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.

Lorigo Cracks Knuckles in Rodriguez’s Direction

Pity poor Republican candidate for Buffalo Mayor Sergio Rodriguez. The Erie County Republican Committee won’t back him, and the impotent city committee was slow to endorse. He’s even supposedly getting a challenge for the Republican nod from professional Grisanti hater and perennial candidate Matt Ricchiazzi

Because of electoral fusion, Rodriguez has the option to run on a minor party line. The established minor parties have, naturally, endorsed the incumbent. They scratch each other’s backs. So, Rodriguez has to mount a write-in campaign for the Conservative line, and may opt to pursue an independent nominating petition, which enables Rodriguez to create a one-off party line (think Jack Davis’ “Save Jobs Party” and Chris Collins’ “Taxpayers First Party”). 

The independent party line is to be called the “Progressive Party”, according to this blog post, and would enable Rodriguez to reach out to Democrats (who outnumber Republicans 7:1 in Buffalo) without requiring them to fill in a GOP box on their ballot. 

But notice this passage: 

None of this, however, is sitting well with Erie County Conservative Chairman Ralph C. Lorigo, a strong Brown backer. The chairman said he likes Rodriguez, but the effort will not help his relationship with the often influential minor party.

 “That could potentially destroy a relationship that can be built in the future,” he said. “It would be difficult to fight, but we would.”

Nothing like a minor party boss trying to intimidate and bully a hard-working, young Republican candidate for Mayor 0f Buffalo. That people like Ralph Lorigo have any political power whatsoever is the root of New York corruption and dysfunction. Ask yourself why the so-called “Conservative Party” might be backing the Democratic mayor instead of a Republican challenger. Ask yourself whether that’s based on principle or something completely not principle at all. 

Tuesday: Show Your Support for Buffalo's Food Trucks

Today at 2pm, Buffalo’s Food Trucks will be at the Common Council as the city’s legislature debates how the food truck law might be changed. The law sunsets in April and in the past 12 months, not a single complaint has been lodged from any source against any truck. 

The trucks, however, find themselves up against some intransigent lawmakers and some brick and mortar restaurants that believe they have the right to regulate and control what the trucks do and how they do it. Also on the agenda is expanding access to downtown Buffalo Place locations and freeing Canalside up to the trucks. 

If you enjoy buying food from Buffalo’s food trucks, please come and show your support. 

Because in the end, this isn’t about whether or not the law is fair for the trucks or fair for the restaurants – this is about you. This is about you telling the city, the trucks, and the brick & mortars – I like having a choice; I like the product that the trucks offer and I want more access to more trucks – not more restrictive access to fewer trucks. We’ve already lost the Cheesy Chick grilled cheese food truck due in part to the high cost of doing business across multiple municipalities in WNY. 

Buffalo charges trucks $1,000 per year, while it costs a restaurant between $175 – 325 per year to hold a take out license. The city claims that it needs to charge trucks $1,000 per year because of the administrative costs involved, yet refuses to release a breakdown of those costs. 

Ultimately, it might be time for a regionwide statute that is applicable to all municipalities in Erie County with a single fee paid. You want to encourage and help entrepreneurship in western New York? Then this should be the test case. 

But for the time being, please show your support for your favorite food trucks. They need it, and the city’s lawmakers need to understand that this isn’t only about the trucks and the restaurants – it’s about you. 

Not Just Parking Lots Anymore

Washington, DC is a thriving, bustling city filled with people and money. Even after business hours, the streets are filled with cars, the sidewalks are filled with people, and there are street-level businesses doing good business. 

One of the things to remember about historic preservation is that many of these older buildings don’t have underground parking garages, and to make them even remotely economically feasible, you need to provide parking for tenants, guests, and residents. New builds can hide the parking underground – old buildings can’t, and we have nothing in place to require it to happen. So, we maintain a sea of surface parking that we complain about endlessly, but we seldom come up with ideas to actually change that around. 

Our city municipal parking garages are inadequate, antiquated, and ugly. Forget smart parking – in most lots, you can’t even pay without cash. We don’t have a comprehensive civic, urban plan to turn the surface parking into shovel-ready lots while concentrating the daily influx of cars into designated, well-designed, modern parking garages. 

