Archive | July, 2010

Canalside, What’s Next?

31 Jul

So, what’s next? Fishing around for a new anchor tenant, LARF!  However, if this mystical anchor tenant hunt produces any fruit and that choice is not to the liking of Mark Goldman or other interests…more lawsuits, more clamoring for living wage legislation, more talking, debating, litigating, and public hearings, scoping sessions and most importantly, more scale diagrams of the inner harbor made of foam.

Here’s how I see the next couple of months breaking down.

The Buffalo Common Council will probably not agree to the Mayor’s Community Development Agreement to transfer land in the Bass Pro Demilitarized Zone to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation because the Council doesn’t know what will be going onto the site.  The council will want input into what goes onsite, how it is placed there, living wage, how it is designed, etc.

Benderson will most likely find that their imaginary list of 10 destination retailers will not be interested in setting up shop in what amounts to an alligator pit of obstructionist nonsense.  A new retailer with a new store footprint will be subjected to a modification process of the formal SEQRA, which will add months to the development timeframe.  That time will allow demagogues to come out of the woodwork and refresh their arguments against “big box” retail.  It will require additional public hearings, going hat in hand to ask permission from the inept and obstinate Common Council for support.  Retailers do not like to put their brand at risk in a public process like this and unless the retailer chosen is Trader Ikea Foods and Barrel, whatever is chosen will be fought tooth and nail.

Aside from all of that, we are in the worst economic climate in nearly a century.  The national commercial real estate market is in shambles and retailers large and small are struggling to stay open, much less expanding with a flagship store in a depressed region where they will face significant public scrutiny and become a community lightning rod and subjected to litigation.  To take on those risks and damage to their brand, a retailer would have to be REALLY committed to the idea of being in Buffalo.

I suspect that Jordan Levy will soon cite his new responsibilities as a board member of Seneca Holdings as well as his other interests and step down from the ECHDC, to be replaced with a Higgins friendly choice.

We’ll see discussion ramp up about moving HSBC Bank from it’s 40 story tower into the Webster Block of Canalside.  Hey, relocating a huge business 300 yards and leaving our most prominent building empty is progress!

We’ll see grass planted in other areas of Canalside, an infusion of mobile meat sales, and some basic improvements made to the street grid, but FAILhole (former site of the Aud) will remain for quite some time.

Which is why I propose we implement the WNYMedia plan.  A couple of years ago, Marc Odien drew up his rendering of Buffalo’s Waterfront Future. It needs to be updated to include the Historic, Epic, Significant Taco Truck…but you get the idea.

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Bass Pro and Buffalo’s Courtship Ends

31 Jul

While Brian and Chris congratulate themselves for having accurately predicted the fact that Bass Pro was not coming to Buffalo, ever, I’ll restrict my comments to a different emotion: relief.

It’s finally over. No more feigned “excitement”. No more breathless “imminent deal”. Bass Pro is finished with Buffalo, and Buffalo with it.

Here’s exclusive audio of the final phone call where Buffalo told Bass Pro that it’s over (NB: this is a joke, and the audio is NSFW).

I have been paying attention to this Bass Pro thing since Masiello and Pataki donned flannel to make the big announce six years ago. We’ve lived through an MOU, debates about the subsidy, Joel Giambra refusing to sign the Bass Pro MOU, then changing his mind, tobacco money, the WNY Coalition for Progress, sales tax hikes, the creation of ECHDC by Pataki at Higgins’ urging, the creation of Canal Side, the first 30-day deadline, which turned into a 60-day deadline, which turned into no deadline, , the NYPA reauthorization, Bass Pro’s perpetual excitement, and the perpetual imminence of the deal being done.

Momentum! Eventually, my support for the project turned into indifference. We decided finally to get rid of the useless Aud. Bass Pro and ECHDC turned their attention in early 2007 to the Central Wharf, right down to the imminent deal and flyover animation. Suddenly the professional obstructionists blew their collective gasket. Lawsuits! To his credit, Larry Quinn took the opposition on. The usual suspects came out with the usual lies – in this case, “big box” was the condescending buzzword du jour. Every false claim had to be rebutted.

