Mychajliw vs. Shenk for Chief Budget Nerd

The race for Erie County Comptroller is something we all know about, but understand little. Including one of the candidates for the office.

The Comptroller is our chief budgetary nerd. He keeps an eye on where the money’s coming from, how much there is, and where it’s going. He makes sure that the money is being spent the way it’s supposed to be spent, and he conducts audits from time to time to examine just that. Because budgets are prospective, it’s important to know throughout the year how we’re doing with its predictions, and in the end, how we did – did we overspend? Is there a surplus? Did we hit it just right? So many variables can skew the numbers in a given year. 

It’s not an inherently political position, although it’s an elected one. The comptroller should be independent of the legislature and the County Executive. The comptroller should conduct monitoring, auditing, and borrowing without regard to the political expediency of any of it, and instead act in what he believes is the best fiscal interests of county taxpayers. He should be a watchdog, and not anyone’s lapdog. 

That’s why Mark Poloncarz and Chris Collins didn’t get along; Collins was not used to, and didn’t like, having his decisions subject to careful review and monitoring, so he clashed with the Comptroller’s office almost constantly. 

Now, we have David Shenk, the interim Comptroller appointed to complete Poloncarz’s second term running against former journalist and current public relations specialist Stefan Mychajliw. Mychajliw, you’ll recall, was Collins’ campaign spokesman in 2011. 

Mychajliw is running on his youthful vigor, his easy way of connecting with voters, his pledge to be independent, his immigrant bona fides, his personal thriftiness, and his experience as a Channel 2 “redcoat” TV journalist, who asks “tough questions” of politicians. Shenk is running on his record as Boston Town Clerk and having had his mettle tested in the military. It’s been a relatively quiet campaign until this week. 

First, Mychajliw ran an ad pledging that the first “audit” he would conduct would look into the “friends and family” hiring practices in county government. That’s fantastic, but completely outside of the job description of a Comptroller. Hiring “friends and family” through patronage or nepotism may be something we don’t like because it is, or seems, unfair, but it doesn’t affect county finances unless you’re creating a new job for the person. Presumably, the underlying position and its related costs would already be accounted-for in the budget, and the decision on hiring is not reviewable or subject somehow to audit. 

Auditing is about money – not politics. 

Pledging to audit hiring practices is silly, but how exactly will he have the power to “end it”? He doesn’t have legislative powers, or even executive power with respect to changing that. And if a “friend” or “family” is qualified for the job, what objective harm is being done to the county coffers? 

This is WBEN / Red Coat stuff. That’s why Shenk replies with this: 

But more importantly – what qualifications does Mychajliw have to be Comptroller? Remember how Poloncarz’s detractors said he was unqualified because he didn’t have a CPA? Well, he didn’t, but his staff did, and Poloncarz has a JD and had extensive experience in corporate finance law. Mychajliw, on the other hand, has no such experience, no such advanced degree, no qualifications whatsoever to be chief budget nerd of Erie County. His LinkedIn page reveals undergraduate degrees in political science and broadcast journalism. That’s it.  Shenk has an undergraduate degree in management, and has been Boston Town Clerk and tax collector for 20 years

But when you examine the two candidates, who has an understanding of what’s going on? Here’s a telling exchange from a recent debate between Mychajliw and Shenk:

Not an exciting race by any measure, but it seems as if one candidate – Shenk – has a better grasp of not only the facts, but the terminology. 

Donald Trump: How to Destroy a Brand

The Trump name used to stand for opulent, rococo luxury. For most people with some taste, it was always over the top; kitsch, but quality kitsch. He’s always been a colorful public figure, brash and opinionated. Unfortunately, this year, he has taken the Trump name and essentially thrown it in the toilet. 

He has now supplanted Orly Taitz as American birther-in-chief. His recent anti-Obama public political pronouncements have been offensive and loaded with thinly veiled racial animus – claiming that the President is foreign, socialist, evil, doesn’t have America’s best interests at heart. Even many Obama detractors who think his policies are wrong would concede that he hasn’t led the country over the last four years like the Bolshevik some make him out to be. 

It’s telling that Mitt Romney doesn’t rebuke or distance himself from Trump’s awfulness, but instead uses him as a surrogate. 

Not Trump though – he’s become Carl Paladino with more money, a bigger mouth, and more fascinating hair. His beclowning became final last week when he offered to pay a paltry-for-him $5 million if President Obama would disclose certain personal records to Trump’s “satisfaction”. As any normal person would do when confronted by a bully, Obama has pretended that Trump doesn’t exist, except while mocking him on the Late Show. 