But here’s a homework assignment for Buffalo. DC’s Mount Vernon triangle was, until recently, a blighted shell of a neighborhood made up largely of cheap parking for commuters. Now? It’s re-making itself into a thriving community thanks to its proximity to downtown businesses and attractions. It’s “not just parking lots anymore“. 

So, that’s Buffalo’s homework assignment – to learn a lesson from places like Mt Vernon triangle; to take its blight and turn it into something attractive and exciting. It doesn’t matter if a building is new or old – what matters is what’s inside them. 

Brown Signs Food Truck Law

On Monday, Mayor Byron Brown signed Buffalo’s food truck rules into law. He waited until the last day to do so, and had he not signed it, it would have become law by default. 

The full text of the new ordinance is below. 

The law is imperfect from everyone’s point of view, but it has a built-in sunset provision, expiring in April 2013. At that time, the Common Council will review how the statute worked over the preceding 15 months and take suggestions from all sides regarding any proposed changes. 
 
The law mandates that trucks be 100′ from the exterior walls of any structure containing an open kitchen, 500′ from any special event requiring special permitting, and that the trucks pay a $1,000 annual license fee. 
 
What is different about this license from that in other cities is that there is no hidden charge – you don’t pay more for certain neighborhoods over any others (except for the CBD, which is governed by Buffalo Place). The only added charge is for parking. 
 
Furthermore, a proposal that brick & mortars were proposing would have required trucks to be limited to one truck per block face. This would have prevented events on city streets where trucks could line up in a row, due to supposed congestion issues. This was not included in the law. 
 
At some point in the near future, a Buffalo Cash Mob for the food trucks will be held at Canal Side, with ECHDC’s blessing. The date and time of that cash mob is TBD.
 
The truck owners with whom I’ve spoken are excited and relieved that this controversy is behind them, and already have potential spots scoped out. They have been waiting for this day since the middle of last year, and had been very patient. 
 
With this new statute and regulatory scheme, the food trucks are now legal, and food trucks are a fantastic way for talented people to show off the food they love – and love to make – with a much lower startup cost than a brick & mortar. Hopefully, the legalization of food trucks will lead to an even more vibrant mobile food scene in town, more innovation, and more experimentation. 
 
I’m pleased that we’ve joined the ranks of progressive, forward-looking cities that have carved out a way for food trucks to peacefully co-exist with existing restaurants, benefiting all involved. 

Buffalo Food Truck Ordinancehttp://www.scribd.com/embeds/79264224/content?start_page=1&view_mode=list&access_key=key-217roprivh7xnikj1nhh

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Photo courtesy Where’s Lloyd via Flickr.


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Buffalo's Food Trucks React

Interviews conducted Tuesday after the Common Council passed the new Buffalo food truck ordinance. It is expected to be on the Mayor’s desk on Monday, and will hopefully be signed shortly thereafter.

Buffalo’s Food Trucks React

Interviews conducted Tuesday after the Common Council passed the new Buffalo food truck ordinance. It is expected to be on the Mayor’s desk on Monday, and will hopefully be signed shortly thereafter.

Food Truck Legislation: Passed

Buffalo Common Council Jan. 24, 2012

As anticipated, the Buffalo Food Truck ordinance was passed by the Buffalo Common Councilon Tuesday by a vote of 8-1, with Councilmember Mickey Kearns voting in the negative.

I have embedded below the full text of the legislation as adopted, and later this week, I will post video interviews I conducted with the truck owners.

The measure was adopted after Councilmember Kearns took to the floor to ask for more “patience” from the food trucks, proposing that the annual fee be reduced to $395 per year, and that a regulation of one truck per block face be implemented. Councilmember Golombek remarked that the trucks had been patient enough. Councilmember Pridgen wanted to be sure that non-profit groups that feed the needy would not be covered under this statute, and the corporation counsel indicated it all depends how they serve food. There was also some discussion regarding the fact that the $1,000 to cover the trucks from now until the law’s sunset in April 2013.

Regulation in this case is a good thing, as it sets forth how the trucks must behave, and hopefully eliminates any risk of random or capricious complaints from brick & mortar restaurants. Buffalo is in the forefront of this new movement, and for that we should be proud.

Mayor Brown is expected to sign the bill into law within the next two weeks.

