Picking One’s Battles: Part 2 – the Jacobs Plan

The following is a guest post from Stephanie Perry, a fellow BU alumna, a former writer for the Daily Free Press, seen on Twitter at @stephperry. Last week, She began Tweeting about this topic and I asked if she would write something up for Artvoice. 

Stormy over Buffalo Central Terminal

Stormy over Buffalo Central Terminal by Daniel Novak at Flickr

Six months ago, a curious manifesto appeared on Buffalo Rising. This “concept proposal” was sweeping and ambitious, but hardly in the right ways. The writer proposed the mass relocation of Buffalo’s police and fire departments’ headquarters and of the region’s blue chip nonprofit service organizations to the worn but charming public market in the East Side’s  Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood. Into the desirable mansions and buildings vacated by these public and charitable entities would go loft apartments and boutique hotels. Rich people would live in these nice properties while organizations that help disadvantaged people, many of whom are minorities, such as the International Institute, Child and Family Services and the United Way, would be sequestered in a distressed and racially segregated neighborhood that’s not easily accessible to the citywide population.

Private developers would make a killing on these new apartments and condos and return a bit under $800,000 annually to the city and county tax bases so that the city and county might provide services to the public, such as centrally located and publicly accessible police and fire departments, except not that anymore. Never mind that the city budget alone totals $1.4 billion. This is a plan to help the community help rich people help the community.

It would be nearly impossible to propose a more transparently self-serving plan to redistribute real property wealth to developers while simultaneously displacing organizations that have tirelessly served the community and maintained the architectural heritage of the Delaware District for decades. Plus, the short-sighted proposal is stock full of faulty assumptions about urban planning, crime and private property rights. Furthermore, the author’s inappropriate use of first-person perspective, sentence fragments and the conspicuous absence of facts together evoked the tone of a hastily composed high school civics project. I wondered who produced such an implausible, socially irresponsible and poorly written report. Was this the homework of some Rich Kid of Instagram?

The article’s byline was simply “Chris Jacobs,” the author bio at the bottom of the webpage blank. Chris Jacobs the county clerk? Chris Jacobs, whose erratic political resume suggests his most cherished platform is Keeping Chris Jacobs In Office? Chris Jacobs, nephew of the 185th richest person in America?  The odd placement of this brazen but amateur civic proposal on a website mostly dedicated to critiquing storefront aesthetics and hip restaurants suddenly made sense. A very wealthy man of great self-appointed importance had an idea, and this narrative was almost inevitable. It is an election year for the county clerk. The idea was out there and it was only a matter of time before everyone was forced to respond to it. I set a Google news alert for key terms from the proposal and went about my life for half a year.

Finally, last Friday, it happened. Chris Jacobs’s poorly considered vanity proposal complete with professionally commissioned architectural renderings, landed on Page One of The Buffalo News.  The only appropriate answer to the plan that imperils the stability of Delaware Avenue and downtown while disrespecting the work and property rights of nonprofit service organizations is “Thanks but no thanks,” and I find myself empathically supportive of the city’s reaction, as reported by the News, that “at this time the city has no plans” to act.

The article hints at the implausibility of the proposal —

Convince the city to move Police Headquarters to the East Side. Then do the same with the Fire Department.

Next, persuade the many nonprofits that occupy Buffalo’s grandest mansions along Delaware Avenue to pick up and move east, too.

Then sell the old headquarters and the mansions.

— but ultimately validates it more than any amount of billionaire blustering could. The article is predicated on the notion that the Jacobs proposal is worthy of consideration, which it is not, and that City Hall has an obligation to respond to and engage with him on the matter, which it also does not. As originally posted, the article lacked a link to the sloppy proposal Jacobs has been promoting and provided no assessment of its production quality. The News failed to ask Jacobs why he omitted from his list of nonprofit buildings best converted to private residences the UB Foundation-owned mansion that bears his family’s name.

