Archive | November, 2010

Thanksgiving Tradition, Alice’s Restaurant

25 Nov

Each year, while making the turkey and assorted dishes, the Arlo Guthrie classic “Alice’s Restaurant” is a part of our good cheer and family fun.  Just thought I’d share.

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Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

Happy Thanksgiving!

25 Nov

Breaking Thanksgiving News from the Obama Administration:

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Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. See you at the Turkey Trot.

What Old White People Like: Waterfront Edition

24 Nov

I’ve learned a lot during the last two weeks of attending/viewing the series of open houses hosted by the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC) at which they are soliciting public input on the Canal Side Modified General Project Plan (MGPP).

Most importantly, I’ve learned a lot about what old white people want to see on the waterfront.  Of course, there is a difference between “places” and “things”, but that nuance seems to escape them. We’ve already written a couple hundred thousand words discussing Bass Pro, Canal Side and our analysis of the project, but I’ll write a few more.  I’ll also encourage you to attend the final session tomorrow at the ECHDC offices between 10AM-Noon.

Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned from the various public speakers at this event:

Roughly 75% of the speakers have informed the ECHDC that the Hamburg Drain needs to be moved.  What’s the Hamburg Drain you ask? It’s the fourth largest and third most active Combined Sewer Overflow in the Buffalo Sewer Authority. It’s kind of a big deal in the sewage community.    Click here to read why its important, seriously.  As part of the environmental review process, the ECHDC did an analysis of the drain and its impact on the project, you can and should read it here.  It also sits directly under the Aud Block and its location prohibits the types of structures or canals that can be placed on the site.

The presence of the drain prohibits the digging of navigable canals thus necessitating the dreaded “faux” canal, for instance.  The Hamburg Drain was modified at great expense several years ago to make room for the Commercial Slip on the Inner Harbor.  Estimates to remove it or completely redirect it range anywhere from $75-100MM.  Of course, the sum total of available monies for the Canal Side project are somewhere around $100-140MM.  None of the people, when questioned by ECHDC officials have any concept as to what is involved with removal, the scope of the project nor the cost.  They just want it removed.   So, there’s that.

Each speaker is demanding “dialogue”.  Going back through available press releases, we were notified and then notified our readers of 26 public meetings of the ECHDC since 2007.   That does not include the mandated environmental review meetings which were well-attended, we even streamed those meetings online.  There are very simple ways to contact the ECHDC on their website and their doors are always open.  The ECHDC has initiated several community committees that have been working with them on the historic narrative, museums, public art, recreation, public market, boating, and other issues.  Involvement and dialogue have been everywhere for three years.  That didn’t stop one speaker yesterday from saying “I wasn’t even aware any of this was happening until Mark Goldman told me about it.”  Of course, she wants a pause until she can get caught up on what’s happening.  Also, she hasn’t read all the information yet, she just knows it’s not authentic.

Let’s make a short list of the things people have told us they would like to see implemented at the Inner Harbor and/or their opinions about what is planned.  Note my purposeful overuse of the word “need”, I heard it during each speaker’s comments.  Also, none of this is exaggerated or made up.  These are all things people asked for or said.

  • We need to move the Hamburg drain so we can have navigable canals connected to the lake and the river
  • We need an Ellis Island like historical museum replete with a huge statue of John Wilkinson, a museum which lists all of the people who ever traveled on the Erie Canal on a “Wall of Fame”.
  • Tucker Curtin of Dug’s Dive wants us to slow this 50 year process the fuck down and “jam it in reverse”.  Of course, in the interim, he’d be glad to open a series of food stands at which he can sell moderately priced delicacies to the people coming to look at the hole in the ground.
  • We need restrooms with showers so boaters can get clean.
  • We need to look to Dunkirk’s waterfront for inspiration on how things should look
  • We need an underground parking garage, no we don’t, yes we do, people can walk, no they won’t, they can take the train, build a new train, maybe an outdoor airport-style people mover, connect the train to UB/Hamburg/Tonawanda.  It’s all real easy!  Why is ECHDC making it so tough?
  • We need to make authentic fake history, not fake fake history.  We need authentic low slung docks with handicap accessibility for kayakers who struggle with stairs.  Yes, really.  We also need special parking for kayakers.
  • It would be cool if we had radio controlled boats on the authentic canal, not fake canals because that would be tacky.
  • We need to have authentic boats, not toy boats or paddle boats.  Radio controlled boat guy visibly annoyed.
  • We should dig up a schooner off the coast of Dunkirk (80% of the ship has been consumed by the elements) and put it in a huge tank of water on the aud block.  Which, of course, necessitates the need to move the Hamburg drain as the imagined tank of water containing 20% of a schooner would presumably be too heavy.
  • One speaker has independently been trying to “lure” LL Bean here for a decade.  Can ECHDC finish what he started?
  • We need wading pools, spray fountains, the schooner, oh and it would be great if we had ice rinks and that solar powered carousel thing and “food sources”.
  • We need whimsical and serendipitous situations inspired by nature.  We don’t need buildings, we need trees, green roofs, community gardens, and we can reduce the need for the hamburg drain by using vegetative swails.
  • Kayak lady wants authenticity while asking for kayak accommodations.  Early 19th century recreational kayakers agree.
  • Bike museum from Orchard Park was mentioned ten times on Tuesday, seven times on Monday, five times last week.  Bike museum guy is looking to sell it to ECHDC or someone else, it’s his retirement fund.
  • All streets must be authentically cobbled, preferably with era-sensitive stones.  Authenticity is a must and the Hamburg drain needs to be moved, and I quote, “I have no idea what’s involved in that, but it needs to go, ASAP”
  • We need this to look like San Antonio.  In fact, I once read about a guy from Hawaii who does really nice murals.  I don’t know his name or who he is, but ECHDC should definitely call him.
  • A guy from Buffalo who says, “The Authority lacks expertise, the whole thing looks fake,  It needs more authenticity, what’s being put in brand new here looks worse than brand new stuff being put in in other places.”  His qualifications?  He was wearing a blue shirt.
  • It would be great if we could put in a houseboat community or shantytown that exaggerates the scale of the grain silos.  In fact, we can use the grain silos as ice climbing structures.
  • We should connect the light rail with UB
  • We need a museum that features other museums and tells people how to get to the bigger museum
  • We need to move the Central Library or Convention Center to this neighborhood.  But, those buildings should be authentic.
  • Connect the light rail with the central terminal and hire blues performers and historical interpreters to walk the streets of Canal Side year round.

