The Buffalo Waterfront Stadium: In Defense of Skepticism

We will operate here under the assumption that everyone wants the Bills to stay in the area. You don’t have to be a football fan or have a #billsmafia on your Twitter avatar to understand that the Bills are an economic engine, a source of civic pride, and a symbol of good days passed, and hope for the future.  Even if I am dismissive of throwing a billion dollars at a game of catch, that doesn’t mean I want Ralph’s post-concussion-syndrome follies to move to Los Angeles. 

Yesterday, Chris Smith and Brad Riter led the cheer for the $1.4 billion “conversation starter” stadium proposal. If you missed it over at Trending Buffalo, listen here right now

TBOneThing10-24-12.mp3

OK. 

Would that replication of Singapore – a gleaming new Asian Tiger of a Buffalo downtown be great to build on Lake Erie? Sure. Would a new stadium complex that involves the construction of about six bridges, the redevelopment of tainted land, nestled alongside the flour and cereal processors be nice? Sure; that would be great. Would it be fantastic if the Buffalo Bills stayed here in perpetuity, playing in a state-of-the-art stadium? Of course it would.  

We are, however, in “would be nice” territory, and decidedly removed from “must happen”. 

And we’re talking about a city that – over 20 years – can’t get it together to expand the Peace Bridge or its plaza, for considerably less money. 

Even if you argue – as both Brad and Chris do – that a new stadium is the sine qua non – the “must happen” of the Bills’ continued existence in western New York, why does it have to involve everything contained within the Greater Buffalo Sports and Entertainment Center (hereinafter “GBSEC”) proposal?  Why are we building a new home for the Jetsons when what we really need is a less crappy stadium with a dome to keep out the weather, and nicer toilets? As much as it makes sense to appeal to fans, you have to also appeal to people who don’t care. 

We’re a small town with small money. Propose away, but the scale of GBSEC’s proposal is way outside the “reasonable” scale.

Click to enlarge

 Brad’s opening premise is that it makes more sense to spend $1.4 billion on a new stadium than $200 million on the Ralph. That’s great, except we’re talking about fantasy-dollars; dollars no one has. 

First, GBSEC spends several pages’ worth of its presentation creating a whole new downtown, connected to the existing one. We already have a downtown. No one much likes it, and no one much goes there, except for court, the Sabres, and the theater. Would building a sur-downtown have a stimulative effect on the existing one? It would, if the proponents of Mos Eisley-on-the-Lake didn’t factor in the current state of downtown’s ridiculous parking supply into its plan. It doesn’t assume – it doesn’t much allow – our current downtown to change. Much simpler and cheaper would be to let our existing downtown grow organically by giving it a competitive advantage; say, a sales-tax free zone. 

Secondly, the Bills already have a stadium. I’ve never been in it, so I’ll take Brad’s word for it that it’s really awful. We’re also having a hard time filling it, partly because the team tends to be horrible, but also because of demographics and economics. The region is shrinking. Things like high gas prices take a bite out of people’s discretionary budgets, and it’s harder to add “game” to “food” and “utilities”. We’re having quite the civic discussion over spending $200 million – a teeny drop in the GBSEC bucket – to fix the Ralph up and make it less horrible.  Notwithstanding the assumption I propose above, a lot of people would rather see the Bills leave than assign public money to this idea. The Buffalo Bills NFL franchise is worth almost a billion dollars. Its owner is in his 90s, and recently becomes unwell with greater frequency. It’s a hard sell to tell a blue-collar, hardworking, shrinking region that a billion-dollar business needs welfare to help build it a new home. 

If $200 million is a tough sell, who swoops in and says, “$1.4 billion’ll do the trick!”?  Of course, we’re assuming there will be some outlay of public money for this because that’s how these things go. If the state and county don’t play ball, some other city will offer up a much sweeter pot; backyard deers or no.

We talk about the megaregion as being the key to the Bills’ continued viability here, and locating in WNY is geographically the least-inconvenient place. But how much is Rogers going to put up? How much is the Government of Ontario or Canada’s Federal Government going to put up to keep this megaregional asset in WNY? How much is Monroe County going to contribute? What about Niagara County? Why do Erie County taxpayers shoulder such a large fiscal burden for what’s being billed as a multinational attraction? Also, has Toronto really bought into being Bills country? How are tickets selling at the Rogers Centre, another Great Lakes retractable-roof location that had the good fortune to locate itself in an existing urban downtown? 