In 2007, WNYMedia.net produced the “Bass Pros and Cons” video, and held a panel discussion at Canisius College’s Montante Center featuring Jim Ostrowski, Larry Quinn, Carl Paladino, and Scot Fisher. Donn Esmonde did Esmondey things. The professional obstructionists held a circle-jerk panel discussion a month later to “debate” whether it was proper for public money to be spent on a public-private project. The irony of the discussion being held at the Hallwalls facility, which is a private recipient of public money, was generally missed.

We had reasonable and unreasonable discussions galore about this downtown shopping mall. In any event, the Bass Pro on the Central Wharf idea was dead before it was ever born, a victim of dumb demagoguery in the first degree.

Might I propose that somewhere on the property be erected a statue of Tim Tielman with the engraving, “Walden Galleria: 10 Miles”.

But by October 2007, we were on to plan C; Bass Pro would start again with a new-build on the Aud site. We had the “Waterfront Coalition” created, which took the demagoguery ball and ran with it to the Outer Harbor. We responded with the “Coalition of Enough, Already“.

By 2008, Bass Pro was pleading with Buffalo to hurry it up, already. The project was up for public comment and was going to cost $500 million. Suddenly we had a “pre-development agreement”, which roughly translates as “nothing”. And more nothing. And more nothing. And angry nothing.

But nothing was suddenly replaced with … more animations!

But while 2009 was quiet, 2010 saw the issue of Bass Pro coming to a head. The problem was that no one cared anymore. Building crap worth going to on the water in other cities is no-brainer stuff. In Buffalo, it was like a painful 10-year long surgery with no anesthetic costing millions.

It ended with a final ultimatum, a lawsuit from the professional obstructionists, and the ultimate conclusion of this epic drama.

The whole, long drama was bookended by Masiello and Pataki donning flannel on the one hand, and Carl Paladino invoking Marx and ACORN on the other. In-between was the typical contemporary trajectory of Buffalo Fail.

I’m happy that WNYMedia.net was at the forefront of discussing this project in a way that cut through the bullshit and the lies and the demagoguery. We didn’t report the news – we hosted the public discussion and commentary in a way that no other local media was able to accomplish. We were reasonable when necessary, snarky when not. We were hopeful, skeptical, informed, cynical, interested, and offered the community a forum to debate the whole thing.

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The conclusion? When it comes to discussion of development in Buffalo, don’t bet against the cynics.

My Last Word on Bass Pro

30 Jul

Let me start with a self congratulation. I was right. Bass Pro has not been coming for some time. They simply made it official today.

But Congressman Brian Higgins was wrong, when he says they never were coming. He’s wrong because we’ll never know, because CBA peddlers, lawsuit artists, professional obstructionists and Buffalo Common Council gave them an out. Buffalo never had the chance to call their bluff, and we let them off the hook. We’ll never know how long its been since we were in the running.

The post-mortem on Bass Pro will predictably combine several relevant questions into one Pacific gasp: “Who’s fault is it?” That question is obvious, but your answer to it probably reveals more about your political bent and general snootiness than yields a constructive answer. So let me parse it further.

The immediate question is: “What killed Bass Pro?” Or, to put it another way, “What killed Bass Pro today?” It has been mentioned today ad nauseum that Bass Pro has been toying with Buffalo for nine years. Implicit in that critique is the fact that Bass Pro could have pulled out of this deal any time in the last nine years, but didn’t. They made (weak) positive noises through environmental reviews, Tim Tielman grandstanding, endless redesigns, a Great Recession, the Aud being knocked down, Marine Drive parking ramp NIMBYism, and a funding juggling act. They could not survive a late stage living wage monkey wrench to the head, the Common Council balking at a “drop the CBA” bribe funding plan and a lawsuit who’s hypocrisy is only matched by its irony. Some may try to blame Congressman’s Higgin’s ultimatum for today’s announcement. With all due respect to the Congressman, he holds none of the cards in a lease negotiation between a private company and a New York State authority. He could bluster and cajole, but Bass Pro was free to ignore his deadline as well. In the end, it provided some drama to the timing, but little else.

