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. 

Proaction vs. Reaction (UPDATED)


That’s WGRZ’s report on last night’s protest of the demolition of the Bethlehem Steel administration building adjacent to a crushed stone and cement facility. It’s a shame to see a pretty building go, but as I wrote yesterday, I certainly think this ranks rather low on the priority scale for not just Lackawanna, but western New York at large. 

After so many decades of preservationist battles led by professional activists funded by Buffalo’s foundations – after so many decades of reactive grassroots planning-by-litigation, is anyone amazed that even lowly White Plains, with a population of less than 100,000, has a more modern, better-constructed, better-designed, and more walkable city core than Buffalo?  

Please don’t mistake my sentiment – I think it’s great that we have a treasure trove of gorgeous, architecturally significant buildings to show off here in town. I thank the people who worked/work to save and improve them.

But where does that end? We also have a community that reacts to the proposed demolition of, say, Trico Plant 1 by defaulting to “keep it”. When “architectural significance” isn’t going to fly, they rely instead on appeals to emotion about its personal significance, or the significance of what once took place within that building. Are we going to erect a windshield-wiper museum in Trico? Is it the first, or the best, or the prettiest example of that sort of factory? Is Trico 1 to be treated like it’s equivalent to the Darwin Martin House? 

And preservation shouldn’t be quite so reactive. 

After all, what palpable, positive results do we have to show for our civic fascination with planning-by-litigation, and our mysteriously funded preservation reactivist efforts? I know that the city is still haunted by the demolition of, e.g., the Erie County Savings Bank to make way for the execrable Main Place Tower and the empty, pitiful “mall” attached to it, and that the Larkin Administration Building was demolished, leaving only yet another surface parking lot. But after all these years, you’d think that there’d be a lobbying effort to codify actual rules and regulations. But whereas old Buffalo erred on the side of demolition, perhaps now we err too often on the side of preservation – even of buildings whose historical, cultural, or architectural significance is specious, at best. 

Look – I don’t want pretty buildings demolished any more than anyone else does. And I’m not “in favor” of demolishing the Bethlehem Steel building at issue here. By the same token, I think you should only interfere reactively to a landowner’s use of his privately owned property where there’s a compelling public reason to do so. Dismantle this Bethlehem Steel building and put it someplace else. They did it with the 1831 London Bridge. 

Where’s the push for a land-value tax? Where’s the push to create a binding, uniform set of rules and regulations for handling these things. All that money and influence that the preservationist community enjoys, and we don’t yet have a “do not touch” list of historically, architecturally, or culturally significant buildings for Erie County? We’re just going to back-handedly react to planned demolitions by equating an abandoned building in a concrete factory to Shea’s? 

Sometimes, I think Buffalo’s preservationist community secretly wants these sorts of battles. They don’t really want the problem to be solved through prospective action; with legislation and a binding, predictable set of rules. Tim Tielman’s name is synonymous with architectural preservation in Buffalo, and he wields a lot of influence and has many wealthy and powerful supporters. He’s uniquely positioned to parlay his influence into legislative action. 

But if the problem is solved, what would they do then? 

UPDATE: I’ve been debating regular commenter and BRO writer David Steele in a post at Rustwire, and we’ve been going back and forth, with his ultimate position being that an elimination or reversal of suburban sprawl in WNY would solve problems like this Lackawanna Administration Building. Here’s what I wrote him in reply: 

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ECHDC Food Market Survey

The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation is asking for the public’s input concerning restaurant and food market opinions and decisions.  I have an email in to ask, but take a look, fill it out, and let me know what you think it’s all about. 

I think it’s part of the planning for a proposed food market at Canal Side, and also possibly to prioritize what sort of restaurant concessions are approved or pursued. This way, when Goldman et al. complain about what ends up there, the Authority can point to the survey and argue that they sought and received public input, and avoid controversy over who speaks for whom. 

Outer Harbor

The Outer Harbor will cost millions to environmentally remediate, but has tons of potential once this place starts getting its act together again. Here’s something I wrote about it in 2004.

Personally, I think that the outer harbor should be designed as a mixed-use urban village, incorporating the ideas of New Urbanism. It shouldn’t be another office park. It should have character – cobblestone streets and brick fronts. It should have integrated, convenient underground parking. The NFTA should without a doubt extend Metro Rail to this new community. There should be ample retail and restaurant space. There should be easy access to a waterfront promenade/boardwalk & fishing pier. The possibilities are limitless.

Somewhat unfortunately, they still are.