Brad and Chris say this all is starting a conversation. But you start conversations by saying, “what if we built them a new, domed stadium in Orchard Park”. Then the conversation may – or may not – progress to, “hey, how about a stadium with a retractable roof on the Outer Harbor. It would cost [insert reasonable, sub-billion-dollar figure here].” Then you expand, and move on to alternate ideas – siting it in Niagara County to be closer to Rochester and Toronto, for example. Perhaps then you suggest coupling the project – wherever it is – with a new, less horrible convention center and maybe a hotel. 

Even if the project GBSEC proposed had contained only a stadium, hotel, and convention center, it would be something within the world of reason. But you have to convince people of the underlying premise before you throw this whole new city at them. 

In the podcast, Brad argues that we oughtn’t compare the Bills proposal to what happened in New York and Dallas. Why not? Maybe because the markets are so different, but the dollar figures are quite similar.

The new Yankee Stadium, which houses the wealthiest, most successful sports franchise in America, cost $1.5 billion. The new Citi Field in Queens, which hosts the New York Mets, cost $850 million, paid through the sale of New York City bonds, to be repaid by the Mets with interest in lieu of property taxes. The home of two teams – the Jets and Giants – cost $1.6 billion and was the most expensive domestic stadium, ever. So, lets understand that what GBSEC is proposing is on a par with what happened in New York. Dallas?  Dallas’ Cowboy Stadium cost $1.4 billion in 2012 dollars

By contrast, Green Bay’s municipally owned Lambeau Field is ancient and was renovated a couple of years ago for less than $300 million. It’s still going strong in a small-town market, mostly because the team is owned by the community. 

The difference, of course, is that Dallas-Fort Worth and the New York tristate area are already large, interconnected economic regions. The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex boasts 6.5 million people across 13 counties. The New York tristate area has about 20 million people within its immediate, contiguous metropolitan area. All of these metros have the added benefit of being located within the same nation-state. 

Even if one were to make the argument that a billion-plus dollar megaplex on Lake Erie could be a centerpiece to finally recognize the interdependency of a Tor-Buff-Chester metropolitan area, it would be superficial, at best.  The fact is that these are neither politically nor geographically contiguous areas, spanning two countries and three major media markets. Even Tor-Buff-Chester itself is a different concept altogether. It’s a megaregion like Boston-New York-Washington, not its own metro. Back in 2007, Richard Florida estimated that the megaregion he defines had about 22 million people in it, strewn across a geography from Quebec City to Syracuse to London, ON. That’s quite a spread. 

How credible is this plan? Brad and Chris argue that George Hasiotis is a respected businessguy who is well-connected politically. He is. Some point to the fact that GBSEC honcho Nicholas Stracick won a $240 million judgment against Disney, and must be flush with cash. That’s until you realize that he split the money with someone else. After taxes. And after they settled for a much smaller amount from Disney to avoid the verdict going up on appeal.  

Indeed, Stracick has already recommended that Andrew Cuomo’s billion dollars for Buffalo be spent towards this plan. A $1 billion fund that’s supposed to set the region up for a 21st century economy – should it be spent on an entertainment zone? 

Why can’t it happen? Anything can happen. Someone could swoop in tomorrow with no backing and a set of nice pictures and propose a building taller than the Burj Khalifa be built on the Outer Harbor. Or maybe a charismatic Iraqi-British con artist could swoop into town to promise to renovate a beloved grande dame of a building, despite having never really developed anything to completion, anywhere. People are skeptical about this because its outlandishness, and Buffalo’s experience, gives people a fundamental right to be suspicious and skeptical. It involves a couple of unknowns who had the cash to commission expensive plans and diagrams. It involves politics and politicians, which means you have to question everyone’s motives ab initio. A $250,000 investment in HKS diagrams isn’t a lot when control over this waterfront property is at stake and being argued about; the NFTA is playing a massive game of keepaway between the city and the state/Canalside. 

If you like the idea of a waterfront retractable-roof stadium, I’m with you. If you like it being paired with a hotel and a new convention center, I’ll go along with that. But when you basically propose taking the area around General Mills and suggest building a new Shinjuku district, we have a problem. 

If Citi Field can be built on some of the most expensive real estate in the country for $850 million, I have a hard time believing that it costs almost twice that to build three things on a barren piece of wasteland on Buffalo’s Outer Harbor. 

And An Elevator To the Moon

Not real, authentic (This Stadium Matters; Stadium, For Real)

Way back in late 2004/early 2005, one of the first Buffalocentric topics about which I decided to write was an NFTA debate that was then brewing over three competing plans for Buffalo’s beleaguered, forgotten Outer Harbor. Eight or so years later, it remains almost equally beleaguered, with some aesthetic and functional improvements in access, but still amounting to grass and weeds. Eight or so years later, the NFTA still controls it, while the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation and the City of Buffalo bicker over who should control its development, and the contracts and jobs that go with it. 

