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Our view: Auburn should address empty church buildings
OUR VIEW

Our view: Auburn should address empty church buildings

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It was a perfect storm of unfortunate events that resulted in the scene at the corner of Wall and Washington streets on Tuesday.

The Wall Street Methodist Episcopal Church building demolition began, about two decades after the structure was last used and more than 130 years after it was built. Long abandoned by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the building fell into such disrepair that it had become a public safety threat.

Auburn city officials made the right decision to shut off the block of Washington Street several weeks ago when a severe wind storm elevated the risk of a collapse. And given the limitations that the COVID-19 pandemic created in obtaining a more careful historical demolition order through the court system, the city also had no choice but to move forward with the much more expensive emergency demolition that unfolded Tuesday.

Having said all of that, the failure to save this structure is not something that should be taken lightly. That's especially true for Auburn, where the track record of repurposing empty church buildings is mixed.

There are some wonderful examples of church building re-use in Auburn, such as The Center on East Genesee Street and Euterpe Hall on North Division Street. But other structures, including some empty school buildings connected with church buildings, have crumbled, a casualty of decades of population loss and dwindling church attendance.

Unfortunately, more empty church buildings are in the city's future, as the Rochester Catholic Diocese plans to soon consolidate the remaining congregations in Auburn.

All of this points to a need to address the issue of vacant church buildings in Auburn. City government can't be the solution to this problem, but it can provide leadership in identifying challenges and engaging the community to come up with some pro-active solutions.

At a recent Auburn City Council meeting, Michael Deming, chair of the Auburn Historical Resources Review Board, suggested the city explore an apprenticeship program with Cornell University's historic preservation program that could bring an expert to research what can be done with empty church buildings.

"It's not going to be easy to find a solution," he said. "We have to be a little pro-active."

The suggestion is a good one, and we urge the Auburn City Council to give it some meaningful consideration.

The Citizen editorial board includes publisher Michelle Bowers, executive editor Jeremy Boyer and managing editor Mike Dowd.

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