Note that the “What killed Bass Pro?” question is very different from the other questions being asked (and jumbled together) today: “Who’s to blame for this not working?” or “Was Bass Pro a good idea in the first place?” or “Should $35 million be given to retail?” or “What should happen now?” or “Why does Buffalo suck at doing anything?”

Let me take those one at a time. The answers are professional obstructionists, yes, no, shrug, and small mindedness, petty rivalries, and general incompetence, in that order. I am generally sympathetic to Jordan Levy and Larry Quinn, who are at least in the arena battling, rather than cowardly chirping critiques from the side, taking no risk and choosing the status quo FAIL over any plan not perfectly in line with their insulated self-important ideals. The CBA pushers got their wish: non-existent theoretical jobs that will pay no one any wage, rather than actual jobs that will pay someone a lesser wage. The few successfully ruined it for the many. As Alan would say, this is why we can’t have nice things.

Bass Pro was never a perfect fit, and the deal did seem to be getting worse as the bloom came off the “destination retailer” rose. That being said, I was looking forward to trying out a canoe or kayak on the water downtown before I bought one, and the idea of putting a boat/fishing store on the Great Lake that has some of the best bass fishing in the world does seem to make some intuitive sense. I know rednecks don’t get a vote on the intertube commentary to complain, and I’m sure Hamburg would be happy to host a store like this instead (oh the BRO wailing and gnashing of teeth – the only thing worse than a Bass Pro downtown is one in the SUBURBS!).  

So what happens next? My first prediction in March, that Canalside will remain a vacant concrete hole for years, may be too close to the mark. Jordan Levy acknowledged today that the quotes currently out for construction have plenty of work that no longer needs to be done, and the ECHDC may have to go back and reopen the environmental review process because the removal of Bass Pro constitutes a major change. Expect every Tim Tielman, Donn Esmonde and other self-appointed spokesman of the people to have their own opinion about what cultural/retailer/restaurant should occupy that space, and what portion of the $35 million their pet project should get. This process will drag on years, and the Peace Bridge may be built before its sorted out. That $35 million is too big of a prize to not be fought over. Consider this suggestion from the CBA-leading Bass Pro slayers:

Micaela Shapiro-Shellaby of the Coalition for Economic Justice said she hopes the $35 million in subsidies that were earmarked for Bass Pro could be spent in ways that have broad long-term benefits for the region.

“[The money] could be put toward some of the things that we would like to see in a Community Benefits Agreement, such as promoting local entrepreneurship,” she said.

She added that the latest twist in the Canal Side saga might be opportunity to promote greater public input.

Yes, because all those small business incubators, job programs and training sites (read: patronage pits) have done wonders to turn Buffalo around and build a thriving middle class and small business culture in this city. And CLEARLY what this project has lacked the last nine years is sufficient community input.

Bass Pro: Not Coming to #Buffalo, Ever (Updated)

30 Jul

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If you missed the tweets from @wnymedia, @buffalogeek, and @buffalopundit, and have otherwise been under a rock for the afternoon, Bass Pro has pulled out of the Canal Side project once and for all.

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A press conference had been called for 2pm where Jordan Levy was going to unveil a study concluding that Bass Pro would be just great for the Buffalo waterfront. That was abruptly canceled at around lunchtime due to “scheduling conflicts”. About an hour or so later, the media got a new advisory announcing a “major” 2:30pm announcement about Bass Pro. Sources told me almost immediately that this was bad news about Bass Pro.

The video speaks for itself, and our long regional nightmare of uncertain Bass Pro agreement status has finally come to an end.

ECHDC’s Jordan Levy and Tom Dee, plus Benderson Development’s Eric Reccoon were on-hand to address the situation. They reiterated that Bass Pro was never the sum total of the Canal Side project, and that they would now have to redouble their efforts to basically come up with a plan B. Levy and Reccoon stated that ten alternate anchor tenants had been identified, and that they would be setting out over the next several weeks in-person to pitch Canal Side to these retailers. They declined to identify the prospective tenants because part of the reason why Bass Pro pulled out of these negotiations is your fault, my fault, all of our fault. The “negative” and “toxic” public discussion about Bass Pro, paired with the fact that Bass Pro had become a “lightning rod” had contributed to the deal not happening.

