A Microcosm of Buffalo

19 Sep

The people of Western New York do not have much excuse for complaining that we don’t get what we want. For there being so much anger at our demographic, economic, political, and development circumstances, the Fates hear our requests loud and clear, and we reap the logical conclusion of our decisions and views.

We don’t like our high taxes, but are unwilling to take any tangible steps to lower them. You may not trust any particular politician to lower taxes, no matter the promises (notice how few WNY politicians even promise this, by the way, as election season comes into full swing), and I would not blame you. But Williamsville and Sloan had the opportunity to eliminate an entire class of taxes, and despite national research that increasing the number of governments increases taxes, they chose localized services over tax reductions. Fair enough – we get what we want.

Exhibit B is the not-unexpected news this past weekend that Women’s and Children’s Hospital is starting a move to the downtown Medical Campus, and will invest tens of millions of dollars on the Near East Side, not the Elmwood Village. Its the logical conclusion of Elmwood’s policies, and can be extrapolated to explain why national investment (demographic and political capital) heads to the South East and South West, and not Buffalo.

This region manages to nearly universally praise the development at the Medical Campus and the Larkin District without understanding, or even examining, what policies and circumstances are in place that allow for this investment. The similarity is not the source of the dollars. The Medical Campus started with existing assets (BGH and Roswell park), added some New York State investment, and now is surging with Kaleida, UB and some private dollars, while the Larkin District has been nearly entirely private money, with a smattering of standard tax breaks. The similarity is also not political will or involvement: the Medical Campus is every politician’s darling, while the Larkin folks are happy to fly under the political radar.

No, the common element is the presence of lax development policies, with its related cousins, a welcoming neighborhood and lack of opposition. It is to each’s advantage that there is less neighborhood being impacted than in Elmwood. But a scarcity of local residents has not kept Canalside from being fought over for ten years, and most residents near the Larkin or Medical Campus appear happy for outside dollars. Work was allowed to begin, success has begot success, and momentum has built. The initial projects of each were not perfect, but the ability to simply complete a project helped sway the physicians of WCH to throw their lot in with the Medical Campus. The Larkin Developers have won praise for historic rehabs, but they also built large parking ramps, and have kept surface lots as well. Restrictive architectural and development policies were not in place, architectural renderings were not fought over, outside plans were not imposed, and urban planning sins were overlooked.

The result: jobs, residences and life in portions of the city nearly forgotten ten years ago, and billions (literally) in infrastructure investment alone. The Medical Campus has $401 million worth of projects (Global Vascular Institute, Educational Opportunity Center, and a new nursing home) currently under construction as we speak.  

In the meantime, the residents of the Elmwood Village (where two complaints can stop construction) are reaping what they have sown. After fighting to keep the hospital, the Elmwood Village then opposed any concrete action that would make it viable. The box again became more important than its contents. Everyone involved made a rational choice: Elmwood values a monoculture of trendy retail and restaurants with quaint Victorian homes, and the hospital values modern facilities and medical advancement. Everyone gets what they want . . . except when they don’t. The BRO crowd is trying to decide if hyperlocal high paying jobs are important to a vibrant neighborhood. We’ll see, as Elmwood doubles down on its experiment as an urban bedroom community.

Buffalo is fortunate that the move of Women’s and Children’s will be measured in blocks and not hundreds of miles. In this case, maybe everyone wins. But all too often, Buffalo’s face to the world is that of the Elmwood Village, and not the Medical Campus: your ability to fit inside our box is more important than your investment. So companies leave, or choose not to move here in the first place. The major companies that do arrive – GEICO, Citi, Yahoo – choose our less restrictive suburbs rather than the urban core. I don’t think this is simply a matter of floor plates and parking lots, and I’m purposely leaving taxes out for a moment, as any major company will get a sweet deal from NY. There is plenty of open land for wide new towers with underground or adjacent parking in our Central Business District. Do we welcome this development, or restrict, impose and curtail it, to have it our way or not at all?

I don’t think we can survive as a community of a million or more by simply selling yoga lessons and tapas out of historic brick buildings. The corollary is there will not be sufficient capital to maintain all those historic buildings with a smaller community. Since our city can not agree on what Progress looks like, we get a de facto result, not a planned or deliberate one. But we get what we want, or at least what we deserve.

15 Responses to “A Microcosm of Buffalo”

  1. Ethan September 16, 2010 at 4:53 pm #

    I think I’m missing your point here.