Yesterday, Trump Tweeted something about how Obama was going to somehow force Chrsyler parent Fiat to send all Jeep production – even domestic production – to China. (Why would Obama do that? Because he’s as communist as the Red Chinese? Even though Red China has been only nominally communist for a generation?) Even though Romney has made a similar claim, it was handily debunked by Chrysler itself. It’s easier for Romney to lie about Obama – it’s much harder for him to lie about 3rd parties who have more flexibility publicly to debunk the lie. 

Chrysler’s VP of product design, Ralph Gilles, is also on Twitter. Here’s how he – appropriately – responded to Trump. 

 Take a look, by the way at how many people re-Tweeted and favorited Gilles’ Trump rebuke. Now compare to Trump’s original Tweet (as of 6:00 am Friday): 

That, folks, is how you ruin a brand – you take a crazy, fringe political viewpoint and broadcast it in a way that is equal parts arrogance and ignorance. As for economic stewardship, Trump companies have gone bankrupt four times, avoiding legally binding debts. So, he’s exponentially worse than Paladino, who at least has the good business sense to remain afloat.

The Curiousness of Selective Preservationist Outrage

Earlier this year, Donn Esmonde applauded the fact that Howard Zemsky and Larkin Development had retained the services of preservationist Tim Tielman, and that the whole project served as a model for how development could work hand-in-hand with preservation.  My takeaway, however, was that Tielman’s involvement in that project amounted to Zemsky and Larkin paying Tielman off; essentially, paying protection money. As with Canalside’s retention of Fred Kent’s “placemaking” sideshow in order to placate an irascibly relentless Mark Goldman, what better way to silence your litigious critics than to co-opt them? 

Andrew Kulyk in the comments section of my post essentially laid out the theory in so many words, even though I didn’t get many other takers.  And without a test, a theory is just a theory, right?  

My theory may be tested this week. As it happens, a subsidiary of Larkin Development is applying to Buffalo’s preservation board for permission to demolish an entire row of houses on Seneca Street in the Larkin District on what appear, on their face, to be flimsy grounds.  More details on that below.

Buffalo without its relentless preservation and planning conflicts would be a better Buffalo; however, some developers have figured out ways to ingratiate themselves or join with the preservationist near-west side elites, and from that derive a real benefit.  For example, Buffalo Rising writers and commenters are not shy about criticizing developers for poor design; e.g.,  inveighing against Dry-Vit (modern stucco) facades.  Yet Karl Frizlen puts bland, Dry-Vit-heavy buildings on Elmwood and there’s nary a peep. Is it a coincidence that Frizlen also happens to be a favorite with that audience, having founded the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers Market, and collaborating with Buffalo Rising founder Newell Nussbaumer?

And aren’t Buffalo’s preservationist/New-Millennium types supposed to like businesses on Elmwood to be 2 stories or more?  They do, except when the owner of the Acropolis personally offends them by not asking their permission first before trying to expand to a second floor, and even co-opts their favorite tactic of appealing to blogs and social media.  The preservationist/planning elites came down on Pauly and Acropolis with downright viciousness

Then there’s developer Sam Savarino, who somehow has managed to get even individuals and blogs that normally display their preservationist street cred like badges of honor on his side, even as he plans to knock down buildings, or takes on the Elmwood Village in a cat fight over a charter school.  Then again, Buffalo Rising and its leadership were charter tenants at his Cobblestone District development; could that be the reason?

It all suggests that perhaps BNMC might have actually had some success with its plan to begin demolishing the Trico building this year, if only their leadership had hired a preservationist as a “consultant”. Sort of like how Tony Soprano was a consultant to the waste management industry. 

But Howard Zemsky may be far and away the savviest of all in this regard.  No one could begrudge a businessman – especially a developer – seeking to learn everything about how business “really” gets done in his city. He goes with what works, and avoids what doesn’t.  With that said, look what Zemsky has managed to do: 

In the broadest terms, he’s used old buildings to, essence, create a suburban office park in the city, right off an expressway, set far apart from the downtown core, and surrounded it with a sea of free surface parking and some landscaping, and he’s given people there something to do other than work, making it superficially attractive and rendering trips downtown for lunch moot. His biggest cheerleaders are the very people who are the most rabid enemies of expressways, suburban office parks, surface parking, free parking, etc.  The one thing the Preservationist/Hipster/New Millennium Group axis especially hates about suburban office parks is that they drain tenants away from historic downtowns.  Although Larkin has drawn some tenants in from outside the city, some of the most prominent ones moved out there from downtown.  But no worries; if you read the recent Buffalo Building Reuse Plan, overseen by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership at Mayor Brown’s behest to look at strategies to combat an expected glut of vacant office space downtown, it simply redefines downtown to include the Larkin District, despite its separation from it by over a half mile of post-industrial wasteland. 

At least Larkin has a free London cab service for tenants to use. 

