Search results for 'placemaking'

#Placemaking #Buffalo

12 Sep


Look at me! I’m an urban planner! 











The Placemaking Scam

14 Apr

They never told you what they were doing was merely temporary. They never explained to the assembled crowd that it was all a stopgap to make the waterfront less ugly and more usable for the period of time before final structures could be built.

That’s why Donn Esmonde giddily wrote this column a few days earlier, during one of the PPS’ “let’s talk benches” mixers.

But with respect to the Mark Goldman-led insistence that the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation embrace “lighter, cheaper, quicker,” the Project for Public Spaces, Fred Kent, crowdsourcing of ideas, and all kinds of unproven, untested, unscientific gobbledygook, there has been a wholesale theft of money from the people of New York State.  I’ve sent an email to ECHDC asking how much, exactly, PPS was paid.

Because, as far as I’m concerned, the ECHDC could have taken the money it spent on Fred Kent and the PPS, burned it, flushed the ashes down the nearest toilet, then spat on them, and gotten a better return on their investment than the unserious, make-believe nonsense the PPS provided.


For giving us the work-product of unempirical wishes, a Google image search, and an unwieldly PowerPoint presentation, the PPS or Mark Goldman should pay the people of the State of New York back every dime of money that went into that embarrassment.

Just a couple of weeks after the PPS punked Buffalo, the ECHDC presented what seems like the 900th serious plan for developing the Aud block. It’s a beautiful plan that features *gasp* underground parking. I eagerly await the howls of disapproval from Buffalo’s ersatz intelligentsia, demanding permanent implementation of “flexible lawns”.


Placemaking: Canal Side Buffalo

30 Mar

Fred Kent of the PPS

On March 29, 2011, Fred Kent of the Partnership for Public Spaces donned LL Bean gear and presented to the assembled crowd of about 400 people the proposals developed by three distinct citizens’ committees set up by the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation.  The PowerPoint itself is shown immediately below, and I took several photographs which are featured below, culminating in a view one gets at 6:30 pm while exiting the HSBC Arena.  If you’ve been following Andrew Kulyk’s posts comparing Canal Side with other arenas throughout the country, you’ll find that quite infuriating.

I’m not 100% sold on “lighter, quicker, cheaper”. It all sounds like a lot of hocus-pocus, none of it ever having been subjected to any objective studies, and it’s astonishing that the development of four or five city blocks (not including the Outer Harbor or Buffalo River areas) can cause such consternation and controversy. I get the sense from some of this that we’re throwing stuff at the wall to see if it will stick on the one hand, and selling our waterfront short on the other.  I like some of the ideas (marketplace, bistro, toilets) but detest others (“flexible lawn?” “multi-use square?” “central square?”). Frankly, open space and green space doesn’t seem like much of a draw or improvement to me.

Kent talked about “triangulation” (“Triangulation is the process by which some external stimulus provides a linkage between people and prompts strangers to talk to other strangers as if they knew each other”) and the “power of ten“; ten destinations with ten places with ten things to do will naturally bring people. That sounds great, but he admitted in the next breath that that theory has never been tested. So, WTF? How much is this guy getting paid for this?  And what’s such a great draw about a lawn under the Skyway? Are two lawns better?

Four takeaways for me:

1. Kent said, “people attract people, cars attract cars”.  That got a predictable round of applause from the assembled car-haters. Problem is, cars bring people. That’s just a fact.

2. That area has been open space for decades. I don’t believe that simply making the open space under the Skyway prettier is the highest and best use for that property.

3. The Mayor of the City of Buffalo was nowhere to be seen. There were almost 500 people in downtown Buffalo to talk about developing the waterfront, and Mayor Brown was a no-show. In mentioning this to someone, we remarked that we didn’t expect him to come.  That’s somewhat sad. Brown didn’t need to give a speech or grandstand or insert himself into the process.  But it would have been nice if he had been present for the event and to chat with attendees, to have shown an interest.

4. This process is almost a decade old, and even with the advent of ECHDC, the three waterfront districts still haven’t figured out who owns what, who controls what parcels, and what parcels need serious environmental remediation. Tick tock, folks.

