The Curse of the Donn Esmonde Column

What better way to explain away systemic failure than to do what they did in the Middle Ages and just blame it on some supernatural curse? 

The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy first articulated the concept of the Red Sox “Curse of the Bambino” in a book released in 1990.  It soon became lore – during fall Sox games, the “Reverse Curve” sign on an overpass on the outbound Storrow Drive became “Reverse Curse”. 

So Donn Esmonde, a semi-retired Buffalo News columnist/asshole, came up with a “curse” for Buffalo. This is, naturally, not at all original. Some believe that Buffalo is cursed because President McKinley was assassinated here. It’s much easier than, say, absorbing the details and lessons from Diana Dillaway’s “Power Failure and addressing longstanding ways in which Buffalo continues to stand in the way of its own progress. 

Esmonde’s way of cheering the Pegula family’s purchase of the Buffalo Bills reads more like the rantings of an obsessed geek fanboy writing erotic fanfiction featuring Karen Gillan and Kari from “Mythbusters“. 

If the stars and fates were – for reasons unknown – lined up for decades against the city, those fortunes indisputably have changed. The U-turn has been so dramatic – and the reversal so long overdue – that the dark cloud may have lifted for generations to come.

Note to Fate: It’s about time.

It’s not fate. There is not a single thing about Buffalo and WNY that has fundamentally changed in the last 10 years, except perhaps locals’ attitudes about the city. When the governor throws a billion dollars at your city for economic development, good things would happen anywhere. The funding of ECHDC with money from the power authority helped bring about Canalside, and that was thanks to smart politicians exercising their clout. But do we really need NYPA? Shouldn’t WNY have been benefiting from cheap hydropower for the last century? Couldn’t Albany do something about making it easier to start and do business in New York State instead of just making it rain cash? Our recent election results show just how same old same old our area is.  Lucking into finding a sports-fan billionaire is just that – luck. His purchase of the Bills changes none of the fundamental, underlying problems that we face. 

Any “curse” is of our own creation, and we maintain it lovingly every time we “participate” in our electoral system. 

If indeed there was a dark cloud hanging for decades over our sporting teams and civic fortunes, it’s safe to conclude it has been mugged, mauled, pummeled and smothered into submission.

The way things are going, there will be a shiny Stanley Cup in our trophy case and a Super Bowl parade down Main Street sometime in the next decade. Crazy talk, I know. But who could have imagined that a Pegula would suddenly appear, as if brought to life by our collective wishful thinking?

We suffered the misfortunes of Wide Right, four straight Super Bowl losses, No Goal and various other sporting calamities. The supposed prior salvation of the Sabres – and a downtown-reviving Adelphia empire – offered by the Rigas family vaporized in false promises and prison sentences.

The sports calamities pale in comparison to our social, economic, and political calamities, all of which continue apace. Another article in the News details the process whereby amateur, unqualified “planners” dictate the future of the Outer Harbor by passive-aggressive sticky note.  Don’t tell me that any curse is lifted when we have people whining about people living in gorgeous new housing near the Lake. I mean, just look at what waterfront development did to those unlivable hellholes like Vancouver, Toronto, New York, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Singapore, and Chicago! We’d never want to be like those places! By God, that Outer Harbor has been a contaminated wasteland for the last 80 years, and by God a contaminated wasteland it should stay!

Apart from Silicon Valley, newly minted billionaires don’t generally fall from the sky – particularly around here. Pegula, in essence, emerged from the earth – or, at least, the source of his billions did. Advancements in the technology of natural gas extraction, called fracking, in recent years turned natural gas deposits mile-deep in shale into 21st-century treasure. Though environmentally controversial, fracking transformed Pegula seemingly overnight into a multibillionaire. With decades in the industry, Pegula – a native Pennsylvanian whose Western New York roots are nearly 40 years deep – saw the coming technology early on and acquired massive stretches of shale-rich land. He has, over the last five years, sold pieces of his stake for billions of dollars.

Luckily for us.

This one is fantastic. Esmonde is glossing over the environmental disaster that is natural gas extraction through hydrofracking. The modern fracking they do in Pennsylvania and other places is not yet allowed in New York, and while some think it would be a boon for economically depressed parts of central New York – mostly around Utica and Binghamton – it comes with huge environmental risks. 