Finally, it was noted by Bass Pro that they simply could not finalize a lease deal within the time constraints set forth by Congressman Brian Higgins due to “numerous critical issues” involving the fact that “several major issues fundamental to the successful completion of the project”. Media chatter that this deal is dead because of because of Higgins’ deadline is, therefore, factually inaccurate.

More later – tune in to hear Chris Smith with Brad Riter on WECK 1230-AM at 5pm.

UPDATE: Brian Higgins’ statement:

Congressman Higgins Responds to News on Waterfront Development

“Western New Yorkers have waited fifty years for waterfront development to happen and we aren’t waiting anymore. After nearly a decade of talk there comes a point when this community should expect our business partners to either sign on the dotted line or we as a community must again stand up for ourselves and demand we move forward.

“I will be asking Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation to develop a revised plan with emphasis on public infrastructure that will help us to reach our full waterfront potential. Thanks to our hard work over the last several years we have over $100 million in NYPA funding immediately available to implement that plan.

“The potential for a great Buffalo waterfront is emerging; we know it and we see it with the increased crowds at the Inner and Outer Harbor today. The last nine years of limbo is unreasonable and unfortunate but today, with nothing holding us back, we continue the momentum we already see along the water’s edge.”

They Come Out of Piñatas?

30 Jul

Quite possibly the best caption ever. Thanks, Roll Call.

Facts are Fun

30 Jul

Courtesy of Andrew Sullivan:

As a Jewish American, I am offended by Newt Gingrich’s suggestion that use the name of Córdoba by Muslims is insulting to non-Muslims. The height of Muslim rule the Iberian Peninsula, the rule of the Caliphate of Córdoba, was also the height of Jewish culture in Spain. It was the decline of the Caliphate of Córdoba that began the end of tolerance of Jews in the Muslim-ruled parts of the Iberian Peninsula. Nevertheless, it was not until Christian rule was established over the entire Iberian Peninsula in 1492 that there was a concerted effort to eliminate the existence of Jews and Judaism in every part of Spain.

Gingrich seems most offended by the fact that the Mosque of Córdoba was established on the grounds of a former church. He failed to mention that the church in question was purchased for the purpose of constructing a mosque on the site. Those who later converted the mosque into a cathedral were not so kind as to offer payment.

I agree with Gingrich that churches and synagogues should be allowed to operate from within Saudia Arabia. However, I am of the opinion that this should not be a pre-requisite for religious freedom in the United States. I was under the impression that the United States considered democracy and freedom of religion to be core principles, not privileges to be used as bargaining chips.

You’re entitled to your opinion.

You’re not entitled to your own facts.

Tonawanda Coke: Indicted

30 Jul

Nearby residents have long suspected that emissions from Tonawanda Coke have literally been poisoning them.

An investigation has revealed, and a 15-count federal indictment has formally alleged, that Tonawanda Coke and its so-called “Environmental Control Manager” violated the Clean Air Act.

…five of these offenses relate to the release of coke oven gas containing benzene into the air through an unreported pressure relief valve. The remaining ten Clean Air Act counts relate to operating two coke-quenching towers without baffles, a pollution control device required by TCC’s Title V Clean Air Act permit designed to reduce the particulate matter that is released into the air during coke quenches. These charges carry a maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment, a maximum fine of $500,000 for the corporate defendant and $250,000 for defendant Kamholz, or both.

YNN’s Report is here.

Insert Guess Here

30 Jul

The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation’s Jordan Levy has called a press conference for 2pm today – Friday – to be held at the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.

Since Fridays are traditionally the day on which bad news gets dumped, it’s anyone’s guess as to the content of this press conference.

I have an inkling it’s Bass Pro related.

Darwin Martin House Funding (Not) at Risk UPDATED

30 Jul

UPDATE: The Flake Amendment was defeated in the House last night 165 – 258. To his credit, Chris Lee voted “Nay”. Now, call and thank him at (202) 225-5265.

Tonight, the House is expected to take up an appropriations bill including $1 million for Buffalo’s Darwin Martin House, which is nearing its final restoration phase. Republican Jeff Flake of Arizona has introduced an amendment to strip that funding from the bill. Of the local delegation, both Representatives Higgins and Slaughter intend to not just vote against Flake’s amendment, but also to take to the floor to defend federal funding to restore a national treasure – Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House..