The result is that Jacobs, who is peddling a steaming pile of bullshit, positions himself as a bipartisan populist concerned about the economic recovery of the East Side, while the mayor is an obstructionist, do-nothing fool. Few better narratives exist for campaign literature. (Imagine the flyer reading “Jacobs: Bold plan to boost East Side; City: ‘No plans to do that.’”) The Democratic challenger for county clerk has made an appropriate statement categorically rejecting Jacobs’s proposal. That anyone even needs to engage with this proposal is a travesty. 

What makes it difficult to refuse to engage with Jacobs’s plan is that it presents explicit goals that are worthwhile to pursue: Yes, revitalizing distressed neighborhoods should be a civic goal. Yes, the East Side’s many neighborhoods deserve more attention from the county and city. Yes, grappling with the fact that an enormous portion of the property in Buffalo — particularly hospitals, churches, colleges, museums, schools, nonprofit foundations, even Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency-owned First Niagara Arena — is not taxable is a worthwhile endeavor. However, Jacobs’s plan is a poor one to achieve these worthy goals.

First, Jacobs claims that the strength of the downtown, Elmwood Village and Medical Campus Corridor real estate markets requires mansions and prime-location properties to be put “back in private hands and back on the tax rolls.” Aside from the fact that the claim that valuable real estate must belong to private investors is patently false, (how would any public agency exist in Manhattan were this the case?) the stability of downtown is hardly a foregone conclusion. One Seneca Tower competes with ubiquitous downtown parking lots for the title of most conspicuous under-utilized space in Buffalo. As many people have pointed out, nothing currently prevents private developers from making offers to nonprofits owning buildings they desire. For the right price, a move might be negotiated.

Jacobs’s list of nonprofits ripe for relocation is glaringly classist in its aims. The Red Cross, United Way, International Institute, Child and Family Services, Salvation Army, EPIC and the Catholic Center have strong commitments to aiding poor people. The real estate assets of at least some of these groups bolster their outreach and fundraising capabilities. The strongest example of this may the Buffalo branch of the American Red Cross, an organization that received its mansion at Delaware Avenue and Summer Street specifically as a philanthropic bequest from Carolyn Tripp Clement. Tours of the home not only raise money for the Red Cross but also make the beautiful structure publicly accessible. The Red Cross’s most significant fundraiser, the Mash Bash, takes place on the grounds of the mansion, without which the Red Cross would be unable to raise more than $352,000 in a single night

The implicit goal of Jacobs’s proposal becomes clear when one considers what non-taxed entities with very fine real estate are omitted from his plan: Nardin Academy, Canisius High School, the Ronald McDonald House, the Jacobs Executive Development Center, Gilda’s Club, the County Clerk’s Office itself. Downtown, Elmwood and the Medical Corridor are too nice for poor people, according to Jacobs’s vision. Jacobs euphemistically says relocating service organizations to the Broadway Market would put those groups helping poor people “in closer proximity to those they serve.” In reality, the Broadway Market is less accessible than Delaware Avenue via public transportation for all but those in its immediate neighborhood.

Jacobs’s understanding of crime is fundamentally flawed but central to his proposal. While more densely populated urban neighborhoods generally are safer than those blighted with vacant properties and fewer residents, that busy areas guarantee public safety is oversimplified and confuses cause and effect. “More activity, more people, and more police would make this area begin to feel and to become safer. If people feel safe, many great things begin to happen, such as more people wanting to live in that community,” he claims. Public safety is a necessary condition for growth but no promise of it. And increased public safety itself is by no means a guaranteed outcome of having a police administration building in a neighborhood. Surveillance and safety are hardly synonymous despite the faulty claim that “not just the perception of more eyes on the neighborhood but the reality of more eyes on the neighborhood” will lead to increased safety. The origins of concentrated violence and crime in poor urban neighborhoods are far too complex to be solved by an eight-page development proposal.

The problems of Buffalo’s neighborhoods east of Main Street likewise are too complicated to be summed up by a poorly deployed Yogi Berra quote: “No one goes their anymore. It’s too crowded.” [There/their usage error from original document.] Jacobs refers to the East Side again and again as a monolith even though his proposal affects only one neighborhood, Broadway-Fillmore. His rhetorical questions, “How can we jump start a significant amount of activity? How can we infuse hundreds of people into the East Side in short order?” arrogantly imply hundreds of people do not already live on the East Side. In fact, tens of thousands do. 