None of these things are necessarily dumb or bad ideas.  They are all valid things that people would like to see built with their tax dollars.  The problem is that if their idea is not built, they’ll have a sad.  Some might even decide to sue or work actively against the implementation of a different idea.  It’s what often happens with crowdsourced solutions.  They can’t ALL be used and many people who spoke have not read the actual MGPP to know what’s actually happening at Canal Side.  Also, who has the time to properly vet each and every one of these ideas?  Who decides what gets considered and what doesn’t?  Do we not like those deciders or do we need different deciders?  It’s all quite bizarre.

Anyone here familiar with the term bikeshedding? It is a geeky term used to describe lengthy technical disputes over minor, marginal issues while more serious issues are being overlooked. The implied image is of people arguing over what color to paint the bicycle shed while the house is not finished. This process DEFINES bikeshedding. This series of blue sky brainstorming sessions with a crowd is happening when we should be working seriously with professionals appointed by our elected leaders to create the infrastructure to support a new neighborhood.

At this point, the ECHDC staff and board are meeting regularly with Mark and Tony Goldman and other members of the Canal Side Community Alliance to discuss the “things” their community of people wants to see built. The problem is, we haven’t yet created a “place”.

Cobble It
Electrify It
Zone It
Incentivize It

Once we’ve done that, we can start worrying about the things we want to see there, because people with money, resources and a business model will be able to build there.

Erie County Legislature: Horrible People Doing Small Things

24 Nov

If you read the Buffalo News article written by Phil Fairbanks about today’s Erie County Legislature meeting, I don’t think you get the full scope of failure that transpired.  Let me be the one to fill in the holes.

This is not to say Phil did a poor job, it just takes a lot more column space to describe it than he was allotted in the print edition of the newspaper.

Let’s start with the backstory…I encourage you to click the links in the story to fill out any gaps you might have in the story.

Last year, three Democrats split from the Democratic majority to form the so-called “Reform Coalition” with the minority Republican caucus.  Legislators Barbara Miller-Williams (BMW), Christina Wleklinski-Bove and Tim Kennedy all received some sort of transactional reward from the County Executive and/or affiliated political powerbrokers to join the coalition.  BMW received the support of the Republicans for the position of Chairwoman and also got some additional funding for her husband’s non-profit group.  Bove received some jobs for her Independence Party loyalists and Kennedy received material support for his State Senate campaign.

Here’s a video we did laying all of that out.

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So, we have a legislature that technically has a Democrat majority, but functions on fiscal matters of import to the County Executive as a Republican majority. The year has thus been filled with pointless squabbling, petty fights and intra-party slapfights all while we face a looming deficit.

Yesterday, the whole mess came crashing down.

The County Executive’s proposed budget slashes spending in the libraries, cultural organizations, comptroller’s office, county security staff, agriculture…you name it, he cut it.  The legislature held a series of public hearings in which the public came to demand restoration of funding for those budget lines, especially the libraries and cultural organizations.  The outcry was so large that Republican legislators Rath, Hardwick and Dixon (lets dispense with the Independent moniker for her, mmkay?) worked to restore funding to the libraries in their two proposed budget amendments today.  The non-reform coalition Democrats also proposed restoration of library and cultural funding as well as staff in the County Comptroller’s office.

Hardwick’s amendment restored $3MM of the needed $4MM in library funding, created a job in the Department of Social Services and sent $20K in funding to the Erie County Naval & Servicemen’s Park.  No money for auditors in the Office of the Comptroller.  Hardwick cut some money from the legislature budget by proposing a 20% cut to legislator ($8400 per year x 15 legislators = $126K) and some trimming in other departments.

