Buffalo’s Outer Harbor: From Brownfield to Question Mark

Most everyone agrees that the Outer Harbor should primarily be set aside for parks and recreation. This includes the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, as well as local preservationist, environmentalist, and planning activists. But as with any proposal that has even minimal complexity, there is a Buffalonian blood feud brewing when it comes to the issue of development.

For over half a century, the people who run the airport, buses, and trolley also owned the land on the Outer Harbor. It fell into decay, disrepair, and parts of it were an environmental catastrophe. Anyone who cared agreed that the land was being poorly managed, and that it was a squandered opportunity.  In just the last few years, all that has changed, but it hasn’t been easy.

For instance, when improvements were made to access the Outer Harbor in recent years, the same people now fighting the idea of construction on the outer harbor were railing against enhancements to access it, claiming silly things, e.g., a bermed Route 5 off the Skyway represented a “wall” between Buffalo’s downtown and her waterfront – never mind the river and the grain elevators.

The Outer Harbor has now become an attractive, if unfinished, parkland enjoyed by thousands of people every year. The fought-over improvements to access Fuhrmann Boulevard, the attractive streetscape, and the new bike paths, beaches, and parks are the reason why. What was once a barren, poorly accessible wasteland is now an improved, accessible parkland.

Today, we’re debating whether people might someday live there, and whether there might be things to do there besides recreate. I’ve long advocated for careful development on the Outer Harbor to give people an opportunity to live, work, and play along one of the most attractive spits of waterfront land in America.

In the inaugural issue of the Public, Bruce Fisher makes the argument against development on the Outer Harbor, citing everything from the weather and wind to tax policy and housing values.  It was the weather that led a Giambra administration to recommend the construction of a domed amusement park just a decade ago.

About the weather and wind – Buffalo and her waterfront are not the most inhospitable places in the world. People live and buildings are constructed in the wind and cold throughout the world. If you take Fisher’s argument about how inclement the winter weather gets out there, then one would have to question the sanity of anyone living in places like Moscow, Helsinki, Stockholm, Reykjavik, Oslo, or other locations with climates as harsh – or worse – than our waterfront’s. After all, we’re talking about building attractive shelter, not a beachfront resort.

Fisher’s argument is more persuasive on the tax policy and housing demand front. He chips away at the notion that residents on the waterfront will contribute to the tax base, pointing out how guys like Paladino build new developments with massive tax breaks. However, an influx of residents to Buffalo’s waterfront contributes to local economic activity in other ways. Sales taxes and other fees for goods and services will find their way to Buffalo rather than wherever these hardy, weather-immune pioneers came from.

Fisher’s strongest point touches on the crisis of property abandonment throughout Buffalo. There are thousands of units of vacant, absent, or dilapidated housing throughout Buffalo’s neighborhoods, and prioritizing high-end luxury buildings on the waterfront when we have this other problem is, at best, unseemly. But the property we’re talking about on the waterfront is different from an east side bungalow in a few salient ways, not the least of which is the real estate mantra: location, location, location.

What of that location? Listening to opponents of development on the Outer Harbor, you’d think that ECHDC was planning to mow down all the wetlands and parks and put up a sea of parking lots and concrete bunkers. But look at the renderings – there’s nothing but parkland all over the place, even in the ECHDC plan. The most contentious proposal involves construction along the Buffalo River, opposite Canalside.  What’s there now, you ask? A parking lot for people’s drydocked boats and their cars; an eyesore.

Here’s a presentation showing the three alternatives that the ECHDC proposed. Almost all of the building they’ve been talking about is on parcels that are now either parking lots, drydocks, or dilapidated concrete parks. The impact to greenspace is de minimis.

Here is one of the ECHDC proposals. The development is limited to those areas that are already concrete lots, and it creates a huge swath of new publicly accessible parkland.

Here’s another view of what the ECHDC is proposing. This seems to track “Alternative B”.

For the areas they’re talking about developing, they’re already marred by crap. ECHDC seems to be saying, let’s replace the crap with something attractive and usable.

I think Fisher’s piece contributes positively to a debate that we should be having about reuse of the Outer Harbor, and the abandonment point is an interesting one. But right now the choices being pushed to the public are to either build nothing at all, or accusing ECHDC of wanting to build a sea of Waterfront Villages out there to encroach on Times Beach Preserve. However, that’s not what’s happening.