    W&CH could never have stayed in the EV forever; if they needed to expand, then they needed to knock down nice houses and create a mini-medical campus in the heart of an otherwise retail and residential area.  It’s a bad fit and I am quite certain their eventual move to the Medical Corridor is good for them and their customers.  It’s also not going to happen overnight.  I’d guess probably 10 years or so before they’re gone.  I won’t miss the sirens, but I will miss the always-plowed street.

    The more important question to me (and I live down the street; my wife walked on over for both of our boy’s deliveries) is whether Kalida just packs up and leaves an empty building or tries to find a good use for either the buildings or the gaps they leave.  I guess we’ll see how they manage with Gates.  Reuse of such spaces is tough; they don’t convert into apartments very well, though they would convert into assisted living or student housing very nicely indeed.  I’d be cool with either.

  2. Brian Castner September 16, 2010 at 5:09 pm #

    Its been in the neighborhood for 100 years? And now its a bad fit? Its your opinion W&C could not have stayed in the neighborhood “forever.” It is true they could not have stayed without changes. They made a plan to stay a while, and it involved knocking down a couple houses and building some new facilities. My point is Elmwood said no to that. That was the choice of the folks living there, but I think its wrong to say “they were always leaving anyway.” Especially when the neighborhood fought to keep them 8 years earlier. If I was snarky, I’d say the EV talks out of both sides of their mouth. Oops, I just did.

    Whether its ultimately good for the neighborhood, we’ll see. How the site will be redeveloped, I’ll leave for others. I am just trying to show the consequences of the EV attitude/values, and note how it mirrors Buffalo’s struggle generally when trying to attract/retain business.

  3. STEEL September 16, 2010 at 6:16 pm #

    I think you are naive if you think the Elmwood Village residents forced the hospital out. They have NEVER won a battle with the hospital. NEVER. Not on Hodge, not on heliports, not on parking lots. The proposed Hodge Street development was all approved and ready to go. The hospital is trending toward the Medical Campus because that is ultimately where they want to be because of costs and service. Any other reason is a smoke screen. Also, do you really think there is another major city in the country which would bend over for a hospital that wanted to tear up one of its prime neighborhoods? I don’t . Chicago’s Children’s Hospital is moving out of tony Lincoln Park just for that reason. They are moving to….a major downtown medical campus…oh disaster!.

    By the way the Medical Campus is all about lowering costs and concentrating assets including moving Children’s (much of it mandated by the state) Any controversy about NIMBYS and “The BRO Crowd” (whatever that is) and Children’s is a concoction.

    Also Elmwood village is not some monolith. It is thousands of people rich poor smart stupid, trendy, not trendy, young, old – all with different opinions. Some want the hospital and guess what? Some don’t.

  4. lefty September 17, 2010 at 1:10 pm #

    I kinda think it is a little bit of both.

    Elmwood Village residents did not want an expanded W&C because of what they felt would be negative implications to the neighborhood.

    W&C warmed up over the last 10 years to moving to the Medical Campus. Mostly, IMO, because the campus has grown without much challenge, as you identified.

    What this really comes down to in my perspective is the backwards philosophy in Buffalo that two birds in a bush is better than a single bird in hand.

    The ‘BRO types’ are already planning grand condos, lofts and townhouses on the W&C site.

    They feel that the high demand for historic Victorians in the EV is easily going to translate to a massive conversion of the 7.5 acre W&C site. Never mind the cost of doing such a project as it relates to the amount of developers in the region and how much money they actually have to invest. Oh..and it has to be affordable.

    Then the group shifts to another idea….

    How about a Hotel? Sure thing! I mean a historic hotel in the downtown core is sold for less than a single family home but ya…converting a hospital to a hotel should do the trick. Maybe they can get a deal on the beds.

    Derp. No hotel rooms needed and no developers can be found. Back to the drawing board….

    Why not a park? The residents need a place to relax and enjoy their spot coffee. Reading up on the latest hipster trends in the shade.

    So the city demos all of the buildings with money they do not have and plans for a park.

    But wait…the city can not afford to maintain the existing parks. They need to grow the tax base and provide housing in the most desirable neighborhood in Buffalo.

    So back to the drawing board….

    Now we should build housing. But wait…the type of housing that would ‘fit’ into the neighborhood can no longer be built. Not only do the skilled workers no longer work in the area, but the homes need to be affordable. After all, if public monies are to be used…it has to be for everyone.