What else have we seen? We’ve seen that while civic debate focuses on extremes, we are capable of reaching compromise when necessary. For instance, attracting a Bass Pro to the waterfront – it wasn’t at all a bad idea. Putting it in the Aud, on the Aud site, or even right up against the water at the foot of Main Street – none of those were per se bad ideas. But Bass Pro isn’t coming, and that, too, is OK. We don’t need it, but it wouldn’t have hurt. On the other side of the argument, we had the armies of preservation demanding green space, no buildings against the water, “authenticity” as defined by them, and now a fetish for defunct grain elevators and warehouses that haven’t been demolished because there is no one to pay to demolish them – haven’t been used because they are economically difficult to justify re-using. In spite of the Fred Kent placemaking sideshow scam, Buffalonians seem pretty happy with the compromise Canalside being built, the Pegula hockeytorium, and the other incremental – but, finally, visible and palpable – improvements being done to the Inner Harbor. 

So, we look again to the Outer Harbor and we have a new proposal being trial-ballooned whereby we build a billion-and-a-half-dollar stadium for the Buffalo Bills with a retractable roof, a new convention center, a hotel complex, and 5,000 parking spots. Of the silver bullet proposals to come down the road, this is the silveriest, bulletiest of them all.  This has a former county comptroller candidate involved in commissioning an epic set of images showing off our newest Elevator to the Moon, complete with a sports museum to be built and run by the people behind Rochester’s Strong Museum of Play. 

Neighborhoods crumble under the weight of economic decay and desperation, and we have $1.5 billion to spend on playing catch? We struggle to make ends meet with Medicaid funding, heating assistance, and day care for the working poor, and we’ll throw a billion dollars at a hotel and Buffalo Skydome? Is there even a local corporate sponsor who will buy naming rights, or will we just name it after Ralph Wilson, too? Renovating the Ralph is estimated to cost $200 million, which is also a tremendous sum of money for this area, and even that is a deal not yet done. For decades this region has been trampled underfoot by opportunistic politicians with toxic policies, and we have yet to devise an attainable vision for the future and a concomitant plan to get there.  But, hey – domed. Stadium

Functionally, the Outer Harbor is a geographical bottleneck – accessible by Skyway or on Route 5 from the South or in from Tifft Blvd from South Buffalo.  Three points of entry to get to 5,000 parking spots to service a stadium for 72,000 people. Arithmetically, the people behind this proposal think that the state will pony up $400 million, and that the NFL will provide between $200 to $400 million. That leaves a gap of $700 to $900 million that needs to be filled by private investment and, presumably, county money. That kind of money approaches the county’s entire annual budget. As a practical matter, the soil on the Outer Harbor is toxic and in need of multimillion dollar remediation. 

But we’re still debating the likelihood that the Bills stay in this region after their owner inevitably passes away in the near future. The team is more than just a sports franchise – it’s a powerful symbol reminding Buffalo that it was once in the major leagues; a legacy we cling to by a thread.  Does this area have enough idle money lying around to (a) enable local investors to buy the Bills and keep them here when Wilson dies; and (b) fund a massive stadium project for the Outer Harbor, which would effectively prohibit any other kind of development from happening there? 

So here we are, with a massive silver bullet pipe dream to try and keep our disappointing football team in town. A shiny object to raise the hopes of the few not yet beaten down by inevitable cynicism; something to occupy hours’ worth of inane AM talk radio chatter, with angry people talking angrily about their anger over money and the crappy team. This has the appearance of being aspirational, but is really evidence of desperation. If we give the Bills this nice new home, maybe they’ll stay. Maybe they’ll stop sucking. On the other hand, we’ll have the self-appointed masters of authenticity decry any proposal involving sports, parking, roadways. We’ll have arguments about how we should spend a billion dollars to improve storefronts on Grant Street, or maybe to spend on more ancillary projects at the Darwin Martin House. We’ll hear how Buffalo is “real” and “authentic” and that this monstrosity does nothing to further enhance our standing as a tertiary stopover on the cultural tourism checklist. We’ll ultimately argue over how many trees and painted Adirondack chairs are available on the grass, whether the water taxi will be able to accommodate gameday crowds, and hey, how about a solar-powered carousel? 