As of right now, no one knows how Chris Lee will vote – with the Republicans, or whether he will instead vote to defend a WNY institution. Since Rep. Lee loves communicating by phone, call and find out! (202) 225-5265.

Bass Pro, Connecting The Dots

30 Jul

Updating a post from last week…

A fog of failure has been created around Bass Pro and Canalside. No one is to blame, because everyone is to blame.

Higgins is to blame for sending his 14 day ultimatum to Bass Pro, the Common Council is to blame for foisting the Community Benefits Agreement into the process at the last minute, the Mayor is to blame for not sending his compromise Community Development Agreement to the Common Council in time for them to legitimately debate it, Scott Fisher and Mark Goldman are to blame for their frivolous lawsuit, and Buffalo (writ large) is responsible…at least that’s how Jordan Levy tells the tale. He and ECHDC and Benderson are just faithful stewards of the process…I think you can hear my eyes rolling.

Over the last three days, a few stories have come out that seem to be disconnected, but really aren’t once you connect the dots.

Three times during the Buffalo/ECHDC CDA announcement, Larry Quinn made a point to mention that the community needs to stop focusing on Bass Pro and start calling the development “Canalside”.  Quinn said, “With or without Bass Pro, this is going to be a huge development”.  During that same press conference, Mayor Brown, Rep. Higgins and ECHDC Chairman Jordan Levy echoed the same sentiment.

Bass Pro has had the official lease agreement with ECHDC in their hands for several weeks and has yet to act.  While all the funding is in place and the environmental reviews are completed, there is still a nagging issue around the proposed Community Benefits Agreement (with a living wage provision) being debated in the Common Council.  That nagging issue has had a deleterious effect on negotiations, according to Jordan Levy,

“We’re negotiating with Bass Pro. They have a lease (proposal).  We’re optimistic. We’re moving forward with that.. Bass Pro is clearly sincere, but candidly the activity that is taking place in this community is in fact having a negative effect on those negotiations.”

The Mayor offered a compromise with his proposed Community Development Agreement between ECHDC and the City of Buffalo.  Essentially lifting many of the  provisions of the proposed CBA (minus the living wage provision) and transferring $10MM of ECHDC funds to council districts throughout the city.  Or as Councilman Mike LoCurto calls it, “A Council Bribery Agreement”.  The council tabled discussion of the Mayor’s CDA, perhaps until the end of their seven-week recess.  As of right now, neither agreement (CBA/CDA) has the votes to pass.

Second story of note was the coordinated leak to numerous outlets that HSBC Bank is looking to relocate from 1 HSBC Center to a location either on the Webster Block in the ECHDC area or a campus like building in the Cobblestone district.

Third story of note is Rep. Brian Higgins’ letter to Bass Pro CEO Johnny Morris.  In the letter, Higgins gave Bass Pro two weeks to make a final decision on the lease agreement with ECHDC.

There are a couple of possibilities why Higgins chose to release that letter.

1.)  Bass Pro has already told ECHDC that they are out and everyone is rushing to save face.  If Bass Pro is out, Higgins can claim he set a deadline and Bass Pro walked, making it look like he was tough and won a victory for the community.

2.) Bass Pro is in and Higgins can claim his no-nonsense deadline setting was the impetus for the final decision.  See how there is no downside for the letter?  Higgins is a pretty smart politician, ya know.  Cynical, but smart.

3.) Bass Pro is waiting for the city to make a decision on the living wage provision and will not sign a lease until it’s been defeated.  Higgins then forces the hand of the Common Council to make a decision on the CDA in a special session within the next two weeks.  All signs point to the Bass Pro CDA not having the votes necessary unless Kearns or Franczyk can be swayed to yes votes with additional lulus for their districts.

Most likely, Bass Pro will not be the anchor in Canalside, which is why there is suddenly talk about moving HSBC 300 yards down the street to serve as a development anchor.

I suspect that unless this living wage provision is scrapped within 14 days, we’re going to stream another press conference at which Larry Quinn and Jordan Levy will pretend that Bass Pro was never crucial to the development.

Oh, how we’ll laaaaaaugh!