    Now we come to another crossroads. The residents of the EV do not want poor folks movin in because that is what they moved to the EV for in the first place. Also, those ugly homes they want to build…hell nobody wants that.

    So the city gets involved and realizes that EVERYONE has an idea for reuse of the site. Maybe it would be a good idea to listen to EVERYONE and then create 100s of plans for the site while it sits empty. Wait…why does that sound so familiar????

    The most likely situation for the W&C campus is that it is going to become vacant when everything is moved to the medical campus and everyone, including people in other states, can debate and pontificate what should be done….all the while nothing actually gets accomplished.

  5. Ethan September 17, 2010 at 1:30 pm #

    “Its been in the neighborhood for 100 years? And now its a bad fit?”

    Yes; exactly.  That’s perfectly possible, isn’t it?  Actually, they’ve sort of been a bad fit for awhile- Bryant and Hodge are both very narrow streets for ambulance traffic.  They need to be bigger, and the only way they can do that in-situ  is to knock down more perfectly viable 100-year old houses; who’d want that?  I, at least, think moving is the right thing to do.  I bet when the modern wing was built there was some controversy, too, because I’m sure that involved tearing down houses; I’d actually love to plunder the News and Courier Express archives and read about that expansion, whenever it happened.  Before my time, certainly.  Same goes for the parking ramp, I bet.

    But yeah, they were always leaving eventually anyway; I’ll stand by that.  I also agree with Steele(!), that EV’s influence on W&CH has ever been pretty small-to-none.  You need only look at the NE corner of Bryant and Elmwood–a surface lot for years upon years–to see that.  Maybe when they go, or sooner since they’re go_ing_, that corner will finally get spruced up with, you know… a building.  (built to the curb, etc)

    I know some in the EV fought for them to stay earlier (I had not yet moved back at that time), but I wouldn’t have.  So there!  I don’t think this article, event, announcement is Exhibit B of anything, other than, I suppose, that the hospital is growing in a way that makes more sense than the previous plan.  Cool w/me.

    Also: The plan which was “stopped by two people” (as if!) isn’t in Elmwood Village, at least not as I define it.  LARF- Linwood, Allen, Richmond, Forest pretty much defines it to me, though to some even that is bigger than EV proper.  Tupper- or Goodell defines the N limit of “Downtown”, and so I’d put that project squarely in Allentown.  It’s picking nits, I know, but hey… when people tell me I live ‘downtown’, I know they must not. 😉

  6. Ethan September 17, 2010 at 1:31 pm #

    Oh, hey: How do I get a little photo icon to go up when I post, anyway?  It’s kinda neat!

  7. Brian Castner September 17, 2010 at 3:49 pm #

    @ Ethan: “the only way they can do that in-situ is to knock down more perfectly viable 100-year old houses; who’d want that?” People who recognize that keeping a thousand high end jobs, and the foot traffic that goes with it, is worth bulldozing 8 houses, or less than 1% of the houses of that type in that neighborhood alone. Its a rational choice, but it is a choice. I get frustrated that people in Buffalo (this is a general statement) act as though they have no control, when all sorts of things happen that are the logical result of their choices. WCH moving is a logical result of restrictive EV zoning and architectural standards. Those rules did not emerge fully formed from the ground when the earth was created by the FSM 7000 years ago. EV residents had to lobby for them, hard, and won. One result is the hospital goes. So when STEEL tries to argue that EV never won a fight with WCH, I have to disagree. They won this one.

    BTW, I won’t argue the exact dimensions of the EV – you live there, not me. But read the BRO article again – 2 people complained about that new building, and the board nixed it. 2!!!!!

    Oh, and on the avatars – go here: http://en.gravatar.com/ , and put in your email and upload a picture, and then anytime you use that email somewhere, it pulls your picture in via PFM.

    @ lefty: Stand by for your scenario to play out over BRO and Business First for the next 10 years. You are 100% dead on.

  8. Ethan September 17, 2010 at 4:51 pm #

    I don’t think it’s worth it, to knock down *another* 8 houses (remember, they’ve already torn the fabric of the neighborhood).  Less than 1% doesn’t really very well describe the impact; it’s not about numbers.

    As well, The 1000 or so jobs aren’t moving that far, actually.  And most of them are not “high-end”.  The staff and orderlies will have less of a commute, probably; I bet most of them don’t get paid squat and bus over from east of Main.  The Docs mostly live in Amherst, too, so whatevs- they’ll drive right off the 33 into work- probably, they’ll love it- more parking for the Beemers, too!