Buffalo Food Truck Ordinancehttp://www.scribd.com/embeds/79264224/content?start_page=1&view_mode=list&access_key=key-217roprivh7xnikj1nhh//

Food Truck Law: It's a Go on the 24th

On Wednesday, the Buffalo Common Council took up the issue of the proposed food truck legislation (after a lengthy and heated Acropolis expansion hearing). As I reported on Wednesday, the WNY Food Truck Association has reluctantly agreed to support the bill as written, and request no changes. Although they were displeased with the radius requirement, the hefty licensure fee, and some other issues, they were willing to give it a shot for a year as written, and come back when the law sunsets to discuss ways in which it might be improved going forward.

A source close to the food truck group was present at the hearing, and learned early on that both Golombek – the bill’s sponsor – and Council President Fontana would be moving it towards a vote next Tuesday the 24th. More importantly, Fontana indicated that he would not be requesting the “one truck per block face” rule.

When Mitch Stenger, the lawyer for the food truck association, addressed the council and repeated the group’s concerns with the legislation, but that they would rather see it passed than further delayed.  After the Acropolis debate ended, Councilmember Golombek made some perfunctory remarks, and then Councilmember Mickey Kearns rose to speak.  Kearns spoke out against the high license fee, and stated that the city should be helping – not punishing – these start-up entrepreneurs.  Kearns then proposed that the bill be amended to lower the license fee to $300 per year, and then surprisingly asked that the “one truck per block face” rule be added, as well as an expansion of the 100′ radius to 175′.

Any such amendment was unacceptable to the food trucks, most importantly because any such change would further delay passage of the law by a minimum of two weeks.

Then Councilmember Rivera rose to speak favorably on behalf of the food trucks, but then proposed that the license fee be lowered to $500, and seconded Kearns’ “one truck per block face” amendment. My sources indicate that neither Kearns nor Rivera had discussed any of these changes with anyone else on the council.

At this point, Stenger rejected both Kearns’ and Rivera’s amendments, demanding that the bill be submitted to the full council as currently written.  The session was quickly adjourned after that.

Afterwards, representatives for the food trucks were assured privately by numerous councilmembers that there were enough votes to pass the bill on the 24th. The vote will take place during the session that begins at 2pm. There will not be any public comment period, but food truck supporters are encouraged to attend in a show of support. 


Food Truck Law: It’s a Go on the 24th

On Wednesday, the Buffalo Common Council took up the issue of the proposed food truck legislation (after a lengthy and heated Acropolis expansion hearing). As I reported on Wednesday, the WNY Food Truck Association has reluctantly agreed to support the bill as written, and request no changes. Although they were displeased with the radius requirement, the hefty licensure fee, and some other issues, they were willing to give it a shot for a year as written, and come back when the law sunsets to discuss ways in which it might be improved going forward.

A source close to the food truck group was present at the hearing, and learned early on that both Golombek – the bill’s sponsor – and Council President Fontana would be moving it towards a vote next Tuesday the 24th. More importantly, Fontana indicated that he would not be requesting the “one truck per block face” rule.

When Mitch Stenger, the lawyer for the food truck association, addressed the council and repeated the group’s concerns with the legislation, but that they would rather see it passed than further delayed.  After the Acropolis debate ended, Councilmember Golombek made some perfunctory remarks, and then Councilmember Mickey Kearns rose to speak.  Kearns spoke out against the high license fee, and stated that the city should be helping – not punishing – these start-up entrepreneurs.  Kearns then proposed that the bill be amended to lower the license fee to $300 per year, and then surprisingly asked that the “one truck per block face” rule be added, as well as an expansion of the 100′ radius to 175′.

Any such amendment was unacceptable to the food trucks, most importantly because any such change would further delay passage of the law by a minimum of two weeks.

Then Councilmember Rivera rose to speak favorably on behalf of the food trucks, but then proposed that the license fee be lowered to $500, and seconded Kearns’ “one truck per block face” amendment. My sources indicate that neither Kearns nor Rivera had discussed any of these changes with anyone else on the council.

At this point, Stenger rejected both Kearns’ and Rivera’s amendments, demanding that the bill be submitted to the full council as currently written.  The session was quickly adjourned after that.

Afterwards, representatives for the food trucks were assured privately by numerous councilmembers that there were enough votes to pass the bill on the 24th. The vote will take place during the session that begins at 2pm. There will not be any public comment period, but food truck supporters are encouraged to attend in a show of support. 


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