But let’s cut through all the hype. The people proposing this have two things – a corporate entity and some diagrams. They haven’t talked to the Bills. They haven’t talked to the NFL. They haven’t talked to the State. They haven’t talked to ECHDC. They haven’t talked to the NFTA. They haven’t even taken a survey of the local population to vet the idea of a billion-dollar domed stadium on the Outer Harbor. So far, they’re scheduled only to speak with the City of Buffalo – an entity that has, and would have, no say in the matter whatsoever. We haven’t yet figured out how we’re going to fix up Ralph Wilson Stadium, and we’re already talking about out-Torontoing Toronto’s downtown Rogers Centre. 

This ought to be fun. 

 

 

A New Convention Center?

During the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte last month, County Executive Mark Poloncarz angered a lot of people when he Tweeted about how much nicer Charlotte’s convention center is, compared to Buffalo’s. Jim Fink ripped Poloncarz in Business First, but now admits he was wrong – he thought Poloncarz was comparing our convention center to the Time Warner Center

It’s time to start talking about a new convention center in Buffalo. Why? Back in March the city lost a convention which would have had a $1.6 million economic impact. The reason given: 

“Your Convention Center did not meet the expectations of the site selection committee and did not measure up to the level of convention centers visited in the other cities,” she wrote. “There was also concern from the site selection committee regarding the abundance of vacant storefronts surrounding the Convention Center and the host hotel.

“Our attendees place a high value on the ability to access bars, restaurants, shopping and other entertainment options within walking distance.”

This is why blind, uncritical Buffalove is harmful. Downtown is a mess, made worse by bad planning, bad administration, bad policies, and multiple layers of regulation. Here’s a quick look at the convention center’s immediate surroundings: 

There’s absolutely nothing appealing for a casual convention-goer who doesn’t much care about architecture or the realness or authenticity about a place. Our downtown is a disgrace, and the convention center looks like someone took the Sedita City Court building and laid it on its side. The convention center is a brutalist monstrosity that blocks off Genesee Street, resembles a German Normandy bunker, and goes out of its horrible way to make downtown look even uglier and less inviting – less human.

Here’s Charlotte’s convention center:

It’s not perfect, but it’s not a Stalinist apartment block, either

It’s absolutely time to start talking again about improving downtown – which has been happening slowly, in fits and starts. We need a plan for smart parking and land value taxation to de-incentivize lazy maintenance of our sea of surface parking lots. We also need a new, attractive convention center that can attract business and visitors, and be a showpiece for a new Buffalo. One that’s welcoming. 

Perhaps we can kill two birds with one stone and demolish the existing convention center, make that land ready for development – on two parcels, re-establishing that stretch of Genesee Street. The convention center could be located perhaps on the site of the current Adams Mark, which should also be demolished. Perhaps we could demolish them both on the same day and hold the biggest fricking celebration Buffalo ever had. 

The last time Buffalo looked into a new convention center was 1999. Poloncarz told Fink,

“If we needed one in 1999, we definitely need one now,” he said. “Maybe, it’s time to open that debate again.”

He notes that a new convention center in Niagara Falls, ON has had a $110 million impact on that city already. 

So, I’ll revisit my original idea, which has been actually picking up supporters and steam. It was most recently echoed by Rocco Termini in an interview with Investigative Post’s Jim Heaney.  

Termini: That’s a small segment of what is out there. We need to develop the whole concept of the Toronto market. I’m going to be in Toronto over the weekend talking about this very thing.

Heaney: What’s your thought on how to capitalize?

Termini: I think what we need to do is form a sales tax free zone downtown. We need to take over the first floor of every building downtown and we need to put in there an outlet mall type, high-end retail. And then you will get people coming into Buffalo from Toronto. And then they’ll go to the restaurants, they’ll stay at the hotels, they’ll make a day of it. I just called for a hotel room in Toronto and Trump Tower is $750 a night. You can come and stay at probably a better room at the Lafayette for $149, so a person from Toronto can come down to Buffalo, have dinner, shop all day, and stay in a hotel here.

Heaney: Doesn’t that put local existing merchants at a disadvantage all of a sudden? “I’m selling, the guy downtown is selling; I’ve got to collect a sales tax he doesn’t.” Aren’t you in a stealing from Peter to pay Paul scenario?

Termini: Not really. They’re getting a small fraction of the people coming from Canada. And don’t forget, they already have an advantage. They have expressways going right to their malls; they have free parking, something that we’ve paid for as city residents for many years. And now it’s time for the city to get what they deserve and they deserve a chance to get restarted. Nothing else has worked. We talked about so many things to bring retail back to downtown and nothing has worked. I think this will work because people travel to the Indian reservation to save $5 on a carton of cigarettes and they’ll spend $6 worth of gasoline. But when people think they’re getting a deal they will come.