The Rath/Dixon amendment gave $3MM of the needed $4MM to the libraries, sent $110K to the Erie County Agriculture Co-Operative, $20K to the Naval & Servicemen’s Park and $40K each to Shakespeare In The Park and the Irish Classical Theater.  Also, no money for the Office of the Comptroller.  They paid for their amendments in the same manner that Hardwick did.

Democrats restored the full $4MM to the libraries, fully funded all cultural organizations and restored the Erie County Comptroller’s office to full staff.  Their final amendment spends less than the original budget put forth by the County Executive.  They paid for their amendments using a $4MM cut to the risk retention fund (Erie County’s municipal insurance) and cuts to fringe benefits in the Sheriff’s Department (among others).  There were also other cuts, but this is getting long-winded.  Legislator Ray Walter complained that the Democrats amendment package was “irresponsible and reckless and would result in increased taxes”.  He also claimed that reductions in the insurance fund put the county at risk.  However, a quick check of budget rules showed that the money in the 2010 risk retention fund rolled over to 2011, meaning the the insurance account would be fully funded.

Sounds like normal government so far, right?  Competing proposals from different camps to be debated and voted upon.  Seems like a normal day….nope. What happened next is where the FAIL comes in.

After the amendments were submitted, a bizarre series of events happened in which every minuscule point of order was checked by the Parliamentarian and neither proposal made it to the committee for a vote.  Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams announced that neither proposal would be debated nor voted upon as she determined that neither had the votes to pass.  She also added that since the County Executive was going to veto either amendment package, she needed to come up with her own amendment package that Collins would approve.

When questioned by Legislator Whyte why she did not propose her own amendment package earlier, BMW said “I didn’t know I was able to submit my own amendments.”  Your County Chairwoman, folks.  She knew full well that she was able to submit amendments and did as much last year on two occasions during the budget process (based on my records).  The Chariwoman then listened to a barrage of complaints from Democrats who claimed she was a tool for Collins (she is), was in league with the Republicans (she was), and that she was being intellectually dishonest with her claim to not know the rules of amendment submission (she was).

Legislator Betty Jean Grant went so far as to say that neither Barbara Miller-Williams nor the Republicans “have the balls to tell the County Executive what you or the people want” while Legislator Tom Loughran claimed that Miller-Williams was “seeking political cover from the County Executive, not governing”.  Legislator Whyte openly wondered what we’re all doing here if this is the Chris Collins legislature.

The meeting was adjourned shortly after some other bickering and transactions.

After the meeting, Legislator Miller-Williams told us that “some individuals are making this a personal process and they aren’t interested in doing the people’s business”.  She will contact the County Executive, find out what he’s willing to fund and submit his, I mean her, amendments on Friday at 1:30PM.

After speaking with legislators on all three sides of the aisle and sources in the Rath building, it would appear that Collins will agree to restore some library funding, a few culturals important to the Republicans and Reform Coalition, tell Mark Poloncarz to get bent by cutting his office to the bone, and throw a bone or two in patronage jobs to some people to keep the whole apparatus in place.

Remember, Chris Collins is not a “politician”.  He’s just a simple businessman who has cut deals with Grassroots over patronage jobs, constructed an agreement with the Mayor to suppress the Democrat vote in the city during county-wide elections, cuddled up with Steve Pigeon, played politics with the Sheriff’s office, punishes those who step out of line, and unnecessarily overinflates portions of the budget in order to justify cutting programs he doesn’t deem worthy…regardless of public outcry or legislative support.

It is all horribly transactional, petty, and small.  There are a few honest players in the legislature (even a few Republicans) but this is a group of people which has tragically lost sight of their actual job, to govern.  There are people in those budget line items.  People who rely on county support for their employment, after-school programs, medical care, benefits, safety and security.  It’s not a game, it’s real life.

Maybe someday soon, the County Executive and Legislature will understand that.

Imagineering® Buffalo’s Waterfront: Part 1

24 Nov

It’s become a pattern.

A major public works project begins, is planned and plotted, goes through the required comment period and environmental reviews – and at the very last minute a small, usually ad-hoc interest group pipes up and demands that everything halt.  It happened with the Route 5 reconfiguration, and it’s happening now with the Canal Side process.

As happened a few years ago with Route 5, the obstructionist cadre uses outrageous and untrue hyperbole to attack the extant plan, culminating in a lawsuit when they don’t get their precise way.  Back then, we were told that the bermed Route 5 was a “wall” separating Buffalo’s waterfront from its downtown, ignoring the presence of the Skyway, the I-190, the Buffalo River, and the excruciatingly ugly brownfields on the east side of Route 5.

Now, we’re being told about the horrors of “faux canals” and perennial bogeyman, parking.

A couple of weeks ago, Mark Goldman became the self-appointed leader of the Canal Side opposition, which has dubbed itself the “Canal Side Community Alliance“, made up of groups whose dedication to the waterfront is unsurpassed – groups like “Prisoners are People, Too” and Sweet_ness 7 .  Goldman organized a talk at City Honors’ auditorium where the West Side intelligentsia and its foundation benefactors let their vision for the waterfront be known.  Naturally, it eschews parking, is heavy on public art, museums, and other not-for-profit things.  Watch this video:

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1. Goldman insists that the process must be “democratic and inclusive”.

