Premature Congratubation

22 Jul

The congratubation appears to have been premature.

Just last week, insufferably arrogant Buffalo News columnist, and shadow mayor DonnEsmonde, along with restaurateur Mark Goldman, congratubated over the perceived great success of “lighter, quicker, cheaper”, brought about by Fred Kent’s and the PPS’ borderline theft of public monies for a Google Image Search & PowerPoint had resulted in huge crowds at Canal Side. To quote from last week:

All of a sudden, we have a down-town waterfront that people want to go to.

Of course, its working

Where people go, commerce will follow.

This is creating demand…instead of using massive subsidies to create supply, and hoping that the demand follows.

It is not just people having picnics, it is good economic-development strategy…You start small, and it snowballs. By next summer, you’ll see private businesses lining up to come down instead of asking for big, fat subsidies.

Yet today, Goldman sort of changes his mind.  In discussing ECHDC’s plans for a public market structure, not unlike the ones found in Seattle, Boston, New York, San Francisco, Toronto, and other cities – large and small –  throughout the world, Goldman says we have to wait.  How long? What’s the tipping point? When will Mayors Goldman and Esmonde give Buffalo the thumbs-up on demand? Should we pay Fred Kent another six figures for another PowerPoint first? I’m trying to learn.

I think it is too early for this [building], we need more time for stuff to catch on and to build a constituency, said entrepreneur/ academic Mark Goldman, who helped bring the lighter, quicker, cheaper concept to the waterfront. The focus now is on amenities and programs that draw people. To leap right from that to a marketplace doesnt make sense.

Esmonde, of course, leaps on this.

So I get antsy when the Canal Harbor board, barely a year after ending its Bass Pro fixation fiasco, announces plans to build a “Canalside Market” on the old Aud site. The place wouldn’t be mammoth — about the size of a couple of Walgreens. But the last thing we need in this town is another “Build It and Hope They Come” project.

Downtown abounds with empty buildings. The old AM&A’s. The Statler. The 38-story HSBC Tower, in whose shadow Canalside sits, may soon empty out. The guiding philosophy of the new “lighter, quicker, cheaper” waterfront mantra is to take small steps and see where they lead. Not to put up a building on a foundation of wishful thinking.

The marketplace would be part of the canals and cobblestone streets (and underground parking) coming to the old Aud site. The way these things go, the canals and streets precede the building. That is a good thing. Because the marketplace should be built only if, in a couple of years, enough people are coming — not on the hope that they will show up.

But just last week you guys told us how they are showing up.  You and Goldman touted the historic public investment in Adirondack-Chair-based economic development, and how it was drawing people in their dozens to our waterfront.  Last week, we had happy throngs of sun-worshipping people enjoying shack lunches and sandboxes – but it’s too early to construct something that might draw people and business in to Canal Side year-round, regardless of weather?

To its credit, the Canal Harbor board, led by Jordan Levy, has been marching to the public’s “lighter, quicker, cheaper” mandate. It’s a philosophical about-face from its Bass Pro days. But the board needs to stick to the new, unwritten bylaw: Build no building before its time. That, apparently, is asking for too much.

Levy said the marketplace would be an “instant attraction and catalyst.” He said a consultant’s study shows that there is demand for it.

“[The consultant] has met with more than 150 food folks,” Levy noted, “and the demand is strong.”

Maybe. But we heard that for years about Bass Pro. I would like to see more bodies on the waterfront before we add more buildings.

How many more people do you think a boardwalk and cobbled streets alone will attract? How many more do you believe, in your scientifically polled, focus-grouped opinion, need to come to the waterfront for the proper demand to be met for a market structure? How do you increase demand if there is no infrastructure to accommodate and build it?

And, frankly, what “public” “mandate” is there for Fred Kent’s “lighter, quicker, cheaper”?  On what basis is that claim being made? When was the polling done on that? When was the legislative vote or referendum held on that issue?  Esmonde and Goldman were patting themselves on the back about the fantastic crowds and obvious demand for the waterfront, but today they downplay it and arbitrarily claim that it’s not there yet – it’s not enough.

Who died and made Mark Goldman the king of the waterfront? For whom does he speak? Who elected him? Who is his constituency? You guys said the demand is clearly there. Now you’re saying the demand’s not there yet. I’d ask you to make up your minds, but you have: oppose ECHDC at all costs, no matter what.