The central business district is a wasteland. We’re now talking about creating a new little shopping district at the foot of Main Street out of whole cloth. But even if we build it, how do you ensure that they come, and that it’s sustainable? Just being there for when hockey or lacrosse games get out isn’t enough. Just being there in nice weather isn’t enough. It has to be something people want to come to, and people want to return to.

In an economically depressed and shrinking town where entrepreneurship is sorely needed – especially among disadvantaged populations – we can turn downtown Buffalo into something attractive not by centrally planning a waterfront, or doing a 2011 version of what really amounts to 50s era urban renewal. Two votes and a stroke of a pen is all that’s needed.

BuffaloCBD

The area outlined in red ought to be designated a special economic zone. And yes, I use that term specifically to liken it to what China has done to help build and modernize its industry.

Frankly, I wouldn’t be opposed to all of Erie and Niagara Counties being designated special economic zones, but for the purposes of this argument, I’m just focusing on what should be Buffalo’s downtown commercial core.

There are myriad problems with downtown and planning that need to be addressed – above all, modernization and coordination of parking that is relegated to ramps and underground lots. Every parcel within that red zone that isn’t built on should be shovel-ready land. The zoning code should require parking for new development to be adequate and hidden. This means extra cost, but the benefits of locating to the special economic zone means lower taxes and streamlined regulatory processes.

Within the zone, the county and state would waive their respective sales taxes. That means businesses outside the zone would still have to charge 8.75% on purchases, while businesses within the zone would be tax-free. It’d be like all of downtown being a duty-free shop.

No, it’s not fair to merchants outside the zone. But life isn’t fair. Furthermore, most of the merchants in Buffalo and outside the zone serve the surrounding residents and will still be patronized out of sheer convenience. Furthermore, the influx of people and businesses attracted by the SEZ will ultimately help those businesses thrive, as well.

Development would still be subject to Buffalo’s zoning and planning bureaucracies, but the rules would be simplified and permits & approval would be harmonized and streamlined. Property taxes would be reduced or eliminated, depending on the parcel. However, properties would be assessed not based on what they are (e.g., empty lots), but on what their value ought rightly be if developed.

By turning the central business district into a tax-free special economic zone, you give people 8.75 reasons to do business and conduct commerce in downtown Buffalo over anywhere else. Creation of a waterfront district while ignoring the decline and blight of the rest of downtown seems to me to be counterintuitive.

By executing a plan such as this, zoning the waterfront districts, and having the ECHDC or state spend public money solely on the improvement and installation of necessary infrastructure, transfer of title for all parcels to one single entity to speed development, institution of a design and zoning plan that cannot be deviated from, and – most importantly – remediating the environmental nightmares under the soil throughout ECHDC’s mandated districts, we can then auction the parcels off to qualified buyers.

That is how downtowns revive organically – through private initiative and private money. Government can do its job and merely provide the private sector with the proper environment to do business and build. It doesn’t get faster, quicker, or cheaper than that.

Pegulaville

Yesterday, the city selected Terry Pegula and the Buffalo Sabres to develop the Webster Block. The proposed structure will include skating rinks, restaurants, shops, parking, and a hotel. 

Brad Riter and I discussed Pegulaville in this Trending Buffalo podcast. What happens when Paladino is snubbed? Will Terry Pegula and Byron Brown be next up on Carl’s insult billboardatorium? 

TBOneThing08-29-12.mp3

Battlezone: Webster Block

Late last week, two proposals to redevelop the Webster Block – across from the First Niagara Center and Canal Side – were put before the public. Physically similar, the major differences between the two plans is that one includes publicly accessible indoor ice rinks, costs more money, will take longer to build, and relies more heavily on public money. 

Submitting the two proposals for public vetting and comment, for the use of land the City currently holds, is laudable. However, I will be not at all surprised to see it devolve right into bitter litigation, because of the ease with which that can happen, and stymie the whole project. It’s cost of doing business in our so-called “lighter, cheaper, faster” placemaking/crowdsourcing development culture in contemporary Buffalo. It’s also why our skyline has not changed significantly since the 1960s. 

First, the Sabres’ proposal. Costing over $123 million, with a promise of 450 permanent jobs, “HarborCenter” is projected to open in mid-2015, include two ice rinks, and rely somewhat heavily on public incentives and subsidies, although the exact figure hasn’t been determined.  It features a sports bar, hotel space, retail space, and a 965-space parking garage. 

Next, here’s a proposal put forth by “Webster Block, LLC”, a joint venture led by Carl Paladino’s Ellicott Development. It features retail space, residential condos, a hotel, office space, and 1,089-space parking garage. 