You need look no further than this Donn Esmonde column from 2011, wherein he recounts how fracking rigs in Springville made a young family sick, and turned their well water suddenly flammable. Heartbreaking:

“I couldn’t understand why my kids were getting sick,” said Brant. “Are they going to have health problems for the rest of their lives? I have six girls, will they be able to have children?”

One could argue that fracking may have “cursed” that family, because looking at it all scientifically, empirically, and objectively is far too complicated and difficult. But what’s a little poisoned water, poisoned kids, and geological trauma when a billionaire can buy our sports team? 

I understand that we’re willing to hold our collective civic nose and ignore how Pegula made his billions, but to gloss over it and cheer the lifting of a “curse” is going a bit too far, even for Tea Party Donn

With Pegula’s emergence, Buffalo really stepped in it – but this time, instead of stomping into something odoriferous, we walked into a bed of roses. Mesh the reversal of our sporting fortunes with the ongoing repopulation of downtown, the development of the waterfront, the revival of the West Side, the emergence of Canalside and the rise of the Medical Campus, and there is just one rational rhetorical question begging to be asked: Curse? What Curse?

Buffalo’s population continues to decline. Our politics remain hopelessly dysfunctional and corrupt, and all of these things are happening in spite of that. Buffalonians and WNYers may have more optimism and hope, but it’s not because one billionaire bought the Bills – it’s because in the last 20 years, we’ve been forced at last to get past our post-industrial malaise and figure out a path to the future. We may not always agree, and we may fight and argue about the details of how to move forward, but it’s because of the work of visionary businesspeople, tax credits and incentives, activists, volunteers, and organizations that our region seems to be moving forward. For every billionaire sports team owner, the real hard work is being done by people who live paycheck to paycheck, or freelance check to freelance check. It’s being done by entrepreneurs who put their talent and passion into various projects. It’s not the grand shopping sprees that make Buffalo better, it’s all the little things that people do with minimal fanfare and very hard work. 

As for me, I’m convinced that Buffalo’s “curse” won’t be lifted until Donn Esmonde stops writing trite, humorless nonsense in the local paper and retires to his suburban tract home in Florida

Welcome To Buffalo, You Philistines

WINTER

By Patrick Blake via the AV Photo Daily Flickr Group

I literally cringed while I read this. Not figuratively – but “for real”. 

The title of the piece itself is cringeworthy in its clumsiness – “Welcome to Buffalo, folks, you’re in for a nice surprise”. People will be swarming into town to watch the basketball.  Many of them have never been here. Certainly some are thinking, “Buffalo? Really?” For those reasons, I wouldn’t at all blame the local convention & visitors’ bureau from retaining the services of an ad agency to develop a slick handout to direct NCAA spectators to places and things to do whilst not watching the basketball. 

But the Buffalo News’ most insufferable nominal columnist, Donn Esmonde, couldn’t resist getting into the act. Knowing Buffalo, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if they took today’s column and reprinted it in the “welcome to Buffalo NCAA people” brochure. Esmonde can’t help himself – he is a scold even when trying to put a welcoming face on an embarrassing downtown.  And it reads like a 7th grader’s book report. 

Congratulations, NCAA visitors. You have drawn the long straw, hit the proverbial jackpot. An extended weekend in Buffalo may not seem like an ideal destination. Yet what awaits you is not just a basketball-filled 72 hours, but a journey of discovery.

Welcome to Buffalo, the best-kept civic secret in America. By the time you leave Sunday, you will have been enlightened, transformed, rebirthed and metamorphosed. OK, maybe we can’t promise a complete epiphany. But we can guarantee you a good time – and I suspect your perception of our city will change for the better.

The set-up here is interesting because it jokingly oversells what these visitors are going to experience, which is somewhat limited in scope.  They’re not coming to Buffalo to come to Buffalo, they’re coming here for the basketball, to eat food, drink beverages, and to sleep.  Everything else – wings, Falls, transformation, enlightenment, rebirth, metamorphosis – is secondary. Maybe tertiary. 