2. At around 0:58 in the video, when Goldman demands procedural inclusion, the imagery is of older white males like himself – one of whom is Goldman’s own brother. He cites a need for “more creative thinking… more imaginitive…more artistic” points of view.

3. At around 1:33, Goldman discusses a “luncheon” he held for a very carefully selected subset of the Buffalo old money and arts elites.  He invited “about thirty people” and “made sure that they represented a broad range of work and life and activities in Buffalo.”  That “broad range”?  “Artists, curators and teachers and librarians, and businesspeople…” At 1:48, the camera pans over the sea of white, privileged city residents. He goes on, “…and a whole range of men and women who are active in this community.”  He cites “wonderful ideas” like that from former Erie County Legislator Joan Bozer – that of a “solar-powered carousel” on the waterfront.  This wonderful idea works for an average kid for about 3 minutes on a sunny day; then what?  Other luncheon attendees included the Baird Foundation’s Catherine Schweitzer, (at 2:20) who understands that whatever gets built at Canal Side, “don’t do something that reflects, or is a faux treatment of our history, but do it in an authentic way”.   He mentions Tucker Curtin, a restaurateur who wants there to be food and beverage places down there, but Goldman warns, “not too many, but enough to create a nice synergy”.  Also there was an Albright-Knox curator, and someone advocating for “interactive programming”, meaning people walking around in period dress giving historical interpretation.  From 2:54 until about 3:15, Goldman again express how “broad, varied” the attendees and speakers were.  The camera shows middle aged white folk who are already connected to the arts, politics, and local old-money foundations.

4. Goldman complains that all of the above are, “people who have not been talked to”.

5. Three art pieces were specifically commissioned (by whom, for how much?) to make a statement about the waterfront.  These included an art installation made from garbage, a puppet show, and a “soundscape” showing off the sounds of the waterfront. (3:30 – 4:13).

6. The two main speakers included Fred Kent from the Project for Public Spaces, and Goldman’s brother, Tony.  Kent’s mantra: lighter, quicker, cheaper. Tony Goldman was involved with the gentrification of certain neighborhoods in New York City and Miami, where forgotten neighborhoods were revived through an influx of bargain-hunting artists.

7. Tony Goldman takes his brother and others on a tour of the abandoned grain elevators and imagines what could happen there – a mural, bleachers overlooking a light show, all projected or painted onto the elevators themselves.  The emphasis is on what people will “look at” (see, e.g., 7:09 – 7:19).  “It can be a gallery center, it can be a market”.

8. Mark Goldman envisions the inner, outer, and “middle” harbors being linked together by Ohio Street, and they “shouldn’t be developed separately.”  The inner harbor should be a “village”, the middle harbor with grain elevators should be an “arts and industry island” – a national heritage site with a “canyon of art and theater”, then to the outer harbor where Dug’s Dive will spin off with the Freezer Queen plant as a “node of waterfront recreation”.  Then “the rest will fill in”.

9. Goldman specifically thanks the Rupp Family Foundation, Baird Foundation, Citizens for Common Sense, Partners for a Livable Western New York.

Now, take another look at WNYMedia’s own video about the Canal project, made in 2007.

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There will be an ECHDC open house / meeting as follows.  I urge you to attend:

·        Wednesday, November 24, 2010, 10:00-12:00 p.m.

The sessions will be held at the offices of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, 95 Perry St., Suite 500, Buffalo, NY 14203. There is free, two-hour parking on Mississippi St. on the side of the building.

Anyone who is interested in presenting their ideas to ECHDC, but is unable to attend one of the public sessions is encouraged to contact:

Erich Weyant, Assistant Director, Communications

Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.
95 Perry St., Suite 500, Buffalo, NY  14203
716.846.8258
716.846.8262 fax
eweyant@empire.state.ny.us

Read Part 2 here

Imagineering® Buffalo’s Waterfront: Part 2

24 Nov

By now, you’ve watched this video and read what I’ve pulled out from it.

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And you’ve hopefully watched our own 3 year-old video.

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And make sure your voice is heard:

·        Wednesday, November 24, 2010, 10:00-12:00 p.m.

The sessions will be held at the offices of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, 95 Perry St., Suite 500, Buffalo, NY 14203. There is free, two-hour parking on Mississippi St. on the side of the building.

Anyone who is interested in presenting their ideas to ECHDC, but is unable to attend one of the public sessions is encouraged to contact:

Erich Weyant, Assistant Director, Communications

Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp.
95 Perry St., Suite 500, Buffalo, NY  14203
716.846.8258
716.846.8262 fax
eweyant@empire.state.ny.us

Back to the post…

When Goldman complains that the Canal Side process must be democratic and inclusive, he implies that it hasn’t been up until now.  That’s quite clearly false both in fact and in perception. In fact, democratically elected leaders created the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC), funded it, and empowered it to help develop Buffalo’s inner harbor area. At the time of its creation, development of the inner harbor was non-existent.  It had been several years since the “exploding rocks” debacle that Pataki and Empire State Development helped bring about, and there was neither activity there, nor funding for it.  Since then, the ECHDC has solicited and received public input several times.  A deal with the New York Power Authority funded ECHDC, and a modification of that deal funded it even more.