There were some good ideas, and the PPS presentation didn’t quite make clear that the committees were charged with coming up with ideas that can be implemented very quickly – by this summer or next. These don’t appear to be permanent plans for redevelopment of Canal Side, an effort that continues until the canals – faux thought they may be – are re-watered, the Donovan Building is brought down, and the entire district is shovel-ready to be made awesome.




About 3/4 of the crowd


Fred Kent addresses the crowd


Flexible Lawn: Inner Harbor


Multi-Use Market: Inner Harbor




Inner Harbor - click to enlarge


Do Not Demolish! Click to enlarge


Grain elevators: click to enlarge


WHERE IS IT?! Click to enlarge


Woof? Click to enlarge


Just relocate them! All done problems! Click to enlarge.


Passive-aggressive notes dot com: click to enlarge


Shut down the Skyway: click to enlarge


Don't forget!: click to enlarge


Green dot: Click to enlarge


As it stands now. Click to enlarge.


As it stands now. Click to enlarge.

Picking One’s Battles: Part 1

7 Oct

Forget for a moment about the things that the media are telling you to be absolutely terrified about – ebola, ISIS, drought, global warming/climate change, Russia, Ukraine, flights from West Africa, genocide, etc. After all, while all of this stuff is going on, most Americans either think it’s an Obama-led plot, or are more concerned with who did what on Dancing With the “Stars”. 

Locally, our outrages are much more pedestrian in nature. 

We don’t get incensed, and we don’t do jack squat in response to a devastating report about poverty in Buffalo. Well, we do tend to moralize and lecture the victims of poverty, while others identify at least one of the root causes

But I can tell you two recent points of civic outrage that are not at all important, in the wider scheme of things. One is the Labatt ad affixed to a dilapidated grain elevator, replacing what appears to be peeling and chipping lead paint.  The other is the notion that anything that might be labeled “the indoors” be built anywhere on the Outer Harbor. 

A scan of preservationist message boards reveals that some people are simply outraged by the idea that a locally-headquartered national beer importer would so crassly deface our lovely blight. (Query: if it was PBR cans, would that be ok?) A petition has 132 signatures, is being promoted by a guy from Dutchess County, and calls this location “downtown”. The petition alleges that the Labatt cans violate up to three codes or regulations. 

The petitioners claim that Alcoholic Beverage Control Law 83.2 prohibits this display. Untrue. Any reasonable reading of that language reveals the prohibition to signs posted by a retailer on “retail licensed premises”. This location is not a retail licensed premises for on-site alcohol consumption.  A claimed second code violation alleges that the Labatt ad is illegal because it can be seen from a park with a playground in it.

The city code cited, 452-4, prohibits any alcohol advertising, “in any publicly visible location on or within 1,000 feet of the perimeter of any school premises, playground or playground area in a public park.” The 333 Ganson location is just about 1,000 feet from the boundary of Conway Park itself, which contains a playground. It is almost 1,500 feet from the “playground” or the “playground area in a public park”. 

Finally, the petitioner cites a city code having to do with “accessory signs”.  It doesn’t appear to me that the cited sign ordinance applies to a sign that is a part of the building itself, but instead deals with billboards and other types of signs that are separate and distinct from the adjoining structure.

But all of this boils down to personal taste – trying to shoehorn dubious statutory violations into the argument is a weak substitute for just saying you don’t like it; that we can do better. One person wrote that if we let this Labatt ad stay on the grain elevator, “we’re getting the city we deserve”. I honestly can’t fathom how putting a dilapidated commercial structure to commercial use poses an existential threat to Buffalo. 

You don’t have to like the ad, but unless you own the building, who cares what you or I like? 

Our second moral outrage has to do with the Outer Harbor. Every single plan for the Outer Harbor incorporates bucketloads of parkland. The problem is that in Buffalo, at that location, parkland is basically unusable much of the year, unless maybe you go fishing through holes in the ice or enjoy cross-country skiing with acute wind chills. The notion that there be something indoors on the Outer Harbor is, apparently, haram. 