But why would we prohibit any development on these dilapidated, eyesore parcels in perpetuity based on current real estate and economic conditions? Cities all over the world have re-shaped their waterfronts in part due to the introduction of things to do and places to go. If the conditions are inhospitable in the winter, some shelter makes sense. Expanding Metro Rail down to the Outer Harbor makes sense. Even if ECHDC was to simply plan and zone the buildable parcels, get utilities down there, and then let private developers have at it through a transparent public auction, would that be a net negative for Buffalo?

Maybe now isn’t the best time to build out there, but someday it might be. We should be careful about planning how it happens, but it should be allowed to happen.

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. 

New Suburbanism

The Congress for New Urbanism came to a city to talk about how great cities are. It went out to some of the suburbs that are on the urbanist-approved list, and apparently engaged in some interesting discussion about how prosperous people like their development and planning. 

We’re talking, of course, about a Buffalo that is overwhelmingly poor; joblessness and underemployment are wildly popular careers. But we’re meant to believe that “bad development” and “parking lots” are the real socioeconomic plague in western New York

Celebration, FL

This is a city where the weekly Monday columnist writes about the city’s “strategy” for dealing with scores of vacant lots – not surface parking mind you, but straight-up grassland. The East Side of Buffalo was liveable and walkable. It was compact and diverse. If it’s what everyone wants, why did everyone leave? 

It wasn’t just racism, you know? It was the postwar American dream – to abandon noisy, crowded cities, slums, and tenements to chase the American dream. To have a little patch of land and a house and a quieter existence. To this day, some people like living in a suburban environment for a variety of reasons. To each his own. 

I agree that New Urbanism can do a lot to improve the ways suburbs develop, grow, and change. I would love for every town to resemble Celebration, FL, the Disney-developed New Urbanist model. It has sidewalks, mixed use communities, a distinct downtown, it’s bike-and-pedestrian friendly, the garages are in the back and not fronting the street. Houses are closer together. It’s very nice. It would be great to have a development like that locally. 

Buffalo, though. This is a city where the Monday paper reveals how the at-war school board is so feckless and incompetent that 1,000 families have no idea where their kids are going to school next semester. That doesn’t matter to the childless, though. 

Through Colin Dabkowski, we learn some more about the CNU

But something [CNU speaker Jeff] Speck said toward the end of his presentation gave me serious doubts about the movement’s claims to inclusivity and its interest in improving life for all urban residents. Speck espouses a theory of urban development he calls “urban triage,” a term that means infrastructure investment should go largely to a city’s densest and most-prosperous neighborhoods at the expense of outlying areas.

In explaining that philosophy, Speck said cities need to “concentrate perfection” in certain neighborhoods, distribute money in a way that favors those neighborhoods and focus primarily on downtowns in an effort to increase the health and wealth of citizens.

“Most mayors, city managers and municipal planners feel a responsibility to their entire city,” Speck wrote in his book “Walkable City,” a follow-up to “Suburban Nation,” the so-called “Bible of New Urbanism” that he co-authored with Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zybek. “As a result, they tend to sprinkle the walkability fairy dust indiscriminately. They are also optimists – they wouldn’t be in government otherwise – so they want to believe that they can someday attain a city that is universally excellent. This is lovely, but it is counterproductive.”

Interesting concept. As someone on my Facebook page pointed out, the point of triage is to identify and treat the people who need it the most, not to follow the path of least (and wealthiest) resistance. 

As a movement, New Urbanism seems primarily concerned with making prosperous neighborhoods more prosperous and then hoping against hope that the benefits of that prosperity magically extend into sections of town untouched by their charming design sensibility. Hence “urban triage,” a term that connotes a lack of concern for the human occupants of those neighborhoods deemed unworthy of infrastructure investments.

On a recent bicycle tour through the East Side led by activist and East Side resident David Torke and local planner and New Urbanist Chris Hawley, it’s obvious that this neighborhood needs infrastructure development and that local activists and urbanists recognize this need. To suggest that we need to choose between developing our downtown and improving the lives of residents in blighted neighborhoods, as New Urbanists’ “urban triage” philosophy would suggest, is beyond irresponsible.

You need to read the whole thing, right down to the time that another speaker – Andres Duany – casually threw around “retarded” to describe things he doesn’t like. 