In Goldman’s video, the word “inclusion” gets thrown around a lot.  But in analyzing what’s going on in those videos, inclusion appears only to have so many definitions and sources.  Goldman’s process is devoid of people of color, average Joes, or  suburbanites.  Only the usual activist cliques, arts promoters, foundation heads, and other typical Elmwood, Parkside, Allentown folks were deemed worthy of input.  Starting at 1:15, Goldman discusses the rationale behind his “Inspirations and Aspirations” event, and some of the speakers are shown.  Older white males, all.

And that luncheon – what a damning self-indictment of this entire movement.  How can you whine about a lack of inclusiveness by hosting an exclusive gathering of Buffalo VIPs?  Were you or I invited to speak to that group and provide our points of view?  Has anyone “talked to” you?  The entire Goldman movement is operating under a preconceived conclusion, and the “process” is being jury rigged to reach it.

And since when does Buffalo’s west side intelligentsia need an engraved invitation from anyone to talk to someone?  Hell, when Chris Smith and I attended Monday’s ECHDC public hearing, we went in after another meeting had just broken up – a meeting that Mark Goldman attended. Artists, curators and teachers and librarians, and businesspeople should all be heard about the waterfront, if they wish to be.  So should parents and car engine manufacturers and construction laborers and plumbers and financial analysts and waiters and deli counterpeople.  No one group has any monopoly on community input – no one group gets to say it speaks on behalf of the community at large.  Only ECHDC can make that claim, since it is created by, and appointed by the people’s duly elected representatives.

We can put in all the solar powered carousels and wind powered ferris wheels and nuclear powered bumper cars we want at the waterfront, but how does that fit in with this group’s other main bugaboo – that of ensuring not faux or fake, but “authentic” history?

Ten years ago, Canal Side was made up of parking lots, the mothballed Aud, the Skyway, the Donovan Building, and more parking.  There was nothing there of an historic nature, except remains that might be excavated.  By definition, all canals are “faux” – they’re faux rivers, artificial waterways.  Even if one was to remove the Hamburg Drain, you’d still have a canal to nowhere. Since the old canal district was long ago demolished, everything that goes there will, by its very definition, be “faux”.  Let’s get over that.

The “middle harbor” where some grain elevators still supply General Mills, and others lie dormant – rusting hulks representing a massive collection of environmental hazards – I don’t understand the burning need to preserve these things.  If they are no longer used, perhaps we could tear them down.  Their presence and age alone do not justify keeping them, nor do they justify preservation by virtue of their ties to Buffalo’s history as a lake port.  Ohio Street from runs along a particularly sad stretch of properties, and some sort of artistic neighborhood, if it is to happen, should happen “organically”, and there’s nothing preventing that from happening now.  Its ongoing uselessness is underscored by its emptiness. There’s no demand for anything there, probably due to the incredible costs associated with maintaining, renovating, or demolishing what’s there now.

You can’t advocate for organic growth within the context of imposing top-down planning decisions for that area.  The hypocrisy at play here is palpable.

The foundations – Baird and Rupp being specifically cited – are shadowy, minimally transparent organizations that wield disproportionately huge, unaccountable power in this town.  No one elects them, no one hires them – they just grant money to worthy organizations or the trustees’ friends.  The foundations run the nonprofits in this town – that’s Buffalo’s version of capitalist entrepreneurs running businesses.

At Monday’s public hearing, there were several who spoke, asking the ECHDC for inclusion of their pet projects or issues, including solar-powered carousels, the elimination of parking,  a bicycle-friendly environment, and the raising of a 200 year-old schooner from the lakebed at a cost of $2 million, and installing it in a tank at the site of the Aud (the weight of which would prohibit a parking garage underneath).

All of these people and groups claim to be speaking for “the” community – but they don’t.  They speak for “a” community.  If you want “organic” growth and bottom-up planning, then you can’t come up with pie-in-the-sky impositions of your top-down vision that’s been vetted only by a small group of people who are exactly like you in almost every way.  Organic growth comes about organically – whereby the ECHDC creates an atmosphere and infrastructure that is conducive to that growth.  You cobble the streets, install utilities, zone it, create a stringent building design/architectural standard for developers to follow, solicit bids, and possibly create a sales-tax free zone, together with other available incentives and let whoever come in and build something.  If someone can pull together the money and resources to raise a ship and place it in the Aud, then he can do so.  If someone wants to lease or buy land to install a solar powered carousel, then they can do so.  If someone wants to put in a tchotchke shop, then they should be free to do so – but in the end, the state agency should be in charge of enabling growth, and entrepreneurs should be in charge of creating it.