For months now, we’ve been beating the drum that Esmonde has suddenly found – that the market should decide what goes in at Canal Side. We’ve continually advocated – including at last year’s ECHDC public meetings and hearings – that the public benefit corporation should cobble the streets, install needed ancillary infrastructure, put in an underground parking ramp, re-water the canal, and put the property up for sale or lease, and let the market build stuff within certain architectural and zoning parameters. Esmonde is saying essentially the same thing – my quarrel is with his arbitrary wishy-washiness with respect to what constitutes “demand”.

The issue here appears to be the claim that Mark Goldman has some massive grassroots constituency behind him.  He doesn’t.  He’s got a couple hundred connected, activist people who support Goldman’s vision for the waterfront. Jordan Levy and ECHDC have a different vision for the waterfront. When Goldman complains about Levy’s master plan, it’s not that Goldman wants to do things organically, per se – it’s that Goldman wants to supplant Levy’s master plan for his own master plan.

This controversy is completely artificial because it represents an irrational clash of egos. There is no proof that more people support Levy over Goldman, or vice-versa.

Should ECHDC contract for the construction of a market building at Canal Side, in order to accommodate local vendors and farmers who want to be sheltered from the elements and have other needed utilities and services?  Well, probably yes. Should they build it now? Should they build it in five years? What are the criteria to be used to make that decision? Goldman’s “demand” metrics are as unknown and un-quantifiable as Janice Okun’s half-stars.

Should ECHDC build a market building? Probably yes. The alternative? provide the infrastructure we need, make the parcels shovel-ready, enforce the building and zoning guidelines, and put out an RFP for real estate or leasing brokers to take on the business of selling or renting the various parcels.  These are the missing links, and we don’t need to rely on Mark Goldman’s or Donn Esmonde’s arbitrary master planning decisions in order to get this done.

16 Responses to “Premature Congratubation”

  1. Chris Ostrander July 22, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    I have enjoyed seeing the Goldman/Esmonde camp waffle about their opinon for the vision at Canalside.

    It amazes me that an idea that could mirror Qunicy Market wouldn’t serve the waterfront well. Maybe I’m alone in thinking that multiple food choices would keep people in the neighborhood for longer than a lounge on some lawn chairs would provide.

    I think Alan is right, you don’t need to build a bunch of buildings and hope they get filled. Allow interested business owners to invest in the property and grow the district.

    I just fear that Goldman will blow a gasket at the thought of people frequenting places other than ones the he owns.

  2. Tim Moran July 22, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    Instead of a marketplace we should wait until dozens of illegal shanty flea market style stalls appear organically. Only then will we know that people want something to do other than sit in the “world class” Adirondack Chairs!

  3. homebrewer July 22, 2011 at 1:27 pm #

    I agree with Alan here with regards to the public market. Why wait to build the thing if demand is already there?

  4. Fat Tony July 22, 2011 at 1:54 pm #

    Alan’s best point is who the hell died and made Mark Goldman boss? Everyone is entitled to an opinion but why is Goldman’s so much more important than everyone else? Of course, Jordan Levy and his merry band of bid riggers don’t inspire much confidence. After all, Levy’s idea of a market is probably having his boys at Benderson throw up a few dollars stores, a Wal Green’s and one of Levy’s Subway franchises. I just convinced myself were permanently screwed.

  5. pirate's code July 22, 2011 at 2:30 pm #

    It strikes me that Goldman, with Esmonde’s near-breathless support, is practicing a version of bring-me-a-rock development.  They are rarely specifically clear on what they would like, or when they would like it, so naturally any proposal that isn’t specifically theirs simply can’t meet the unknown criteria they impose — after the fact.

    Goldman’s “it’s too soon” approach is troubling for all the reasons Alan lays out, but it could also be his undoing.  If the shack-eating, chair-sitting, sun-worshiping crowd that’s there now disappears (as they will) when the weather changes (as it will), when will it ever be time for the next step in Canalside development?

    Finally, I wish Esmonde would find something else to write about with regard to “build it and they will come.”  When doing so, he fixates on Bass Pro and anything else that smacks of big box retailer, while ignoring that — however lighter, quicker (?), cheaper — the boardwalks and faux canals and chairs and such are exactly the same thing.  People show up because there is something to see, do, eat, whatever.  