The rhetoric against the ECHDC-promoted plan has been as bombastic as you’d expect it to be. The process was flawed!  Sure, there were three public hearings/meetings, and they were conducted like all of these types of meetings are – Green Code, Placemaking, One Region Forward – but this one was flawed! ECHDC’s plan will harm the ecosystem! The effort wouldn’t, of course, be complete without noted civic horror Donn Esmonde weighing in, complete with allusion to “lighter, faster, cheaper” from the Placemaking rip-off

So, what could they possibly be planning? Singapore-on-the-Lake? An endless sea of Waterfront Villages? A suburban office park surrounded by parking, like Larkinville? 

Nope, this. This is what they’re planning.  

I don’t know about you, but there’s a lot of green on that rendering. Looks like Times Beach’s ecosystem is preserved. Most of the construction would be in small clusters, away from the shore.  

There are plenty of things to be outraged about in Buffalo. These two don’t seem to be among them. 

The Esmonde Template

7 Oct

Sunday brought us a treat – the quintessential Donn Esmonde congratubatory piece. The foundational document. The template. The “we the columnist” from the tea party champion.

It has everything – Tim Tielman, “lighter, quicker, cheaper”, Mark Goldman, and a generalized thesis whereby the general public is populated by cretins who are just now awakening to the genius of the positions of Esmonde and friends. 

All in all, it reinforces the accuracy of some of my theories. For instance, the one where preservationist hero Tim Tielman is the capo of a local preservation racket. Just hire the right people, and suddenly preservationist opposition to whatever demolition or renovation project you’re proposing simply evaporates. The Neighborhood Workshop Thuggery.

I know Esmonde has recently written two concern-trolls regarding the Buffalo Schools – one whereby our self-hating, upper-middle class, elitist white guy hero feigns outrage at racism in the board of education, and another where he knows better than the school district’s superintendent, who quite literally has what amounts to an impossible job. I’m sure Buffalo School Superintendent Dr. Pamela Brown enjoys having a failing school district to run on the one hand, and racist assholes gunning for her removal every. few. weeks, on the other. Esmonde whitesplains all of this for our benefit, ignoring the fact that he voluntarily abandoned his education bona fides when he touted his business partner’s charter school chops, and decided that it would be perfectly swell if Clarence schools’ quality was degraded. 

Want to develop Canal Side? You’ll have a lot of problems from Mark Goldman & his crew unless you spend six figures of public money to hire Fred Kent & Partnership for Public Spaces to educate you on “placemaking” and benches. (Placemaking is the wholly unscientific theory that people will go where other people are. The thing it omits is what it was that attracted the “other people” in the first place.)

Want to develop the Larkin District? Hire a planner well-regarded in preservationist circles to promote the project, and retain Tielman’s company, too, while you’re at it. Suddenly, all your problems will disappear.

Someone explain to me how this is any different from paying protection money to the mob to prevent that same mob from blocking your project and seeking injunctive relief. Don’t want Tim Tielman organizing a picket of your project? Put him on the payroll.  You tell me what that’s called

Lighter, quicker, cheaper brought one restaurant and some Adirondack chairs to Canal Side. Everything else – everything – is temporary, slow, or transient. Go down there on a rainy Sunday and – if you’re not interested in getting wet, and you’ve already seen the Naval museum,  I challenge you to find something to do other than have a beer at Liberty Hound.  It should have shops, cafes, restaurants (plural), maybe a museum or gallery – things more compelling than a temporary stage and “flexible lawns”. Solar-powered carousels don’t count (this was a real suggestion – as if a kid gives a crap about the sustainability of a carousel’s propulsion fuel). 

The Cobblestone now has a restaurant, the Helium comedy club, a casino, and a bar or two. It’s walking distance from Canalside, but the Harbor Center construction makes it difficult to reach.

I wonder if Goldman or Tielman are partners with Esmonde in some business endeavor? Tielman has degrees from SUNY Binghamton in art history, political science, and geography. I don’t know what Tielman’s profession once was, but it looks like he took a hobby and parlayed it into a well-paid position as the community’s gatekeeper for preservation issues. Must be nice. 

Donn Esmonde Makes Kevin Gaughan, Poor People Unlikeable,

29 Jul


Because Donn Esmonde is such an ass, everything is somehow magically about him. Everything. Including the Erie County Democratic Committee’s decision to ask regionalism and downsizing advocate Kevin Gaughan to run on for County Comptroller on the Democratic line. The ECDC has finally come around to Donn’s way of thinking, so smell the told-ya-so snark waft through the air. Esmonde’s egotistical descent into self-parody is hilarious.