 

Recognizing that design is largely subjective, I somewhat prefer the Paladino proposal. I don’t like the overuse of brick in every new development save the Avant, and these two proposals incorporate that. The archways over the street-level retail in the Paladino plan, along with the awnings and other features one typically sees in big-city urban developments appeal to me. I have seen some criticism about the visibility of the parking ramp in the Paladino proposal, but the Sabres’ renderings seem to conveniently omit that, so Webster Block, LLC gets points for transparency on that point. 

But the brick-and-windows designs are, to me, so late-80s post-modern. The clean simplicity of the Avant should be a model for contemporary high-rise design in Buffalo. This all looks like an NYU or BU dorm, ca. 1986. 

Aside from money and the need for subsidies, the major difference here is the Sabres’ inclusion of two rinks. I think it’s a pretty neat idea, especially if there’s non-hockey related just general skate time available to local and visiting families. Adding amateur hockey space to downtown is clearly a positive, and would be a great asset to have to attract league play and tournaments to downtown. 

But either way, Buffalo wins. This isn’t currently a site, but a blight; another surface parking lot in a city jam-packed with them. It’s the site where the Adelphia Tower was supposed to go – first 40 stories, then 15, then zero as Adelphia went out of business, in disgrace during the last decade.  Anticipating complaints about parking – of course you need parking. It’s not the existence of parking that’s bad, but its visibility and use – a surface lot is an utter waste of space, but a parking garage nestled within a larger project and hidden from view is an absolute necessity. Anticipating complaints about the historic nature of the site of some sort, any such complaints would be disingenuous nonsense. No one moaned about historical significance during the decades during which it was a parking lot. Is someone going to complain that it should be a replica of the original Webster Block? A low grouping of brownstone warehouses

Either proposal would enhance the area around the Arena and Canal Side. Either proposal would be a net plus for the inner harbor area of downtown Buffalo. Either proposal would be a welcome change from the status quo. We have to get past the mentality where one person can halt civic progress for the public benefit with one lawsuit. I wonder if we’ll get there with this project. 

Looking up Main Street 1905 (Shorpy.com)

If you want to add your two cents, you can email the city at websterblockrfp@city-buffalo.com.

Shorter Donn Esmonde

Tim Tielman has transformed obstructionism into a successful protection racket, and this is good for Buffalo. 

 

Steel Tube Production for Lackawanna

Chris Smith came across a notice for a public hearing, which was held on the morning of Tuesday May 29th in Lackawanna City Hall regarding an application Welded Tube, USA, Inc. made to the Erie County IDA for a land and incentive package at the “Tecumseh Business Park, Lakewinds Site Parcel 3 at the intersection of Route 5 and Ridge Road in Lackawanna”.  

Under the proposal, Welded Tube intends to build a “new, high speed, efficient steel tube production line for the production of multi-faceted cold formed carbon and HSLA tubular steel for use in the energy tubular industry”.  

The ECIDA would purchase the land and lease it back to Welded Tube, and “contemplates that it will provide financial assistance to the Company for qualifying portions of the Project in the form of sales and use tax exemptions, a mortgage recording tax exemption, and a partial real property tax abatement consistent with the policies of the [ECIDA]”. 

The property in question is a 400 acre brownfield site that sits perhaps not coincidentally right next to the embattled Bethlehem Steel North office building. 

Alfred Culliton, COO of ECIDA says that Welded Tube is a “Canadian operation” looking to open up its first US operation on this Lackawanna site. Culliton says Welded Tube intends to construct further south on the property, near the South Branch crossing, and is in no way related to, or spurring the push to demolish the Bethlehem Steel North office building. 

Welded Tube USA, Inc. is not incorporated in New York State, and there are no Google hits for that name, except for the ECIDA hearing notice.  It appears that cleaning up the former Bethlehem Steel property for prospective residential or recreational purposes is not a priority, and the land will instead further be used for industrial purposes. This place – does it matter? How, and for whom?

The Outer Harbor. Again.

When I first started blogging about local issues in mid to late 2004, one of my first topics was the Outer Harbor. At that time, the NFTA was circulating three competing centrally-planned proposals for that land – the parkland proposal, the nice proposal, and what I called the “Elevator to the Moon” proposal, because it seemed to offer everything up to and including that feature.  I also called it Amherst-sur-Lac. (Of course, the NFTA picked that plan way back in early 2005. We’re still waiting.)  The Buffalo News endorsed it, as well. 

Parkland Edition

Mixed-Use Version

Elevator to the Moon Plan

The biggest problem with the Outer Harbor isn’t land use; it isn’t whether we lay a strip of parkland along the lake, or whether we turn the whole damn thing into little more than a seasonal festival grounds. 