    And other than a few very specific businesses– Loiues, Casa Di Pizza, Ambrosia, I don’t see where there’s gonna be an impact on foot traffic much.  look around the corner of Bryant or Hodge and Elmwood on a lunch weekday- you’ll certainly see some scrubs out about, especially the ones what smoke… but most of the staff eat in the cafeteria.  Note again, most of those 1k jobs you mention are not in fact very high end, and the caf is more affordable even than the pizzaria.  

    Last: The 2 people didn’t *stop* the project, Brian, and it’s disingenuous to say so.  The project is still ongoing.  They *impacted* the project, right enough- but so?  I like the new design better, too.

    thanks for the tip!

  9. Brian Castner September 17, 2010 at 5:27 pm #

    I love how you can talk down 1000 medical jobs – well, they aren’t all paid well, and the docs live somewhere else anyway, and I don’t see too many people in the restaurants – I think you’re trying to make yourself feel better about the impact. I think the East Side would be happy to have a little more foot traffic and jobs of the high and low end. I’m not picking on you, I’m picking on the whole EV culture (which I think you fairly represent) – “Well, its not that great anyway. I’d rather have a park or another Thai restaurant.” Its hilarious. If all of Buffalo felt that way, we’d never attract or retain business . . . oh, wait.

    And on the project, I don’t care about a new design, old design, whatevs. I know my opinion on the design doesn’t matter. I also know it hasn’t started yet. I know its not approved. I know no shovels have gone in the ground. Months (a year?) later, that is *stopped* enough for me. There is no guarantee it will ever happen – there is plenty of BRO speculation that the developer will bail. Either way, those 2 busy bodies (whoever they are – I have no idea) cost the developer a couple months worth of architectural fees, because. . . . they didn’t like the design? If the exact design is so important to them, why don’t they pay the change order costs.

  10. Brad September 17, 2010 at 11:14 pm #

    Mr. Castner, you have missed the point entirely on the WCH issue. The issue is simply that money talks and shit walks. This, for better or worse, is true in every city, suburb, and country on this planet. This is no microcosm of “business-unfriendly Buffalo.” WCH was not moving to India. They were looking at the medical campus – 1 mile away. Both the neighborhood and the administration knew this. The administration likely wanted to move to Main Street. Ok, fine. That is not minimizing anything. They’re moving one mile away. The foot traffic from the hospital is probably less than you’d expect, and I’m expecting that you’ve never even been to this (my) ‘hood. Buffalo is not losing jobs. Jobs are moving 1 mile southeast. That is not a problem. That’s just life. There is no larger significance. In fact, the only thing this proves is that the Elmwood Village has enough financial clout to match some of the wealthier suburbs in terms of preventing development – again, money talks. Whatever happened to that “Amherst Towne Centre?” I was looking forward to shopping there at stores I couldn’t find anywhere else in WNY. Why isn’t it built yet? It’s been proposed for years. Built it already.

    Well, nevermind about that, I guess – I’m sure that has no larger significance – or maybe all these obnoxious Elmwood Village people are butting into Amherst affairs now too and ruining everything for everybody.

    Either way, the other thing that talks is law. And, in this case, both state and federal law mandate public comment sessions on certain development projects. You cannot possibly find fault with neighborhood residents who expressed their (legally mandated, legally non-binding) opinions at legally mandated public comment sessions, can you? Didn’t you serve in the military? Isn’t the right of all citizens to at least have the opportunity to be heard one of the essential ingredients of this country that you were defending? Either way, if you have a problem with the law, you should contact your respective state or federal Congress-person. Heaping scorn upon your fellow citizen for expressing opinions is, in my opinion, missing the point. No lawsuits have been filed here. This is not Canalside. The hospital wants to be on Main Street. “Regular people” did not prevent them from doing anything they didn’t want to do.

    Finally, the notion that people should just sit down and shut up because “this is Buffalo goddammit and we need all the development we can get” is offensive to my particular notion of what it means to be an American. Buffalo, despite its abject poverty and its proximity to Canada, is still governed by American law. As such, I believe American law – not common sense law, not blog law, not Roman law, not “We’re so fucking desperate law” – should be applied…even in Buffalo. If the law gives people the right to speak, then I can’t fault people for exercising that right. The hospital – or any developer – is not legally obligated to abide, just to listen. That’s all. If that’s so fucking offensive to local developers, perhaps they should be looking for more projects in places like Iran, where pesky things like “due process” are completely anathema.