They don’t call it the City of Good Neighbors for nothing. Here is the happy convergence of quality of life, culture and history, wrapped around a smaller-city, Midwestern-style bonhomie. You will have no problem soliciting dinner suggestions from locals or driving directions – which may include a simple “follow me.”

Yet the games will be played at the First Niagara Center in the cold. The radius of walkable destinations between games is limited, and it’s more likely that people will end up at the Buffalo Creek Casino than diving in head-first into our “bonhomie”. 

Hope springs eternal for the heads of cultural institutions, but few hoops fans will spend their spare time perusing Picassos at our art museum, checking out our Olmsted-designed parks system or marveling at our collection of Frank Lloyd Wright masterpieces. So we will stick to visitor basics: Food, drink, what makes Buffalo special and What to Do on Game-Free Friday.

That’s actually pretty self-aware. Esmonde is right – they’re not here for parks (the temperature will be quite cold this weekend) or architecture. They’re here for the basketball.  

Esmonde goes on to discuss the Buffalo wing and our very late last call, pointing out Chippewa Street as our binge-drinking strip of note.  He also gives an approving nod towards the dram shops on Allen. Then…

Buffalo is no Styrofoam Sun Belt burg, and downtown drips with character – much of it visible from the Metro Rail cars ferrying fans to the arena. The reddish-orange, terra cotta 1896 Guaranty Building was one of America’s first skyscrapers. The invention of structural steel made possible Louis Sullivan’s masterwork and enabled the vertical growth of cities.

The yellowish dome of the M&T Bank building is actual 23.75-carat gold leaf. The last roof regilding cost a half-million dollars, so don’t try this at home.

Up the block from Lafayette Square, the art deco City Hall poses a broad-shouldered, “bring it on” challenge to whatever (yes, we get a little snow) blows in from Lake Erie.

Hey, visitor from the Sun Belt – please allow our glib, local asshole of a part-time columnist to denigrate where you live! Ha ha! Welcome to Buffalo, folks from New Orleans, Orlando, Miami, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, San Diego, Tucson, and other “Styrofoam Sun Belt burgs”! On the one hand, it shows me that Esmonde is a horrible traveler, if he goes anywhere at all other than his suburban sprawl home in Florida. Each and every one of the aforementioned cities in the “Sun Belt” are drenched with culture. It might be different from that we have in Buffalo or the Northeast, but it’s worth finding and is no less fascinating than some dreary history lesson about scooping grain or working in a steel mill. It takes interest and effort. 

How deranged do you have to be to puff your city by denigrating someone else’s? 

History doubles-down barely a court-length from the First Niagara Center doors. The pedestrian bridge at Buffalo River’s edge – near the World War II destroyer USS The Sullivans – spans the Erie Canal’s western terminus, where DeWitt Clinton in 1826 opened the waterway that transformed America.

The hulking grain elevator across the river is a remnant of the Great Lakes trade that built Delaware Avenue’s “millionaires’ row” of mansions. Hang a right when leaving the arena to find handful of bars and restaurants, tucked into canal-era buildings in the revived Cobblestone District. And yes, visiting Milwaukee fans, we haven’t – unlike you – taken down our elevated, waterfront-stifling Skyway (yet).

Again. Visitors don’t give a shit about the Skyway. They don’t care why it’s there, why it’s not taken down, or anything of the sort. The Skyway is certainly an eyesore, but it and the elevated 190 – on or under which visitors will have to tread to get to the First Niagara Center –  isn’t the sine qua non of Buffalo’s downtown decline. If you’re writing this for visitors, keep our civic debates out of it. No one cares. “Where” Magazine in your hotel room isn’t replete with civic debates about elevated highways, but food, drink, shopping, and attractions. 

There is natural wonder, as well. The partly frozen splendor of Niagara Falls is just a 25-minute drive up Interstate 190. But you can’t get to the glitzier Canadian side unless you packed a passport.

The days of getting waved on by customs officials after flashing a driver’s license are long gone.

Once an insider’s town of nook-and-cranny bars and neighborhood restaurants, Buffalo now offers more obvious charms. The reclaimed 1904 Hotel @ The Lafayette – with in-house bars and restaurants – is the jewel of a host of downtown building resurrections.