The biggest problem is how contaminated that area is – and that’s not counting the fact that our self-perpetuating governmental, quasi-governmental, authorities, and public benefit corporations can’t decide who should own the land and control the process. It falls under the ECHDC’s jurisdiction, but is owned largely by the NFTA. Still. 

I’m not sure why the bus company owns land on the waterfront. Or why it should. Or why it hasn’t divested itself of it yet.  Or why it’s sat on it for 50 years. 

The contamination is longstanding and acute. It makes “what to do with the Outer Harbor” a moot question until millions of dollars are spent to fix it. 

Ultimately, what’s going to happen is a lot of finger-pointing, a never-ending process of public hearings, public “debate” over how the land should be used, and absolutely zero direction from Mayor Brown. We’ll probably have at least one or two lawsuits, and Donn Esmonde will periodically exit his semi-retirement to scold everybody, invariably supporting whatever group is first to court to seek injunctive relief. We’ll have the NFTA protecting its turf against the city, the state, and the ECHDC. We’ll have loads of renderings, 3D models, and maybe even a fly-through video presentation of what might be built there, but none of it will ever happen. 

10 years from now, the Outer Harbor will likely look largely as it does today because the primary goal of all these competing entities and interests is self-aggrandizement and self-perpetuation. It’s going to take initiative and motivation to pull together the money it’s going to take to turn that land into something that won’t poison anyone who spends more than a few hours at a time there, and money is hard to come by nowadays. 

Ultimately, however, it doesn’t matter whether the NFTA owns the property or someone else does. What ought to happen is that government involvement should be quite limited. A zoning plan with architectural guidelines should be drawn up, streets should be plotted and paved. Utilities should be brought to the properties, and a broker retained to market them. 

When it comes to projects such as this, Buffalo seems allergic to anything except a centralized plan, but what happens to this potentially valuable property ought to be left almost entirely up to the private sector. 

As for the parkland demanded by the Citizens for a 21st Century Park on the Outer Harbor, I don’t have any problem with direct waterfront access being preserved for the public, and don’t have a problem with a strip of parkland bordering whatever development takes place and the water. What I would be opposed to is any notion that the entirety of that property be turned into parkland.   

The Outer Harbor should someday be home to people and retail businesses that support residential city living. Access should be available by boat, car, and the Metro Rail should be extended south to the small boat harbor and Tifft Nature Preserve.  

This area has been patiently waiting for decades for someone to carefully restore it to a safe and attractive use. Maybe this time we’ll get it right. But I’m not holding my  breath. 

Trico: Ask Matt Enstice

Colorful Trico

If the battle over preservation of Trico Plant #1 was a war, we’ve passed the point where Princip shoots Archduke Ferdinand, and now the great alliances are making grave threats

As usual with these sorts of things, an earnest argument is already being subsumed by a fog of lies, half-truths, and puffery. 

What is to be done with Trico? What are the BNMC’s plans for the site? Are they really going to start demolition next month? Is it a structure that BNMC can preserve? Should preserve? Wants to preserve? 

In a few weeks’ time, I will conduct an audio or video podcast interview with BNMC’s Matthew Enstice where he will answer questions selected from the thread below, and from Twitter (use the hashtag #AskMatt), or shoot me an email at this address.  The topic is BNMC’s growth & plans for the Trico building. Have at it. 

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Sophistic Jaundice Tuesday

1. I know HBO’s adaptation of Game Change is a dramatization of one side of one story, but if there’s even a smidgen of truth to any of it, thinking people who live in our Republic need to work together – multipartisanly – to ensure that former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is never elected to anything ever again. I don’t just mean some national position – I’m saying that her particular mixture of proud ignorance and narcissism is downright dangerous, and she doesn’t deserve election even to a homeowner’s association.

2. Interesting that the Oishei Foundation, which was set up with Trico money, isn’t knee-jerkedly joining the keep it crowd when it comes to the Trico building that the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus wants to demolish to make way for something as yet unannounced. There’s now a “save Trico” blog, and it has reposted something from Derek Punaro in which he analyzes what he perceives to be the arguments against preserving the dormant factory. My response to him was this:

You omitted the part about landowners having a qualified right to do what they want with the property they own.

You’re right about most of your points, but so what? Trico is gone, and hell, if you try hard enough you can come up with an historic rationale to save any building, anywhere, at any time. I’ll bet you if someone came up with a reasonable, funded plan to replace the execrable Buffalo City Court building, there’d be opposition to it. And if there wasn’t, I’d do so ironically.