Me, me, me. Me. I did this. I am the seer – you are the unwashed mouth-breathers. That’s Esmonde’s political thought about Gaughan, in a nutshell.

Don’t hurt your back patting it so damned hard, Donn.

Pigs have sprouted wings, lost souls have donned parkas in Hades, and lambs have lain down with lions.

The day many thought would never happen has come: Kevin Gaughan – eternal maverick, inveterate outsider and longtime critic of the political establishment – was endorsed last week as a candidate for Erie County comptroller by the Democratic Party.

To steal a line from sportscaster Al Michaels: Do you believe in miracles?

I am not sure if local Democrats finally came to their senses or if Gaughan – whom I have known for a quarter-century – has lost his. I suspect it is the former.

The fact of the matter is that Gaughan hasn’t been taken seriously before because he hasn’t performed all that well in any campaign in which he’s been involved. Part of it has to do with the fact that he is professorial in his demeanor – something we just don’t get in politicians around here. Part of it has to do with the fact that the size and political activity of his base of support is small – he eschews the quid-pro-quo with political clubs, which, on the one hand, help with petitions, canvassing, and calls; and, on the other hand, provide a well of ready and willing patronage hires. That’s not a criticism of Gaughan, whom I respect, but a reality. He’s a thinker, a philosopher, a tinkerer, but he’s just not your typical politician. This is a blessing and a curse.

The tone of the article is so unbelievably condescending – as if all the rest of you backwards-ass cretins have finally seen the light that Esmonde has been shining for nigh these many years.

Granted, he replaces the party’s original choice, who withdrew for health reasons. Even so, I think this day has been too long in coming. Gaughan’s government-reform efforts in the last two decades even prompted futile endorsement offers from rival Republicans. Only now have fellow Democrats opened their arms.

Credit County Democratic Chairman Jeremy Zellner, who took over last year at age 34, for bringing Gaughan, 59, in from the cold to run against Republican incumbent Stefan Mychajliw.

“From Day One, I said I wanted to make the party more progressive,” Zellner told me. “Some, in years past, maybe would have shut Kevin out. I think this shows that the thinking of the party is changing.”

Given our grandstanding comptroller, who has absolutely zero financial background and has worn out his shoes running to the nearest microphone to declare today’s reasonable sounding of alarms, it is imperative that the Democrats put up a challenger who has some bona fide experience in trying to find ways to dramatically improve the efficiency of government in both macro (regionalism) and micro (board downsizing) ways. Frankly, putting up Mychajliw’s red coat against Gaughan’s decade and a half of efficiency activism is brilliant, and Gaughan has done all of that for very little reward. Also, Donn Esmonde had absolutely nothing to do with any of it.

The reed-thin, Harvard-educated attorney and civic activist has for years carried the smaller-government flag. He has done more, in my view, to help the community than most elected officials. Instead of seizing the voter appeal of a no-strings reformer, the party – under the likes of Len Lenihan and Steve Pigeon – for years slammed the door.

The rejection said more about the party’s march-in-place myopia than it did about Gaughan. Although, in fairness, he did little to endear himself – thrice taking on party favorites in primaries and generally avoiding party functions and parades he wasn’t leading. His style attracts some people, repels others. With a patrician air that seems at odds with a common-man philosophy, Gaughan often sounds like he is reading from a civics textbook.

Gaughan has rankled the unions, which make up much of the Democrats’ base. Gaughan has upset many protectors of the inefficient, wasteful status quo. He wants to kill the job in a place where job number one is to not kill the job. Esmonde’s condescending “f you” to past party bosses completely ignores the reasons why Gaughan has been a tough sell in Democratic circles. To ignore that is to ignore facts.

Like him or not, there is no arguing with success. His 1997 Chautauqua Regionalism Conference helped to turn “sprawl” and “consolidation” into household words. His subsequent public “Conversations” hammered politicians for a lack of post-Chautauqua reforms. His downsizing crusade led to the shrinking of seven town and village boards and the County Legislature – angering numerous politicians for threatening their power bases.