Anything else – whether it be a Benderson shopping plaza or a minutely planned arts district – would be Buffalo’s EPCOT.

(Updated to add a few lines, clean up paragraphs, and fix some spelling)

Why Tuesday was Epic

24 Nov

In the morning, I listened to the Tom Bauerle WBEN radio show program, which was dedicated to the TSA scanning nontroversy for the 20th time.  When he got to his “don’t frisk nuns or kids” argument, I called in to suggest that nuns’ habits are easily purchased in a costume shop, and evil people use kids all the time to do their dirty work.  Since plastic explosives aren’t detectable via metal detector, something else needs to be used.  He then hung up on me because he’s a coward, and pontificated about how we need to be just like the Israelis.  When he hung up on me I emailed him “you are such a pussy”.  He emailed me back twice – once to tell me to get a life, and a second time to (a) suggest that I obtain psychiatric help; (b) claim that my email was “an escalation”; (c) demand that I never contact him again, and threatened to obtain an order of protection against me for my “obsessive” and “stalking” behavior; and (d) dime me out to the New York State Bar (which doesn’t, incidentally, govern attorney ethics or conduct).  He then demanded that I not publish his email.  I have honored his demand.  I have no intention of contacting him directly ever again, and recommend that others do so as well.  He’s a controversial radio jock who peddles in conspiracy theories, sedition, and occasionally blue material – I will continue to occasionally listen, and to criticize and attack him as necessary.  His is one of the most listened-to radio programs in the city.  It’s also the least factual and most dangerous and irresponsible.  Someone emailed me later in the day that he referred to me on the air as a “fat, balding, middle-aged Jewish guy”, then giggled and said something about how much he loves “pissing off the left-wing liberals” of WNY.  For the record, I’m not Jewish – not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Right, Tom?

At lunchtime, I attended this epic meeting of the Erie County Legislature’s Management and Budget Committee. In an effort to make changes to Collins’ proposed budget,  the Democrats advocated for Democratic things and the Republicans advocated for Republican things.  Chairwoman Barbara Miller-Williams asked that everything be put on hold so that she can clock her own amendments in on Friday.  The subtext there is that she had to check with her ally, Chris Collins, to see what would and wouldn’t fly.  Chris and I tweeted during the entire morning session, and afterwords we were talking to Maria Whyte and Mark Poloncarz when Miller-Williams approached Chris and asked him his name and introduced herself.  Then she asked me who I was and did the same, but asked me to see her before I leave.

During that conversation, she explained to me that the reason why she defers to the clerk and parliamentarian so often isn’t because she doesn’t know the rules, but because if she makes a ruling, she doesn’t want the mean people on the legislature to make a big stink about stuff. She also explained that her governing philosophy is such that if Chris Collins takes a swing at the legislature, the last thing it should do is punch back.  If it punches back, it will never get anything.  If, on the other hand, it goes along then everyone will get along and at least some things will get done.  The meeting was surreal, but not as much as the committee session that, as usual, devolved into bickering and yelling. There were about 30 people in all in that legislative chamber yesterday.  Chris and I were the only two who weren’t being paid to attend. There were, therefore, about 30 too many people in that legislative chamber yesterday.

In the afternoon, we took our 20 year-old cat to the vet because she’s been very frail and ill.  She’s no longer with us today, and the house is sad and quiet.

In the evening, Chris attended an Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC for BobbyCat) Canal Side hearing that he reported on via Twitter.  You can follow his tweets using the #ECHDC hashtag.  To implement everyone’s ideas – some of which overlapped, and some of which unironically included the word “shanty” – you’d need an area about the size of Rhode Island, and mostly public funding amounting to about $300 gajillion. My favorites?  Besides the solar-powered carousel, I enjoy the calls for removal of the Hamburg Drain to render the rump canal navigable to exactly nowhere. Seriously – it would cost tens of millions of dollars to remove the drain that follows the path of the old canal in order to dig deep enough to accommodate boats in the little bit of canal terminus that would be excavated for this project, but it doesn’t go anywhere.  It’s also so much fun when people come to the meetings and claim that Mark Goldman’s involvement was the first they’d heard of any of this.

Being uninformed doesn’t convey a right to demand extra time.

Today, the ECHDC will be holding the last of its public hearings at its offices on Mississippi Street at 10am.  Chris and I will be there. So should you, if you can.  Take another look at the 2004 Master Plan – recall that it predates ECHDC and its assumption of jurisdiction over the Aud, Donovan, and Webster blocks.  But take a look to the west at the large parking garage structure that’s included in that plan.  Dedicated parking for this project is needed and crucial.  Adding some below ground is even better.

The Gitmo Self-Delusion

23 Nov

The recent acquittal of Ahmed Ghailani, now absolved African embassy bomber, on 284 of 285 counts of terrorism and conspiracy charges has caused much consternation among military-commission-promoters and torture-haters. Some of the hand wringing has also undoubtedly come from the Obama Administration itself, privately rethinking their misguided, altruistic plan to conduct civilian trials. Attorney General Eric Holder has called failure “not an option” in the process of trying terrorism suspects, currently held at the still-open Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Acquittal on 99.6% of charges sounds like failure to me. But why hold the trails at all if the outcome must be pre-ordained? We are so busy trying to live up our American ideals of “justice” and “fairness” that we have twisted ourselves into a rhetorical pretzel.