Celebration, FL

The underlying ideas of New Urbanism are great – who doesn’t like pretty New Urbanist places like Seaside or Celebration? Who doesn’t like East Aurora or Hamburg’s new downtown? Who doesn’t like pretty things over ugly things? Right? Who doesn’t want to eliminate ugly surface lots and replace them with some nice infill development, right? 

But consider this: 

 She later (Tweet since deleted) argued that many people she knows who live in the suburbs are depressed as a result of being “bored shitless”. Of course, depression is an illness – a treatable disease. It’s due to a chemical imbalance in the brain, which explains why it can be treated with medicine. To suggest that depression is triggered by some sort of mystical bored shitlessness is ignorant and helps to perpetuate the myth of depression as mental weakness rather than disease. 

And that’s a lot of what I find from Buffalo’s urbanists – new and old. They don’t like the suburbs (or the people who live there), so they denigrate them and the people in them. At some point yay cities becomes boo suburbs. I don’t quite understand why that is, but whatever makes you feel better about your choice, right? 

You don’t like the suburbs? Bully for you. I do. Bully for me. But I don’t have to justify my choice by denigrating yours.

Donn Esmonde, Ass and Other Things

1. The Buffalo News’ Jerry Zremski has an interesting piece about Williamsville native Andrea Bozek, the current head of communications for the National Republican Campaign Committee. Tagged as fighting a war on the “war on women”, the actual substance of the piece reveals something quite different. Rendered an embarrassment by the ignorant mouth-noises of some Republican politicians and commentators, the Republicans realize that they need to attract women by, e.g., not repelling them. So, she’s not so much going after Democrats as much as she is counseling Republicans to tamp down any misogynistic utterances or actions they might be contemplating, and to focus on a handful of issues affecting contemporary women that won’t offend any Republican principles. 

The fact that this sort of thing is novel or revolutionary is the story, here. 

2. Back when a few Clarence parents put together a hit list of “offensive” books, (articles here and here) I wrote this to Donn Esmonde, the tea party retiree who inexplicably continues to write for the Buffalo News: 

Mr. Esmonde, 

Last year, you threw every Clarence family who believes not just in public education, but excellence in public education, under the bus. Specifically, you wrote about Marlene Wacek, Lisa Thrun, and the Showalters in glowing terms about how hard they were working to prevent runaway spending (which didn’t exist) and runaway taxes (which was, at best, a wild tea partyesque oversimplification of the facts).  You told all of us working diligently to maintain funding that they wouldn’t really cut anything – that these threats were part of a  “false choice”. 

They weren’t false at all, but you never corrected yourself.  All the threatened cuts to teachers, programs, sports, classes, and electives took place. Families had to scramble to raise money to restore some of what we lost. 

You never addressed how wrong you were about the emptiness of the threats because you saw everything through your facile suburbs-suck lens. 

Well, the Showalter-Lahti family (Roger Showalter and Jason Lahti are related by marriage, and both are now on our school board) are creating a brand-new crisis out of whole cloth. Showalter’s sister & Lahti’s wife Ginger Showalter-Lahti has circulated a letter demanding the banning of certain books and texts, and her husband has added this as an item on the agenda. 

These are the people whom you so uncritically promoted as a new breed of school reformer. I hope you’re satisfied. 

(Here is the letter Mrs. Lahti has circulated to certain, selected local families: http://www.scribd.com/doc/211263269/Clarence-School-Curriculum-Letter-March-2014  Here is the letter I sent to the school board: http://blogs.artvoice.com/avdaily/2014/03/09/clarence-schools-urged-to-ban-books/

Some “reformer” you’ve found.

Surprisingly, Donn Esmonde never replied to me. He can dish it out, but can’t take it. Mostly because he’s an asshole who can’t be bothered to defend himself or admit he’s wrong, but also because the whole debacle was an acute embarrassment for him. 

Here’s another one. 

Detestable creature that he is, Esmonde whines about how – boo hoo – a lot of suburban electeds aren’t going to show up for the new urbanism conference that’s being held in Buffalo this coming week. So, he’s trying to shame them.

“It’s disappointing,” said George Grasser, urbanologist and co-chairman of the CNU host committee. “These are the people who can change zoning laws to spur development, who foot the cost for sprawl. This is all about making their communities more livable. They should be here.” Tell it, George.

