. The Brown administration is saying, “Oh well we can’t reasonably deny a demolition permit.” We think that is a wrong interpretation of the law. We think reasonably the Preservation Board found five reasons why that should have been landmarked. The Brown administration could have said, “Hang on, wait, let’s let the public be heard. Let’s let the process take its course.” It didn’t happen. It was like…

Heaney: The train had left the station?

Tielman: Pedal to the metal with the bulldozer.

What the medical campus should do if they really cared about the City of Buffalo historic preservation is give up their preferred development status on that (Trico) building.

Heaney: Let’s talk about the Trico Building for a minute. There’s a back and forth between the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and some elements of the preservation community. Make the case for why the medical campus should be doing more than what they’re prepared to do, which is basically preserve about 40 percent of the old Trico structures and demolish the rest?

Tielman: Well I’m thinking what the medical campus should do if they really cared about the City of Buffalo historic preservation is give up their preferred development status on that building. Technically it’s owned by the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation. They have the development rights. And last year they wanted to demolish the whole thing. Now they come back, “Oh, we only want to demolish about half of it.” There are other people who have come forward and said, “Listen, we’re interested in rehabilitating this entire thing. We can get a pool of people together.”

I say, let those people who want to take on the whole thing take it on. They can explore it. Right now we have an unsympathetic developer, the medical campus. You know I’ve seen this before. They could demolish the whole thing. And the irony, Jim, there is that type of building, that reinforced concrete factory building, huge floor plates, that’s what Larkinville is. That’s what the M. Wile Building is across the street that’s being renovated, the Pierce-Arrow Plant. Those buildings are sturdy. They can last a long time with proper maintenance and a sympathetic developer. Piece of cake to save this thing.

Heaney: Piece of cake is going a bit far … 

Tielman: But in Buffalo, with the medical campus, it’s complicated. They have a vision of kind of your glitzy medical sculpture park. And maybe that’s not the thing for that very strategic corner between downtown, Allentown, Fruit Belt, and the medical campus.

Heaney: Since there’s a lot we didn’t cover I’ll have to have you back again another time. I want to thank Tim Tielman for being here. Thank you for Larkinville, too – you and Howard Zemsky. 

Our next interview will be with entrepreneur and venture capitalist Jordan Levy. For interview highlighters, watch “Daybreak” on WGRZ Saturday morning. The complete interview and a transcript will be posted on this website next weekend.