The entire trial process, civilian or military, is a self-imposed and self-created sham – we have painted ourselves into a legal corner and can’t see the way out. A fresh look at the entire counter-terrorism fight is required to see how far off the path we have gone. Gitmo policy, under two administrations, has diverged from objective reality long ago.

It is the fundamental duty of all thinking conservatives to first see the world as it is, with all its warts and inadequacies, not the world as they wish it would be. Liberals and libertarians serve those useful roles, imagining opposing fantasy lands of equality based upon societal largesse or individual grit. Meanwhile, in the pragmatic mud, the conservative is left to deal the actual matters at hand. And in the case of Gitmo, particularly, we need to remove the veil of our self-delusion.

The incarceration of nearly every inmate at Gitmo is an unhappy accident, not the result of deliberate policy. If I am an AK-47 toting, card carrying member of the Taliban or Al Qaeda in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Iraq, and I am the target of American forces, there are one of several fates awaiting me. Gitmo is the least likely, and least desirable.

Most likely, I will be shot dead or blown to pieces by a Mk-82 JDAM or Hellfire missile. No one will read me my rights. No one will charge me with a crime. Based upon my actions, associates, geographic location or suspicions of a nineteen year old kid, my life will be taken by a split second judgment. That’s called war.

If I am somehow captured by American or NATO forces, I will probably be taken into custody and held by Iraqis or Afghans. While in such custody, I may be fed and I may be beaten. I may be charged with a crime and tried, but standards of evidence in such trials are very spotty. Iraqi courts in particular rely very heavily on personal testimony and photographs, as if Photoshop had never been invented. As every American soldier carries a digital camera, a couple pictures at the point of detention, and the testimony of an Iraqi soldier or policeman is all that is required for substantial sentences. Every so often, in both countries, tribal relations pull favors, and large quantities of young men are just released, out the front door of the prison. After months of jailing, I may end up back on the battlefield.

If I am a High Value Target, and I have been captured by the Americans in the last seven years, I am held by them and not the local forces, in jails within the borders of American bases. Such jails are rarely discussed, and are the military’s solution to the Gitmo problem. If the prisoners are never transferred outside of the country, no one seems to care.

But if I am not shot or captured in any of the above scenarios, and was detained in the early days of the war in October or November of 2001, when Afghan jails and courts did not exist, then I was probably flown to Guantanamo Bay. Many of those prisoners did not warrant the special treatment, as is evidenced by the fact that out of 800 some total detainees, only two hundred-ish are leftOf course, 20% of those released have returned to their old ways. No matter – most held in Iraq and Afghanistan and then later released did so as well. 

Most of the 800 original Gitmo detainees were accidents. They were lucky not to get shot, but unlucky enough to be taken prisoner and deemed important. They were never read their rights, because they were captured by soldiers on a battlefield. They were interrogated in pleasant and unpleasant ways because a trial was never considered. Torture need not to have occurred for their confessions to be inadmissible. Evidence was never collected in anticipation of future legal proceedings. The thought of a civilian court is a moral absurdity promulgated later.

Shoehorning these detainees into our civilian courts, pushing to introduce misbegotten confessions and materials with no chain of evidence, reduces the legitimacy of said courts with little gain from the undermining. It is our choice to enter into this charade. A frequent criticism of the Bush Administration is that when the only tool they were willing to use was a hammer (the military), then everything starts to look like a nail. Fair enough. But to take the analogy further, this administration has fallen in love with its own set of tools, regardless of the job. If we use a chisel when a saw is needed, don’t fault the chisel, nor the job that required a saw. The job didn’t get done, but that does not make the job too hard nor the chisel useless. We simply need to pick up the saw and get to work.

The saw that the Obama Administration is avoiding is a pragmatic solution for the Gitmo problem. The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay should last as long as the naval base lasts. Release all detainees but the very worst: the Khalid Sheikh Mohammeds and Ramzi Bin al Shibhs. This should reduce the prisoner count to 50 or less. If the prisoners were picked up by the FBI (like KSM) and due process was followed, then try them. Future high ranking Al Qaeda operatives should be taken in this way, if at all possible, and they should be the only new prisoners at Gitmo. For the existing prisoners, if due process was not followed, and I fault no federal agent or military member for that, then never try them, and hold them until Al Qaeda and the current form of violent Islamist fundamentalism ceases to exist. If this includes KSM, then fine. Don’t put on a show. Don’t apologize. Never release them. We don’t “owe it” to anyone to hold a fake, pre-ordained trial, and it does not reduce our moral standing in the world to hold a prisoner of war until the war is over.

For the current detainees that aren’t the worst of the worst, send them back to the country that they came from. One salient fact lost in most debates about Gitmo is that many countries won’t accept their own citizens. No matter – fly them to a military base in the country they came from (Afghanistan, Iraq), walk them to the front gate and let them out. Only continued self-delusion keeps us from taking this simple step – as noted previously, if they were never shipped to Gitmo in the first place, we would  have happily released them years ago, and no one would know or care (the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan included).