If our village mayors, town superintendents and council members drop in on even a few of the dozens of CNU events, tours or presentations, they will be less likely to sign off on awful, neighborhood-assaulting hotels; ugly strip malls; Lego-like office buildings; stores fronted by parking lots; and vehicle-first, people-last communities – all of it hard-wired by zoning laws from a previous, car-centric century.

That’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it? “Liveable”? It used to be “walkable”. Who is to determine what is and isn’t “livable”? Isn’t the homeowner the best arbiter of what is “livable”? Who would move to our suburban ticky-tacky if it wasn’t “livable”.

Zoning codes and design standards aren’t sexy. But they make the difference between walkable, people-magnet neighborhoods like Hertel Avenue or Hamburg village, and irredeemably ugly stretches like Harlem Road in Cheektowaga or Niagara Falls Boulevard. A numbing succession of boxy buildings fronted by parking lots is an awful, inedible fruitcake of a “gift” that gets passed from generation to generation. So is the corrosive cost – in tax dollars and urban abandonment – of sprawl.

If sprawl is so horrific, why does it lead to “urban abandonment”? Perhaps it’s a more complicated equation than whether you can walk to the local quinoa stand. 

If nothing else, there is a bottom line that should speak to elected officials: The more livable a place, the higher the property values and greater the tax revenue. It’s no coincidence that values in Elmwood Village soared in recent decades, as more people grasped the appeal of back-to-the-future commercial/residential neighborhoods.

“Livability” involves a lot more than mere walkability and mixed use. It also has to do with functioning government and school district.  It can’t just rely on whether you can walk to the store to buy a pack of gum, but also whether you’re going to need to scramble to enter a lottery for your kid’s school, or pony up for private.

New Urbanism already has traction here. Such villages as Hamburg and Williamsville are recapturing their micro-urban essence. Buffalo is reshaping its future with a progressive “green” zoning code. The downtown waterfront’s “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” mantra is a CNU staple. What we’ve got, from waterfront grain elevators to walkable villages to a resurrecting downtown, lured CNU here. Many events are open to the public.

Not everywhere wants or needs to be Hamburg and Williamsville. Niagara Falls Boulevard and Transit Road serve their own purpose, just like Delaware Avenue is different from Hertel is different from Elmwood is different from Broadway.

New urbanism is great. Walkability is great. 

But people like Esmonde who proselytize new urbanism to neanderthal suburbanites are like that nightmare friend everyone has who aggressively shoves veganism down everyone’s throat.  There are ways to be something, or to believe something – and even to promote something – that don’t sound like a condescending lecture from an annoying evangelist. 

I wonder what sort of genuine outreach took place between the CNU organizers and suburban electeds – was it an email invitation and a shaming column from Donn Esmonde, or were there visits to planning boards and town boards? Were there in-person pitches or just “your town sucks, you should really go to this”? 

Elmwood Avenue gets a lot of ink and pixels, held up as the model for new urbanism and of what generally should be. But Elmwood Avenue today is not significantly dissimilar from Elmwood Avenue of 10 years ago. The storefronts that aren’t vacant (thanks to short-sighted landlords who demand exorbitant rents and use the empty locations as a tax hedge) are mostly independent local shops.

If we had a vibrant economy, those Elmwood vacancies would be filled, and indies slowly replaced by chains. (Replacing a Blockbuster with a Panera hardly counts). The Gap, Urban Outfitters, Banana Republic, and other mall staples would be filling in the spaces and pushing independents out to new frontiers like Grant Street or Broadway.  We have that small-scale gentrification taking place in fits and starts on Grant, but without the concomitant economic and population growth that happened in places like Brooklyn or Boston’s South End. 

The key to making Buffalo better isn’t to shame suburbanites or laud buildings, but to attract people and their money. While the real estate market is hot in certain Buffalo neighborhoods, we still haven’t tackled the systemic problems that help to prevent population decline or spur population growth and attract wealth. These are people problems – political problems – that no volume of urban planning hand-wringing will solve. 

I get that some town and village executives have day jobs. But there are night and weekend CNU sessions, and a roster of talent that is worth missing work for.

What a condescending ass. 

3. If the new owner of the Buffalo Bills wants a new stadium, he, she, or it will likely build a new stadium. If such a stadium is built, it will likely be done with some contribution from the public through subsidies, tax breaks, and other incentives. The hope is that the Bills will stay somewhere in the region, mostly because of the blow it would deal the local psyche if they were to move somewhere else. Esmonde wrote pieces about how Bills fans would shun the team if it moved out of town, and that the Bills need a new owner who “values loyalty over greed“.