Jacobs wraps up his barely coherent proposal by admitting that maybe it’s not very good and, well, do you have a better one, Mr. Mayor? 

After a more detailed analysis, some of these suggested moves may not be feasible, but then many other non-profit/governmental entities exist that were not mentioned here that likely could move. Additionally, locations other than the Broadway Market may be suggested and they absolutely should be considered. The public and non-profit sector should convene to discuss this proposal, perhaps convened by the Mayor of Buffalo.

If it seems like Jacobs does not care to express a coherent plan aware of the city’s long history of poverty and segregation and sensitive to the needs of organizations that benefit the community while simultaneously benefiting private investors, it’s because he really does not care. If Jacobs’s never-going-to-happen proposal has the effect of making Buffalo developers a little wealthier, that would be incidental to what may be the true aim of his plan. The plan’s main purpose is to give Chris Jacobs a talking point and to put the city, the county and his political opponents in the difficult position of saying they reject his plan that has such apparently worthy goals.

It is certainly newsworthy that the holder of a countywide elected office is talking up a ridiculous, low-quality, ill-considered plan to anyone who will listen. The newsworthiness is not in the ideas of the plan itself, burnished by the competent writing skills of a professional reporter. What should be news is the amateurism of plan, which is readily pointed out by the UB School of Architecture and Planning dean interviewed by the News. Unfortunately, too much of the News article is dedicated to drumming up support, creating an impression of false balance, where in fact there is a rather clear judgment to be made on the quality and thoughtfulness of the proposal.

We can and should stop the spread of Chris Jacobs’s terrible proposal for upending public and charitable organizations in the service of making developers wealthier right now. The plan is not worthy of critical analysis, serious consideration or any more printer’s ink. To not offer an immediate counterproposal with fancy renderings does not invalidate the rejection of the plan. I don’t want anymore Google news alerts about “Chris+Jacobs Broadway+Market,” and the people and organizations affected by that monstrosity of a plan deserve more than to be afterthoughts in a mad grab for land and political power by a very wealthy white man.

Picking One’s Battles: Part 1

Forget for a moment about the things that the media are telling you to be absolutely terrified about – ebola, ISIS, drought, global warming/climate change, Russia, Ukraine, flights from West Africa, genocide, etc. After all, while all of this stuff is going on, most Americans either think it’s an Obama-led plot, or are more concerned with who did what on Dancing With the “Stars”. 

Locally, our outrages are much more pedestrian in nature. 

We don’t get incensed, and we don’t do jack squat in response to a devastating report about poverty in Buffalo. Well, we do tend to moralize and lecture the victims of poverty, while others identify at least one of the root causes

But I can tell you two recent points of civic outrage that are not at all important, in the wider scheme of things. One is the Labatt ad affixed to a dilapidated grain elevator, replacing what appears to be peeling and chipping lead paint.  The other is the notion that anything that might be labeled “the indoors” be built anywhere on the Outer Harbor. 

A scan of preservationist message boards reveals that some people are simply outraged by the idea that a locally-headquartered national beer importer would so crassly deface our lovely blight. (Query: if it was PBR cans, would that be ok?) A Change.org petition has 132 signatures, is being promoted by a guy from Dutchess County, and calls this location “downtown”. The petition alleges that the Labatt cans violate up to three codes or regulations. 

The petitioners claim that Alcoholic Beverage Control Law 83.2 prohibits this display. Untrue. Any reasonable reading of that language reveals the prohibition to signs posted by a retailer on “retail licensed premises”. This location is not a retail licensed premises for on-site alcohol consumption.  A claimed second code violation alleges that the Labatt ad is illegal because it can be seen from a park with a playground in it.

The city code cited, 452-4, prohibits any alcohol advertising, “in any publicly visible location on or within 1,000 feet of the perimeter of any school premises, playground or playground area in a public park.” The 333 Ganson location is just about 1,000 feet from the boundary of Conway Park itself, which contains a playground. It is almost 1,500 feet from the “playground” or the “playground area in a public park”. 