And what else?  To do historic research for him, Zemsky hired a prominent preservationist who also happens to be one of City Hall’s top green code planners.  To design Larkin Square – the centerpiece of the district – he turned to Tim Tielman, who, as far as I can determine, hasn’t actually planned or designed a single other thing, anywhere, ever.  Despite that the Larkin District is home to several firms that do a combination of planning, preservation, and architecture.

To create a plan for the overall district, Zemsky several years ago turned to UB’s Urban Design Project, headed by Robert Shibley, an insider central to many planning and development issues in the city.  It turned out to be a good bet: Shibley is now dean of UB’s architecture and planning school, and played a major role in the development of the regional economic development plan that so far seems to be working to our benefit with the Cuomo administration.  Hey, if Howard Zemsky’s savvy insider knowledge about how to get things done in Buffalo, and his strategic creation of networks of allies can create positive results for the community, it’s no problem if  they also create positive results for him at the same time.

The icing on the cake: Zemsky and Larkin Development hosted a bash for preservationists last year.  Held in a reused church (the Montante Cultural Center at Canisius College), and promoted by Buffalo Rising, several major figures in the preservation community were invited to speak, and Tim Tielman’s plan for Larkin Square was unveiled.

But back to Seneca Street, and that overall plan for the Larkin District, and the threatened row of houses.

Not surprisingly, the plan talks a great deal about historic preservation, and even shows improvements to enhance Seneca Street where the houses are located.  Even a quick peek at the Google maps satellite imagery shows that the row of houses along both sides of Seneca in the Larkin District just west of Smith Street are the only set even remotely still intact from downtown all the way to the Seneca/Babcock neighborhood.  Isn’t “intact streetscape” something the planning and preservation community is supposed to value?  And what about real economic value, considering that just two years ago Larkin Development and their new anchor tenant First Niagara Bank invested millions of their own funds creating the very enhancements along Seneca Street that their master plan called for?

Doesn’t this place matter? 

Why would Larkin Development be looking to “de-enhance” this part of Seneca Street, which they recently invested in enhancing based on their own master plan, by creating a largely vacant block?  Even more pertinent to this theory, why are they proposing these demolitions in what seems to be a ham-handed way such that it looks sketchy to even a non-preservationist?  Could that be because they are expecting essentially no opposition from a preservation board they see as “friendly”? It’s the Buffalo version of wink, a nod, and some thick manila envelopes. 

As you can see for yourself from the November 1st (today’s) preservation board agenda, the demolition justification for the row of houses is copy/paste identical: “The foundation has shifted, and after years of water infiltration the floor has heaved. It has now been deemed unsafe.”  What, every single one?  Was there a localized earthquake there, or a flood?  According to City of Buffalo property records, these buildings are all owned by Mill Race Commons, LLC, a subsidiary of Larkin Development.  (COBIS).  Dan Reilly is Project Manager with CityView Construction Management (the construction arm affiliated with Larkin Development Group).

23. 866 Seneca St. ____________

DEMOLITION: The foundation has shifted, and after years of water infiltration the floor has heaved. It has now been deemed unsafe. Application received 10/25/2012. (Dan Reilly to appear @ 11/1/2012 03:00 PM 901 City Hall)

24. 860 Seneca St. ____________

DEMOLITION: The foundation has shifted, and after years of water infiltration the floor has heaved. It has now been deemed unsafe. Application received 10/25/2012. (Dan Reilly to appear @ 11/1/2012 03:00 PM 901 City Hall)

25. 870 Seneca St. ____________

DEMOLITION: The foundation has shifted, and after years of water infiltration the floor has heaved. It has now been deemed unsafe. Application received 10/25/2012. (Dan Reilly to appear @ 11/1/2012 03:00 PM 901 City Hall)

26. 872 Seneca St. ____________ 

DEMOLITION: The foundation has shifted, and after years of water infiltration the floor has heaved. It has now been deemed unsafe. Application received 10/25/2012. (Dan Reilly to appear @ 11/1/2012 03:00 PM 901 City Hall)

Beyond these four houses, according to preservation board meeting minutes, the same entity also received permission to demolish a non-residential building adjacent to these properties last spring, without even coming before the preservation board.  Instead, according to the preservation board minutes, Dan Reilly, Project Manager with CityView Construction Management (construction arm affiliated with Larkin Development Group) visited their offices, and (either on the spot, or subsequently – the minutes aren’t clear) the chair of the preservation board cleared the demolition.  Note that the chair of preservation board is also the board president of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo, of which Tim Tielman is executive director (Tim is also a preservation board member).  If this had actually come before the preservation board for discussion and decision, it would have been interesting to see if Tielman had recused himself, due to his consulting work with Larkin Development and the blatant conflict of interest.  That’s not to be overly suspicious of Tielman; as the preservation board members are mostly professionals who serve voluntarily, and Buffalo is a small town, it’s not unusual for volunteer members of all kinds of boards to be alert for potential conflicts of interested related to the work they or their firms are doing.