  6. Tom Beecher July 22, 2011 at 3:23 pm #

    Esmonde’s ‘example’ citing AM&A’s, The Statler, and the HSBC Tower, might be the most convoluted part of the piece. 

    All three buildings were built by private enterprise. None of them were built ‘on a foundation of wishful thinking’. 

    I fail to understand how private buildings like this are any kind of reason against a public built marketplace. 

  7. homebrewer July 22, 2011 at 5:23 pm #

    @ Tony: I disagree with the notion that Goldman is some sort of “king” in this process. He and other like minded people are holding some sway here because they are the ones getting involved and contributing to the process. Those advocating a heavier-slower-more expensive approach could be “kings” of Canalside if they were as active on the issue as Goldman and company.

    Another factor would be that the powers that be have given up on the previous plan of paying national retailers, and are more receptive to plans that are more realistic and politically popular. Judging by the interview with Mr Dee, the ECHDC seems to have acknowledged that the big chains are not willing to waive their rigid demographic, aesthetic, and parking standards for site selection, to locate in a destination that they feel isn’t a sure thing. The Goldman strategy for more organic growth is getting more sympathetic ears in light of the failures to attract these chains.

    Aside from the odd desire to hold off on the public market, I’d say this way is the better method from building this area up from the band of parking lots that it was just a few years ago. It is tough to argue with the results so far.

  8. pjf-usrt July 22, 2011 at 6:43 pm #

    Shorter Esmonde column: It’s too soon to build something because my boy Goldman isn’t getting anything out of the ECHDC market project. Donn, we’re not as stupid as you think.

  9. pjf-usrt July 22, 2011 at 7:47 pm #

    Should we put up an over/under on when Goldman and friends file lawsuit to block this market from going up?

  10. Mike in Florida July 23, 2011 at 7:33 am #

    “People show up because there is something to see, do, eat, whatever.”

    I’d add to that: people show up because they’re already there; that is, they’re working a job that’s located nearby.

    I’d like to see the “lighter, quicker, cheaper” idea apply to seriously incent some entrepreneurial, technology-oriented and/or green ventures to locate in the area, maybe even with some participation from the University.   Get a younger, forwarding-thinking crowd down there who are all trying to create exciting new businesses that result in high-paying jobs with a future.

    It needs something a tad more substantive that asking folks from Tonawanda to come grab a Perry’s at Clinton’s shack or whatnot because it’s … well …. just because!

  11. Leo Wilson July 23, 2011 at 8:33 pm #

    Good coffees and teas, Italian pastries and cookies to go along with them, a place with free wifi to sit in the breeze and enjoy them, maybe a news stand, a bicycle/skates/segway rental place, an india ink shop, lots of things would bring people or have a shot at succeeding down there, if there were locations to consider. This public market structure sounds like a no-brainer.

  12. peteherr July 24, 2011 at 8:16 am #

    My son and I went down to the waterfront on the day of the Taste of Buffalo. It’s cool, but there isn’t much to do other than have a snack shack nibble or sit in an Adirondack Chair. Don’t get me wrong, it is a great start. We enjoyed our few minutes, but it really was a taste that made us both say…OK, we want more.

  13. Eric P. July 24, 2011 at 6:07 pm #

    “Congratubation” is a pretty funny word / idea.

     A marketplace would be a good start; and it would likely be something that could grow and adapt.

     Unlike many of the commenters here, I like what I see happening along the water (both inner and outer harbor areas).  I also like what I Don’t see, such as more privately held prime real estate ( condos, industry or one-size-fits-all development, etc.).  

    It seems that there are far too many armchair urban planners with an attitude.  Give me clean parks with trees and water / lake access all year long.

  14. Hank July 25, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    entrepreneur/ academic is an oxymoron. Academics live in a “bubble” not unlike Hollywood, where they have their own Utopian view of the world, and Capitalism isn’t even in the Vocabulary of 99% of academics. Between him and his wife, the Goldman’s are the Court Jesters of Buffalo. Why you got so upset is beyond me, Alan. Between the the Goldman’s and Esmonde—-they’re poster kids for “Why Buffalo Sucks So Much”.

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