Finally, the petitioner cites a city code having to do with “accessory signs”.  It doesn’t appear to me that the cited sign ordinance applies to a sign that is a part of the building itself, but instead deals with billboards and other types of signs that are separate and distinct from the adjoining structure.

But all of this boils down to personal taste – trying to shoehorn dubious statutory violations into the argument is a weak substitute for just saying you don’t like it; that we can do better. One person wrote that if we let this Labatt ad stay on the grain elevator, “we’re getting the city we deserve”. I honestly can’t fathom how putting a dilapidated commercial structure to commercial use poses an existential threat to Buffalo. 

You don’t have to like the ad, but unless you own the building, who cares what you or I like? 

Our second moral outrage has to do with the Outer Harbor. Every single plan for the Outer Harbor incorporates bucketloads of parkland. The problem is that in Buffalo, at that location, parkland is basically unusable much of the year, unless maybe you go fishing through holes in the ice or enjoy cross-country skiing with acute wind chills. The notion that there be something indoors on the Outer Harbor is, apparently, haram. 

The rhetoric against the ECHDC-promoted plan has been as bombastic as you’d expect it to be. The process was flawed!  Sure, there were three public hearings/meetings, and they were conducted like all of these types of meetings are – Green Code, Placemaking, One Region Forward – but this one was flawed! ECHDC’s plan will harm the ecosystem! The effort wouldn’t, of course, be complete without noted civic horror Donn Esmonde weighing in, complete with allusion to “lighter, faster, cheaper” from the Placemaking rip-off

So, what could they possibly be planning? Singapore-on-the-Lake? An endless sea of Waterfront Villages? A suburban office park surrounded by parking, like Larkinville? 

Nope, this. This is what they’re planning.  

I don’t know about you, but there’s a lot of green on that rendering. Looks like Times Beach’s ecosystem is preserved. Most of the construction would be in small clusters, away from the shore.  

There are plenty of things to be outraged about in Buffalo. These two don’t seem to be among them. 

SolarCity and its Impact

A lot has been written in the past week or so about the SolarCity project in South Buffalo. A lot of it has to do with OMG THAT’S LIKE $300k PER JOB. It’s being sold as an excessive investment for dubious return.

Here’s something to consider: the state of New York is not paying a subsidy to SolarCity. Under its contract, SolarCity will create approximately 3,600 brand-new high-paying jobs in Buffalo alone.  In order to do that, the state is buying the equipment that SolarCity will use to manufacture its products, and building the factory facility. The state will own it all.

While it’s well within the populist fashion of the times to decry public-private partnerships such as these – especially given examples where the private beneficiaries fail to uphold their end of the job-creation bargain with impunity – the simple fact is that municipalities compete with each other for this type of project, and Buffalo needs to be able to compete. 

It’s not just about 3,600 jobs. It’s about the economic activity that each one of those well-paying jobs generates

Let’s backtrack for a second and talk about supply-side/trickle-down theory versus demand-side/trickle-up; I believe in the latter and not the former. 30+ years ago the country started a grand experiment, simply put that lowering the tax burden on the very wealthy would result in them amassing more wealth, and that this would “trickle down” to the economy-at-large and create great wealth for everyone. It was what George H.W. Bush in 1980 called “Voodoo Economics”. Yet the country has stuck with this notion that easing the tax and regulatory burden on the rich would bring about great things for the middle and working classes. It simply didn’t happen. In fact, the working poor stayed that way, and the middle classes have borne the brunt of this experiment in terms of less pay for more work. 

Think of it this way – we heard a great deal in the last few Presidential elections about the vaunted “job creators” – these magical John Galts who have amassed great success and wealth and who demand less regulation and more tax relief (and none of this “Obamacare” nonsense) in order to … well, it gets a bit fuzzy at this point. 

It gets fuzzy because lax regulations have simply led to poor oversight and environmental catastrophes like the chemical spill in West Virginia last year. Arguably, the public cost in money and suffering that resulted from that disaster far exceeded the cost properly to inspect and enforce health and safety regulations in the first place. 