  11. Ethan September 18, 2010 at 12:28 pm #

    “I think you’re trying to make yourself feel better about the impact.”

    No, I’m trying to tell you that the impact isn’t what you’re making it out to be; I think Brad up there is saying as much as well.  If you care to do the digging, I bet you’d find that W&CH’s “1000” jobs have a median salary down around 30-40k, most of the jobs down there are not doctors. 

    “I know my opinion on the design doesn’t matter.”

    No, yours doesn’t because you live miles and miles away.  The two “Busy Bodies” live very close, and again as Brad points out above, have the legal right to have their opinions considered.  This is why, for example we walked the neighborhood around13/15 Lafayette soliciting neighbors’ goodwill to get a variance for the brewery- including most especially the people next door.  Because any of them had the legal right to come on down to the ZBA and say “I hate the idea!”  It might not have mattered, but they still have the right and the ZBA might have taken that into account.  Luckily, everyone wants a brewery 🙂

  12. Brian Castner September 18, 2010 at 3:54 pm #

    @ Brad: Please take a breath. This isn’t about being an American, or in Iran, or what values I fought for, or the First Amendment, or anything else. I’m not trying to take anyone’s rights away. I mean, damn. Why does every discussion dissolve into “its my right?!” Is your comment here trying to take my rights away? Srsly.

    Here is why its a microcosm. Money does talk and walk. All over Buffalo. I’m not saying WCH is moving to India. Its an analogy. It may be better for Buffalo (I think it is) for WCH to move. Just like its better for America for Bethlehem Steel, GM, American Axle, etc etc etc to move to the South East, Mexico or China. But that doesn’t mean Buffalo doesn’t suffer when that happens, and it doesn’t mean the EV won’t suffer when WCH moves. Oh, and that Amherst Town Center thing? Yeah, dumb busy bodies live in the suburbs too. NIMBYism is equal opportunity – I wish that had been built as well.

    @ Ethan – do they check your driver’s licence when you walk in a Zoning Board Meeting, and if you aren’t in the district you don’t get to speak? If not, then my address is not at all relevant to me having an opinion on this design either. I don’t care how close the people live – why do they get de facto veto power over someone else’s project? Once again, I’m talking about attitude, not rights. They have the right to complain. That they choose to, or that the attitude persists that we (collective) stop what we don’t 100% agree with, bugs me. That’s it. I’m not trying to turn Buffalo into Riyahd. Give me a break.

  13. Ethan September 19, 2010 at 12:52 am #

    “do they check your driver’s licence when you walk in a Zoning Board Meeting, and if you aren’t in the district you don’t get to speak?”

    Not precisely, though everyone who spoke was sworn in which surprised me a bit.  But if you had come down to speak against the CBW, they’d have asked where you lived and why you cared. And when you said “Grand Island,” they’d have told you to stop wasting their time.  So yes, whether or not you are impacted by a project most certainly matters.

    “why do they get de facto veto power over someone else’s project?”

    They don’t, and afaik, the project is still on.

    “Once again, I’m talking about attitude, not rights.”

    Well just because you prefer to keep quiet about what happens in your neighborhood doesn’t mean we all should; sorry.  Hey, if you get a notice from the G.I. ZBA that the guy next door is seeking a variance for a nano-abattoir in his backyard, I know you’ll just let it happen because you aren’t a “busy body;” that’s cool.  Enjoy the stench!

  14. Brian Castner September 19, 2010 at 2:12 pm #

    That’s an excellent example you bring up at the zoning board – I’m glad you did. Terrible smell, or EMR off of high power lines, can actually cause harm. Where is the harm in the design of the chiropractic clinic? Can I smell the inferior exterior finishes? Will I get cancer from the inappropriate vertical elements? How does that actually affect me, even if I live next door? You say the zoning board only pays attention to speakers of there is an impact – what is the impact of a faux fourth story? Or a brown paint scheme? I’d love to see a proof of visual pollution that causes such horrible offense.

  15. Ethan September 19, 2010 at 2:36 pm #

    Of course it is an excellent example, that’s why I am using it.  

    The impact is on the aesthetics and coherence of a neighborhood.  Just because it’s harder to define, or not important to you doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  Ask me about the house next door sometime.

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