So, Esmonde believes that the community values the Bills, and that we should find an unusually ungreedy billionaire to buy the team. If the new owner decides that there’s value to, say, moving the stadium to a different location – perhaps one more convenient to fans from Southern Ontario and parts East – why not examine and support that? Where is the fundamental flaw? If the new owner decides that a retractable roof would draw in more crowds, then this should be looked at closely. If the new owner decides that the best way to keep the team in the region is to fundamentally change the location and design of the team’s physical plant, then do it. 

If moving the stadium so that it can attract big business and big money from the greater Tor-Buff-Chester megaregion, then moving away from the Southtowns might make a lot of sense. 

Neither Esmonde nor the professors whom he cites own or operate an NFL team, so maybe leave that decision up to the people who are taking the economic and political risk of doing that.

Place the Stadium on the Peace Bridge

The Bills – I’m not a football fan and pay only casual attention to the team’s fortunes. The effort that’s now underway to find them a new location for a new stadium affects the whole community, fans or no. You can use this handy tool from 19 Ideas to place the stadium wherever you want

Chances are they’re not going to change the location, but they might do what Foxboro did and build a new stadium next to the old one. 

I predict that this will devolve into a typically Buffalonian mess. Despite the best efforts of the Governor and the consultants and counsel from places where things are occasionally accomplished, Buffalo will buffalo the “new”.  There will not be an alternative location. There will not be a new stadium without the state and municipalities spending big money on a home for a business that takes in $256 million in annual revenue and is valued at $870 million

Ours is a community with a lot of longstanding socioeconomic crises, crumbling infrastructure, and a glut of things that we still operate as if it was our 1950s heyday.

Consider that the Peace Bridge expansion project was first proposed in 1997 – 17 years ago. Now, we have an activist group advocating for the de facto removal of the 1927 bridge. It was 2009 when the Public Bridge Authority publicized its five alternatives for a signature companion span. 

But, maybe this time we’ll get out of our own way, right? 


Friday Things

1. If the Moon Were Only 1 Pixel

Just keep scrolling to the right. 

2. I think this is – hands down – the coolest building in Buffalo. 

I stumbled upon it Thursday morning – every highway into town was a mess, so I took Walden to Sycamore and happened upon this gem. 

3. The Libel of “Appeasement”

While American media view the crisis in the Ukraine through a WW2/appeasement/Chamberlain/cold war lens, German media are more cautious, and harkening back to WW1 and postwar Germany

The Germans find much frightening in Putin, and in particular they see in his dealings unpleasant echoes of the predatory practices of the Hitler regime. But they are also sharply critical of the US, of the hyperventilation coming out of the Beltway, and even of Kerry’s desire to push promptly to isolate Russia, when they sense that post-Putin Russia is more likely to be a responsible part of Europe and relaunching a Cold War would only tend to strengthen the reactionary elements in Russian society.

They favor a response that is more incremental, cautious, measured, and one that avoids absolutely demonizing Russia. They prefer one that will bolster over time the more positive elements in Russian society. They are focused on extending a strong helping hand to Ukraine.

Lots of places are former autocratic kleptocracies. Maybe Russia could be someday, too. I might write more about this when I have more time. I think history treats Chamberlain unfairly.

4.  Language – This Finnish woman uses nonsense words to mimic what certain languages sound like. It’s quite brilliant.  

5. If you’re blue and you don’t know where to go to, why don’t you go where fashion sits, 

6. Manufacturing a copycat, self-enclosed mini-Manhattan out of an HSBC tower we couldn’t keep filled with actual people doing some form of business seems a bit of a stretch. WNY doesn’t have the wealth to support million-dollar condos and high-end shopping on the scale suggested in this week’s story. Not by a long shot. We could try to attract Canadians, but the exchange rate is slipping in favor of the US dollar, making New York a worse value proposition, and frankly if you want to shop at Tiffany’s, you’re probably not sweating the extra 7% sales tax you pay on Bloor St. W. If they wanted to fill HSBC tower with mixed uses, then give people tax incentives to fill it, and fill it with condominiums that average people can afford. The hotel doesn’t have to be a Ritz or a Waldorf. Make it affordable, and if things start to turn around in Buffalo and wealth gets spread around some more, then the market will turn them into million-dollar homes, and maybe Nordstrom or Bloomingdales will come here of its own volition. 