But with respect to the ultra-wealthy “job creators” in this country – let’s say I have a fortune of $150 million. With that sort of money, my opportunity to participate in the economy is limitless. Many of the people with this sort of money pay a fraction of a percent of their income to the authorities as compared to the nut you and I pay, because the tax code is designed by these people to help these people. Let’s say, instead, that I actually earn a paycheck rather than amass a fortune through inheritance or investment, and that I make $4 million per year. Technically, I’m supposed to pay 35% or so of that money to the IRS, but through creative accounting and other loopholes, we can whittle that down substantially. But even if, hypothetically, I paid the full 35% nut to the feds, I’m still bringing home $2.6 million. What does that mean, in terms of the trickle-down theory? That I won’t get a Maybach and instead opt for an S600? That I’ll have to cut back on my NetJets account? Seriously, what is it about $2.6 million versus, say $3.4 million that will adversely affect my ability to spend? Whether you earn $2.6 or $3.4 million, you’re making all the money in the world and you can buy anything you need, and everything you want. 

By contrast, if you put an extra few thousand dollars in the pocket of someone who’s working class or middle class, you just added a new appliance, or a better car, or a nicer vacation. By giving tax relief to the middle class, you can suddenly give average people more freedom to participate in the economy, and they’ll spend it – everyone benefits.  We could simplify the tax code tomorrow and the economy would skyrocket. OK, everyone earning over $500,000 pays 35% straight up, regardless of income source – paycheck or capital gains. Anyone making $200 – 500k pays 25% straight-up. Anyone making $100k – 200k pays 17%. 50k – 100k, you pay 10%, and if you earn less than 50k you pay zero.  Add a VAT and you’ve just funded universal health care. 

But I digress. 

The state’s investment of $350 million from the Buffalo Billion and $400 million in conditional loans (payable if SolarCity does not meet milestones and goals as set forth in the agreement), will result in a massive trickle-up boost to the local economy.  You will have 3,600 households suddenly better able to afford to participate in the local economy, buying goods and services throughout the region. And let’s not forget that SolarCity has contracted to invest $5 billion in this project over the first 10 years, we’re not looking at some sort of idiotic handout. 

Although 3,600 jobs will be here in WNY, there will be 5,000 SolarCity jobs created throughout upstate New York.

Now, witness what some are now trying to peddle. Namely, local embarrassment Carl Paladino. Here’s an excerpt from an anti-Cuomo, pro-Astorino email he sent Thursday: 

Aside from the misspellings and factual inaccuracies (read: lies), Paladino claims that Texas doesn’t subsidize or incentivize businesses moving to Texas. Well, not every business wants to locate in an overheated place that doesn’t spend money on infrastructure or education.  But the idea that Texas doesn’t do economic incentives is simply a lie.  It takes a few simple clicks of the Google machine to find the Texas website where its incentives and subsidies are set forth. Now, Paladino would have you think that Musk went to Texas simply because it’s an overheated, be-rednecked Galt’s Gulch, right? Wrong

In Texas, Musk said the outpouring of support from local residents and government officials — who are supporting the project with at least $15.3 million in state funding — was significant: “We want to be in a place where we’re truly wanted,” he said.

By the way, Elon Musk – the guy in charge of SolarCity – recently located his SpacePort in Texas, but located his Tesla battery plant in Nevada. Part of the reason? Nevada’s business climate is more liberal than Texas‘. Also, Nevada and Texas competed against each other to land the Gigafactory, and Nevada’s package of $1.25 billion in tax breaks and incentives beat whatever Texas’ proposal was

The deal with SolarCity is different. The state (via SUNY) will own the factory and equipment, and SolarCity will be allowed to use it – for free – for 10 years. This will create 3,500 local high-tech jobs; 21st century jobs. Again – SolarCity will be investing $5 billion of its own money. If they don’t live up to their promises, SolarCity will be up to $412 million in debt to the state.  SolarCity maintains a big chunk of the risk, and isn’t getting a direct cash subsidy. 

Over 3,500 new, high-paying local jobs and all the economic activity that each one of those jobs generates is huge for this region. This is a big risk and a big expense, but you don’t undo 50 years of decline through recklessness or fear. 