A quick scan of the BNMC plan shows that the surface parking lots surrounding the Trico are already slated for development, and expansion of the campus.

So, if tomorrow the BNMC held a press conference revealing what it wanted to build on the Trico plant site, that it wanted to build it as soon as practicable after demolition, and that the funding for it was in place, you’d withdraw your opposition?

Because the question isn’t really whether Trico COULD be used as a modern medical research facility – the question is whether BNMC wants to use it as such – whether its layout comports with the way in which BNMC wants its people to work, and whether it’s economically or environmentally feasible or desirable to do so.

Just because Zemsky re-did the Larkin doesn’t mean every factory and warehouse facility that happens to be old and harken back to a long-gone industry needs to be preserved. What I tweeted yesterday was,

The Trico Building is a monument to nostalgia & the industrial abandonment of Buffalo. Hold @BNMC to a high standard, but let them build.

I stand by that statement.

Derek and I aren’t going to agree on this, and that’s ok. He’ll advocate for its preservation, and I’ll hope someone rips it the hell down and builds something new as soon as possible. To me, it’s time for the next generation of Tricos and Larkins to make their architectural mark on the city, and the BNMC has built a couple of badass new buildings lately. Knee-jerkedly keeping every old building for the sake of its oldness and some trumped-up “significance” is just tiresome.

But then local expert-at-everything Chuck Banas left a comment that began thusly:

Mr. Punaro has written an excellent deconstruction of the issue. It is no surprise, nonetheless, that Mr. Bendenko’s mindless contrarianism is on full display here. Indeed, his comments display the lack of creativity and vision — as well as the cynicism — that we’ve come to expect.

But Bedenko’s train of logic really derails when he states that Mr. Punaro is correct about most (if not all) of his points, and then glibly says, “so what?” Even a cursory interpretation of Punaro’s individual arguments reveals them to be germane and immensely relevant. The Trico buildings are exactly the type of structures that successful, progrssive cities preserve and repurpose. These are precisely the type of industrial buildings that can be reused easily and inexpensively.

The real rub, however, is not Bedenko’s sophistic argument, but that his jaundice has apparently blinded him to the obvious problems with the BNMC’s behavior. And the problems are surely obvious:

I’m pretty sure my comment was somewhat critical of the BNMC for not being as transparent as some might like. I’m also pretty sure that my comment to Derek was respectful and didn’t call him an asshole. So, I’m puzzled as to why everyone’s favorite development/architectural busybody found the need to describe me and my position as “mindless contrarianism” and deceitfully hostile.

Also, the preservationists should make up their minds over the “significance” and “BNMC isn’t playing nice” arguments. Of course, there’s nothing short of reusing that building that the BNMC could do to satisfy the preservationists, so the former argument is probably more persuasive.

Well, my argument with Derek was none of those things, and if your position is to just call me names, mischaracterize my position, and then simply re-state what Derek has already written, then you ought to piss off.

I really dislike the Trico building. I think it’s downright ugly. An eyesore that stands as a stark reminder of how far down the city has gone. Over the last decade, it’s been nothing but a headstone for a business that’s abandoned Buffalo and her people – a business that’s still making a profit, making wipers in Matamoros, paying Mexican workers pennies per day, taking away factory jobs from the working class in Buffalo – a working class that’s finding it ever-tougher to get a job in this area, which leads to poverty and flight.

I don’t care if it’s got skylights and other fin de siecle anachronistic “features”. I don’t care if its brown paint is distinctive or if its lead paint dust or asbestos are architecturally significant. It’s a monument to loss and failure, and I’ll bet if someone wanted to build an exact replica of it today somewhere, the same people clamoring for its preservation would be screaming and yelling about how ugly and out-of-place it is for that part of town.

3. Victims of child abuse at the hands of a disgraced Syracuse coach are lobbying Albany for a change to the statute of limitations for lawsuits arising out of that abuse. People often stay silent as a result of such abuse, and live a life of shame and silence. Astonishing, isn’t it, that the major opponent to this change in the law is the Catholic Conference.

Similar bills passed in the Assembly in years past but never reached the Senate floor, because the Catholic Conference is against it. Church officials said they don’t oppose the Statue of Limitations increase, rather, the one-year window.

“Just the whole concept of going back 50, 60, 70 years and bringing old lawsuits against teachers, priests, whoever the accused is, and have the institutions try and defend themselves, is just contrary to justice,” A Representative for the Catholic Conference said.

Aside from that being an inaccurate description of the proposed law, it’s astonishing exactly who‘s piping up to oppose a rather simple change in the law to enable child sex abuse victims to get their day in court.  A Cardinal, of all people

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