Bashar al-Issa Convicted of Tax Fraud in the UK

From the Glasgow Daily Record, we learn that,

LOOSE Women star Andrea McLean was offered a big movie break – and became an unwitting pawn in a multi-million tax scam.

The Scots former weathergirl was cast as a bisexual therapist in gritty gangster film A Landscape of Lies.

But she was unaware the production – which also featured equally unsuspecting former EastEnder Marc Bannerman – was being hastily shot to get the taxman off the conmen producers’ trail.

The fraudsters, fronted by redheaded actress Aiofe Madden, 31, had told the tax authorities her company, Evolved Pictures, were making a £20million film.

They hoped to claim £2.8million in tax credits and VAT repayments and had raked in £1million in tax credits before HMRC swooped and arrested them.

Then, in a farcical attempt to cover their tracks, they hastily recruited an unsuspecting crew and cast and shot their film in four months.

But the shoestring effort they produced for just £100,000 bore no relation to the ambitious plans they had submitted – and the taxmen saw through the ruse.

Yesterday, at Southwark Crown Court in London, bankrupt Iraqi building company boss Bashar Al-Issa, 33, was found guilty of two counts of conspiracy to cheat the public revenue.

His accomplices Tariq Hassan, 51, Osama Al-Baghdady, 50, and Ian Sherwood, 53, were each found guilty of a single count of conspiracy to cheat the public revenue.

Mr. Issa came to Buffalo in a flourish several years ago, buying the Statler Towers and pledging to restore them to their former grandeur. He sought no public money and was greeted as a hero. He pledged that he would build the tallest skyscraper in Buffalo just off Niagara Square, and proposed an underground parking garage under the square to accommodate visitors’ parking needs. He even promised that a speedboat he bought would be available for the use of Statler guests and residents. 

Having renovated an elevator or two, he left town, selling the property at a loss in a flurry of litigation and bankruptcy filings, and his entire phony empire crumbled quickly around him

EPA Smart Growth Awards 2012

The EPA named its best smart growth projects of 2012, and named for “honorable mention” is Buffalo’s Larkin District

Community organizations and a local developer partnered with the University of Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning to help revitalize the Larkin District, an old manufacturing site located one mile from downtown Buffalo.  Architectural students worked with the developer and the city to create a master plan for an urban village that now features new office space, restaurants, apartments, parks, and plazas. New sidewalks, lighting, crosswalks, bicycle lanes, and bus shelters reduce pollution from vehicles by making other transportation choices more appealing.

No word on what award the South side of the Larkin’s nouveau office park may have won. 

But I was more intrigued by this

Overall Excellence
BLVD Transformation Project, Lancaster, California
The redesign of Lancaster Boulevard helped transform downtown Lancaster into a thriving residential and commercial district through investments in new streetscape design, public facilities, affordable homes, and local businesses. Completed after eight months of construction, the project demonstrates how redesigning a corridor guided by a strategic vision can spark new life in a community.  The project has generated almost $300 million in economic output and nearly 2,000 jobs.

Take a look at the “before” image; it literally looks exactly like almost ever major thoroughfare in western New York. Transit Road, Main Street in Williamsville by way of example could be improved dramatically: 

The Curiousness of Selective Preservationist Outrage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doesn’t this place matter? 

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

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

23. 866 Seneca St. ____________

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

24. 860 Seneca St. ____________

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

25. 870 Seneca St. ____________

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

26. 872 Seneca St. ____________ 

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

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

23. 840 Seneca St.

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

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

15. 763 Seneca St. RECEIVED & FILED

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

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

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

SBL                             House Number       Street          Primary Owner

1222600001003000 696 EXCHANGE MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005020000 840 EXCHANGE MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222600004008000 44 ROSEVILLE MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222600003006000 106 ROSEVILLE MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1118200008004000 696 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222600002005000 763 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005003000 837 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700002006100 856 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700002011000 866 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005011000 867 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700002010000 870 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005012000 871 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700002009000 872 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700002008000 874 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005014000 877 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005015000 889 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005016000 891 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005017000 893 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005018300 470 SMITH MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1118200006005000 716 SWAN MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222600003016100 159 VAN RENSSELAER MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222600003017000 161 VAN RENSSELAER MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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