Cognitive Weppner Dissonance

The big news Tuesday afternoon was that the first case of Ebola was diagnosed Stateside, down in Texas. By the late afternoon, we knew that the afflicted man had flown from Liberia (a former American colony) to Texas to visit relatives. 

Around 4:45 pm, walking, talking insult to your intelligence Kathy Weppner tweeted and posted this to the Bookface

I enjoy the anti-vaxxer weighing in with his idiot opinion, but I actually can’t fault Weppner here. We should deal with it medically and not politicize a disease, and we should be ensuring that the disease is not spread. The CDC worked last night to remind people that you can only catch Ebola by coming into contact with the bodily fluids of someone who has the disease. 

Yet just 30 minutes later – at 5:16 pm – Weppner asked this question on social media: 

Wait a cotton-pickin’ minute. I thought we were supposed to deal with this medically, not politically! But here we are, worrying not about containing the spread of this virus, but how much it’s going to cost and whether the person is here “illegally”.  

I’m guessing the fact that the person had traveled to a place other than Ireland, they must be – according to Klownshoes Kathy – likely illegals. Of course, when someone flies to the United States from Liberia, they need to apply for a visa, their passport is checked prior to departure and their identity transmitted to the US authorities to ensure that they’re not on any list. Upon arrival, the traveler must go through passport control at the port of entry, as well as a customs check. Just like any of the other millions of travelers who come to the U.S. annually from non-visa-waiver countries. 

But, you know, all brown people are probably illegals.

Weppner also inadvertently makes the case for Obamacare or some other universal coverage construct – who’s going to pay?! Who knows? Who the hell cares? Who paid for the American volunteers in Africa who caught Ebola and were flown on private jets back to the States to get treatment? I don’t give a crap, and neither should you.  I’m just glad they’re ok. Likewise, I hope our Liberian visitor gets the medical care he needs so that he can enjoy his family and go home healthy and safe. One Ebola Liberian isn’t going to bankrupt the Republic. 

If the person was Texan and didn’t have insurance, that means they’re either in violation of the Affordable Care Act’s coverage mandate, and possibly that they fell into the gap left by indictee-cum-Texas Governor Rick Perry’s refusal to expand Medicaid in the U.S. State with the lowest rate of people with health insurance. Texas refused federal money to ensure that people who make too much for Medicaid, but too much for Obamacare subsidies to render private insurance affordable for their incomes. It was a deliberate, political choice to do harm to the most vulnerable people in Texas society. Perry is the person who was feted last night by local thug Carl Paladino and the tone-deaf Erie County Republicans and fusion Conservatives. 

So, yes, Kathy – we should treat the Ebola patient with medical care, and not politicize it at all. 

It’s high time you asked Thug Paladino and the local Republicans and fusion Conservatives why they’re backing this abhorrent, repulsive candidate. 

Spitzer Unloaded, No One Exploded

“Jail” FINAL :30 from Rob Astorino on Vimeo.

Right? Wow.

This is the perfect distillation of a desperate campaign looking to get some attention. Frankly, this reboot of the Daisy ad is perfect in its utter stupidity. Now, I know that Cuomo has been hitting Astorino hard on some nonsense lawsuit down in Westchester, but I thought that the “soup is nice” ad was pretty damn effective. (Dentures are an optional Medicaid coverage that New York State offers, and that Astorino wants to eliminate). The ad resonates because it reminds people that Republicans love to cut, cut, cut things that help actual New Yorkers. True, paying for seniors’ oral care won’t benefit the extremely wealthy, like Carl Paladino and indictee Rick Perry, both of whom can feasibly pay for their own dentures and dental work, but it will do much for seniors for whom budgets are often tighter. 

Astorino’s suggestion that Cuomo could go to jail is pure hyperbole – there’s absolutely zero chance of that happening. Secondly, by bringing that up, it reminds me – hey, isn’t Astorino up to some shady shenanigans, too? Thirdly, if Cuomo went to jail, there would not be a catastrophic nuclear holocaust; there would, instead, be an orderly substitution of Kathy Hochul. Remember Spitzer? Spitzer unloaded, but no one exploded.

 

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