Funny thing that – we’re endlessly impressed with ourselves for taking an old flophouse and turning it into something urbane white people would want to visit. An old building with bars and restaurants? Why they even have that in “Styrofoam Sun Belt” cities!

Chippewa Street’s emergence a generation ago gave Buffalo a go-to bar/restaurant district. The Avant is an upscale hotel with high-end condos. Yet downtown remains a work in progress. Cranes hover over the embryonic HarborCenter hotel/restaurant/ice rink complex outside the First Niagara Center doors – the brainstorm of Sabres owner Terry Pegula. Behind a nearby construction fence, workers are replicating the old canal path that will mark an entertainment district.

They don’t fucking care. You already mentioned Chippewa Street as our local binge-drinking vomitorium, and the Avant is special for us, but not for visitors. To someone from out of town, the Avant is no more or less worthy of mention than the Hampton Inn at Chippewa and Allen. The HarborCenter isn’t yet open and will confuse the hell out of people relying on Google Maps to help navigate the area around the arena. 

More hotels are in the making. Swing by the next time the tournament swings through, to see the finished product.

Until then, enjoy the wonder that we think is Buffalo. Despite what you might have thought, you drew the long straw.

The only line missing is, “I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it”. 

Buffalo stands on its own merits (and demerits). Allen Street is great. Chippewa might be great for some. But if we could stop insulting other places to make ourselves feel better about Buffalo, that would be great. 

As an aside, I read every one of Esmonde’s columns. That’s usually about 2 per week. I don’t think I’ve written a commentary about any of them since September when I exposed his undisclosed chumminess with a quoted source and his sprawl-tastic Florida home. I certainly could have – he’s insufferable 99% of the time – but didn’t. I wasn’t going to write about this, either, until I got to the “Sun Belt” line. Who in their right mind insults the supposed, perceived, subjective inauthenticity of other cities? For what purpose? For a smug sense of self-satisfaction – parroting the “for real” and “sense of place” bullshit marketing buzzwords that we actually use now in real life to market this city to prospective visitors? 

Buffalo as a place to visit stands and falls on its own merits and demerits. If you want people to visit and to like it, don’t be a prat about it – just get to what’s to like.  

We were once stranded in Dallas because while en route from California to Boston, our destination was hit with a 30″ snowstorm. We ended up stuck for 3 or 4 days and we were lucky enough to have the scratch to afford a rental car and a hotel room. So, we explored Dallas. This was 1996, so there were no smartphones and we didn’t have any sort of internet access. We got ideas for things to see from memory (Book Depository, Southfork) or from brochures we found in the hotel (Fort Worth Stockyards, museums in the city), and just from exploring with no set destination in mind. Had I read something in a Dallas paper denigrating Boston, I’d have been pissed off and thought, “what a bitter, inhospitable place”. 

So, I don’t have a problem with Esmonde or anyone else writing a column welcoming basketball fans from around the world. But to criticize an entire swath of the US as inauthentic in order to sell your city as “real” is outrageous and insulting. My animus for Esmonde is well-known and well-documented, but I honestly don’t wake up twice a week rubbing my hands together like a Hanna-Barbera villain in anticipation of how I can bitchslap him in a blog post. 

Our downtown is an embarrassment, but small pockets here and there are getting better. But a visitor doesn’t give a shit about how, say, the Lafayette came about or how it’s not as bad as it was. They just want to know where it is that’s fun, cool, or interesting to go. Does the Lafayette have a nice restaurant? Swell! How do I get there? Do I walk? Is there parking? Do I take a cab? Do I take the trolley? Where does that trolley go, incidentally? Is there a goddamn bus map I can have? Are you running a shuttle bus to get me from the arena to a destination, and then back again in time to catch my next game? If not, is that bus with that car salesman on the side of it in any way reliable? How often do they come? When is the next one coming? In my cookie-cutter Sun Belt city, the bus stops are sheltered and there’s a sign that tells you in real time when the next one will stop here. 

The last thing they’re thinking about is Louis Sullivan, a replica “canal terminus” to nowhere, (in mid-30s weather and rain), and whether Buffalo is “authentic” or not.