If you are truly concerned about such hardened terrorists (after years of incarceration) taking up their old life again, put a CIA GPS transmitter in their neck and watch where they go. Once they enter a group of other suspected terrorists, kill them, like we do nearly every day in Pakistan with hardly a word of debate.

Buffalo, Steady As She Goes

23 Nov

Each quarter, I like to post the latest Metro Monitor Report to check on the relative health of the WNY economy and take a look at where we stand as compared to our regional and national peers.

The Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution publishes a quarterly document titled The MetroMonitor.

The MetroMonitor is a quarterly, interactive barometer of the health of America’s 100 largest metropolitan economies. It examines trends in metropolitan-level employment, output, and housing conditions to look “beneath the hood” of national economic statistics to portray the diverse metropolitan trajectories of recession and recovery across the country.

Essentially, this report serves as a planning resource and a measurement tool for metropolitan progress.  While the Brookings Institution is the home of the dreaded “third way Democrats”, their data collection and research on metropolitan areas is valuable in innumerable ways.

Surprisingly, Buffalo rates as the 5th strongest performing metropolitan region in America.  Yes, you read that right.

The data can be interpreted to demonstrate that since Buffalo did not participate in the “boom” of the last twenty years, we didn’t really have a bubble to burst.  Or it can be interpreted to show that other cities have fallen so far that we now have an opportunity to differentiate ourselves from Southern boomtowns and initiate a slow growth cycle.  I think it’s a mix of the two.  Our economy is resetting itself and the self-perpetuating high growth sprawl policies of the south and west are no longer proving to be sustainable strategies for economic development.

You can read the full report here and you can read a more focused report on the Great Lakes region here.

Here are some infographics built from the data in the report:

This first graphic demonstrates data based on four factors: “employment change from peak; unemployment rate change from one year ago; gross metropolitan product change from peak; and housing price index change from one year ago.”

The graphic below displays changes in employment for each of the 100 largest metro areas from: (a) the metro area’s peak employment quarter to the most recent quarter, measuring the extent to which employment has recovered from the recession’s full impact; and (b) the previous quarter to the most recent quarter, measuring whether employment is moving toward recovery.

The graphic below displays, for the 100 largest metro areas, the: (a) percentage of the labor force that is currently unemployed (not seasonally adjusted) in the last month of the most recent quarter; (b) change in the unemployment rate from the same month three years ago; and (c) change in the unemployment rate from the same month in the previous year (the same month is used in change calculations to account for seasonality):

This final chart shows the change in Gross Metropolitan Product (GMP)–the total value of goods and services produced from each metro area’s peak GMP quarter to the most recent quarter, measuring the extent to which output has recovered from the recession’s full impact.

Some addtional data drawn from the report:

  • House prices fell in the second quarter in all but six metropolitan areas, with Buffalo leading the nation in sustainable home prices.
  • Only 19 metropolitan areas had faster output growth in the second quarter of 2010 than in the first quarter. Buffalo was third fastest growth market.
  • We’re the market in the country with the fewest percentage of foreclosed homes.

I think the trend lines in this document are telling and can serve as a precursor to a larger discussion about our regional strategic priorities and how we can best position Buffalo for the coming new economy.  We see that the bust is still hitting Florida, California, and the entire Southeast and Southwest especially hard.  We see that many areas around the Great Lakes and Midwest are relatively stable.  Is our predictability and stability an asset?

If we had a big picture Mayor or County Executive, we might be chewing on the data and building a strategy focused on how to best position ourselves for growth.  Unfortunately, we’re (as usual) mired in petty political battles and barking at who gets to eat the last crumbs on the table.

If we had a proactive business community or regional development authority, we might be putting together a list of priorities to capitalize on weakness in other regions of the country rather than simply seeking public funding for pet projects.

Since none of the above is likely to happen due to our habit of (generally) electing mouthbreathers and half-wits to public office, how do we capitalize on general national economic weakness and make sure that we begin a period of slow growth rather than continue our decades long state of stasis/decline?  When do we stop focusing on the minimal out-migration of knowledge from our regional economy and instead focus on in-migration of highly educated people?  We’ve held steady through the past two recessions fairly well. Rather than just surviving, how do we capitalize?

If I were Mayor, I would start by identifying our differentiators from the regions glowing in red and marketing ourselves to the people and businesses of those regions.  I’d continue to align our public policy, planning documents and zoning code to capitalize on the opportunities presenting themselves and assemble a team of tacticians who can best build a better future for Buffalo.  I’d lean on the local University talent to help build a blueprint for success with measurable goals over five years.

After all, complex problems are not always complicated.

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If we prioritize, identify action items, separate them from eventualities and focus on attainable, measureable, incremental goals, we can start inching towards competence.

Does this data tell you anything interesting?  How do you see it as presented?

Victory

23 Nov

HT Marquil at EmpireWire.com