23. 840 Seneca St.

Mr. Dan Reilly appeared in our office on 4/12/12. Mr. Paul McDonnell – after reviewing this application deemed this building is non significant therefore the demolition was APPROVED. (Not an Historic Site / NO BLUE) (Dan Reilly to appeared @ 4/12/2012 09:30 AM 901 City Hall)

At the end of last year, the same entity apparently got no opposition (just “received & filed”) from the preservation board for the demolition of another building that, according to Google, until recently housed a sub shop on its ground floor.  Wait, I thought we were supposed to like street-level retail?

15. 763 Seneca St. RECEIVED & FILED

Demolish 2 1/2 story frame structure. (Dan Reilly to appear @ 12/15/2011 901 City Hall)

According to City property tax records (see below), Mill Race Commons, LLC, the entity that owns most of these now-vacant properties and perhaps-soon-to-be-vacant properties actually owns about 20 properties in and around the Larkin District.  Yet Mill Race Commons was announced as one of those projects that the preservationist elites gushed over, from the time it was first announced 6 years ago.  It had everything they would want: it borrowed styles from the industrial district nearby, and most of all didn’t (at least as it appeared at the time) involve demolishing any existing buildings.  In fact, its development would eliminate a bete noir: a massive surface parking lot.

Although it was thought the project would involve no demolitions, around the same time – using the Mill Race Commons LLC – Larkin Development went on a property-buying spree in the neighborhood, apparently buying properties for future development sites. In fact, in the half-dozen years since Mill Race Commons was announced (with construction to start when the building was 25% pre-leased, according to Larkin’s web site), the only activity Mill Race Commons, LLC, has engaged in seems to be purchasing other sites in and around the Larkin District.  And demolishing buildings.

SBL                             House Number       Street          Primary Owner

1222600001003000 696 EXCHANGE MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005020000 840 EXCHANGE MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222600004008000 44 ROSEVILLE MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222600003006000 106 ROSEVILLE MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1118200008004000 696 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222600002005000 763 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005003000 837 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700002006100 856 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700002011000 866 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005011000 867 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700002010000 870 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005012000 871 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700002009000 872 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700002008000 874 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005014000 877 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005015000 889 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005016000 891 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005017000 893 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005018300 470 SMITH MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1118200006005000 716 SWAN MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222600003016100 159 VAN RENSSELAER MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222600003017000 161 VAN RENSSELAER MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

And all their subsequent interaction with the preservation board, none of it to discuss landmarking or reusing any of the buildings, suggests their intent to be demolishing all or most of them.  In fact, taken together with other activity on Seneca Street in the Larkin District, it appears there is something of a demolition spree underway there, going back at least a year and with little fanfare and no apparent outcry.

Last year, for example, Larkin Development demolished a connected set of old industrial buildings at 111 Hydraulic Street (at Seneca Street) on the grounds that they were too environmentally contaminated to reuse, to construct a new building custom-designed for a single tenant – a collections firm.  That may sound not unlike the situation with the Trico Building that has led to great outcry in the preservation community, yet engendered not a peep when carried out in the Larkin District.  That’s despite the fact that the replacement building includes a large amount of surface parking, and isn’t even built to the curb.  

This year, on a block across Seneca, a large former industrial plant that closed just last year, was demolished.  According to their Brownfield Cleanup Program application at page 24: 

At this time, future development plans have not been defined for the Site, and future land use cannot be determined. The site is currently zoned for light manufacturing.

In other words, a former industrial plant with some environmental contamination issues was razed (with State aid) to create a shovel-ready parcel for, essentially, real estate speculation in a suddenly hot location.  Yet did preservationists rush to its defense as they did the Trico building this spring?  Nary a peep, except for photos of the demolition and a historic photo in activist David Torke’s Flickr photostream.

This despite that the preservation board denied permission to demolish the building at the December 15, 2011 meeting.

So attempting to tie all this together: in the recent case of the Bernstone Cigar Store downtown, a relatively non-descript building drew a howl of outrage from the preservation community when it was demolished by its Canadian owner.  The outcry over the planned Savarino demolition of the decrepit and nondescript, unused Erie Freight House to build an apartment block has also been quite vocal. The cry to save the Trico Building has been deafening, and led to, as always, stasis. Not to mention, preservationists are forever birddogging their arch-nemesis, Carl Paladino. The three things the city desperately needs are uniformity, predictability, and smart parking. Not a soul is pushing for proactivity, relying instead on reaction and litigation.

Yet a recent demolition tear in the beloved Larkin District has drawn nary a peep from the preservationists.  Is that because of some perhaps inherent east-side/west-side bias in preservation?  Or are the preservationists just too cozy with the folks doing the demolitions there?  How the preservation board handles these requests on Thursday afternoon may shed some light on that question.

 
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