Seven Hundred and Sixteen TeeVees #ForReal

(716) 1 theaterI’m disappointed that the (716) Bistro won’t have 40′ TV screens and is settling for 38-footers. Perhaps I’ll file a lawsuit to block the proposal. My favorite part of the reveal was this paragraph, which was in the Buffalo News

The restaurant’s walls will be decorated with graphics that tell the history of the numbers 7, 1 and 6 throughout the history of sports. Its bathrooms will feature mirrors that have TVs embedded within them. And, in addition to the 38-foot TV screen, there will be 55 more big-screen TVs throughout the restaurant.

Watching the embedded mirror TVs after taking a piss is all well and good, but what about during the piss itself? Can we expect supraurinal plasma screens? What about on the inside of the doors to individual stalls? Going number 2 can take minutes rather than seconds, and patrons can’t miss a minute of sports action! Will the hand dryers have TVs?

Who knew that Tully’s was a restaurant decor trend-setter? 

But seriously, I don’t have a problem at all with a big hotel/hockey/restaurant project across from the First Niagara Center and Canalside, and down the block from Helium. It’s high time that area became the city’s entertainment district, and as much as we can make fun of the acid-washed  dream that is (716), let’s be clear on one thing – HarborCenter is the Bass Pro project, (without the public cash). 

Although it won’t be selling waders, rods, reels, and shotguns, it is a large-scale, expensive destination project that will attract people year-round. The (716) restaurant isn’t going to be fine dining, nor is anyone pretending that it will. It will likely feature a wide panoply of the finest deep-fried dishes, making you wish you owned the exclusive Pitco Frialator distributorship for western New York. It’ll be an over-the-top mega-sports bar to which people will drive 30 minutes to ignore their friends and get drunk while watching – and screaming to – an endless bank of TVs, wearing $120 hockey jerseys, and hopefully not drive home. 

It might not be your cup of tea or mine, but what HarborCenter is doing is, on balance, a good thing for Buffalo.

Buffalo: A Sense of Place

(It’s a movie. Click the arrow). 

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Not Just Parking Lots Anymore

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

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

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

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

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

The Senecas’ Buffalo Creek Casino Re-Design

Have you seen it?

Aim Low.

 

Aspirational

I hope to move my way up from “surface parking” to “valet parking”, and someday aim to join the “chairman parking” elite.

It’s good to aspire to excellence. The whole plan – is it serious? Is it a massive “f you” to the earnest people with dubious means of support who fought to halt it and its predecessor plan a few years ago?

It’s magnificent, if you agree with Xzibit

Let me know what Harrah’s is trading at today, as that may have some bearing on how aggressively this plan will be fought. 

The Senecas' Buffalo Creek Casino Re-Design

Have you seen it?

Aim Low.

 

Aspirational

I hope to move my way up from “surface parking” to “valet parking”, and someday aim to join the “chairman parking” elite.

It’s good to aspire to excellence. The whole plan – is it serious? Is it a massive “f you” to the earnest people with dubious means of support who fought to halt it and its predecessor plan a few years ago?

It’s magnificent, if you agree with Xzibit

Let me know what Harrah’s is trading at today, as that may have some bearing on how aggressively this plan will be fought. 

The 500 Block of Fail (UPDATED)

Buffalo loses convention that would have had a $1.06 million economic impact

Why? 

“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.”

Translation:  your convention center is a small, ugly bunker and your downtown has more surface parking than it has things to do. We’re going to piss off. 

Now, let’s all go back to patting ourselves on the back over last year’s preservation convention, implicitly celebrating a poverty of money and people so acute, we can’t afford to build new buildings.  Why were those people so charmed by our downtown, while the National Association of Sports Commissions finds our downtown to be specifically abhorrent? 

UPDATE: Given that the tone of the foregoing is quite negative and angry, I will reprint for you something I wrote last year, and briefly touched upon here.  

Yesterday, I posted about the Partnership for Public Space’s Tuesday presentation, which I found to be largely based on supposition, incomplete, and improperly presented to the assembled audience. I can’t believe the ECHDC spent money on that, and all to shut a couple of loudmouths up.

A camel is a horse designed by committee, so while it’s nice that we crowdsource the 9,000th iteration of what the waterfront should be, we need a real solution to downtown’s problems. 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.