Eight downsized boards are palpable achievements. The introduction of two words into the WNY vernacular, and that’s over the course of 16 years. The only phrases missing from this Esmonde lesson are, “lighter, quicker, cheaper” and “placemaking”.

His stabs at elective office were a different story. Gaughan’s failed efforts underline how tough it is for an “outsider” of modest means – despite name recognition and a core following – to take on an endorsed candidate with a legion of party workers, money and institutional backing. He lost Democratic primaries for Congress, mayor and the Assembly.

Gaughan seemed resigned, after getting pounded in the Assembly race last year, to a future of practicing law and digging into academia. But a recent courtesy call to Zellner led, to his surprise, to an endorsement offer.

After decades of separation, the historically fractured Democratic Party has discovered its foremost progressive. Check the thermostat in Hades.

I’m not sure whether Gaughan is progressive or conservative. Isn’t “less government” typically seen as a conservative thing? Perhaps that explains why his is a hard sell in true-blue New York and union-friendly WNY. And what do Gaughan’s “modest means” have to do with anything? If anything, it points to a dramatic need for a fundraising blitz, and that’s something you recruit people to do – people who are good at it.

But Esmonde misses a key point that Gaughan will be asked about – one that has nothing to do with the fact that Gaughan was once sued for a debt owed to the Buffalo Hyatt – for someone who is so opposed to the political class, why is he so eager to join them? Congress, Mayor, State Senate, Erie County Clerk – Gaughan went for all of them in just the last 23 years. That drubbing he took when he primaried a perfectly reasonable progressive Democrat for the Assembly Sean Ryan? Ryan is also an attorney and has made his bones working his way up the party ranks, doing the grunt work and getting the eventual party nod. He is uniquely close to the unions in town and there’s simply no way you can, as a Democrat, outflank Ryan on either end of the political spectrum.

So this isn’t about people finally seeing the Esmonde light about Gaughan – this is about Gaughan finding a race where Democrats are left with no other choice.


Also, there was a Sunday column where he was able to tsk-tsk the fact that the city of Buffalo has a lot of bad students populating its schools, and that a kid’s educational output is largely predetermined by his socioeconomic reality and the educational output of the parents. If a parent dropped out of school pregnant and with failing grades in 9th grade, chances are pretty good that the child’s experience will be similar. Rather than addressing the complete breakdown of society that accompanies that sort of spiraling descent into intergenerational poverty and despair,

Esmonde figures we should just bus inner city kids to the boondocks and vice-versa. Because nothing helps education more than an hour-and-a-half bus ride, twice a day, right? This “solution” also gets to avoid one of the most troubling components of this reality – that some people just place no value on education whatsoever. How do you convince someone with that mindset to change anything? Isn’t this the same Esmonde who blamed these negligent parents for chronic student absences? Does he think shipping such a student to Sardinia is going to magically reduce truancy?

Esmonde’s concern-trolling of the extremely complicated and difficult issue of school reform is counterproductive. His tired, prejudicial pablum (underscored by him quoting racist anonymous emails as indicators of widespread suburban opinion), is only made worse by his constant advocating for de-funding suburban schools, incessant charter-fellating, and hypocritical good-enough-for-me-but-not-for-thee union scapegoating. There are probably ways we can help break the pattern of poverty and devalued education in America’s inner cities, but Esmonde looks at putting band-aids on the symptoms, and completely ignores the underlying disease.

Maybe education is devalued because Buffalo was always a manufacturing town. Maybe the loss of manufacturing over the last 40 years has completely devastated families without the means to leave and go where the jobs are. Maybe decades’ worth of demolishing the very socioeconomic foundation of entire communities have led to despair and poverty and despair. Maybe these are the issues we should focus on if we want to lift people up and not lose yet another generation of people who really just need a job and some hope for social mobility.

Donny And The Great Concrete Elevator

7 Jun

Donn Esmonde just loves the grain elevators, and he loves people who love what he loves. Those crumbling concrete gravestones to a long-gone industrial time might be big and ugly, but by gosh they tell a story

waterfront wasteland

Something about it. Photo by Chris Smith via Flickr

These things matter. 

Esmonde skips through his paean to placemaking, extolling the wondrous things that nostalgia can bring – a buyer for a peeling behemoth on Lake Erie an outfit called FFZ Holdings bought at auction June 7th for just $475,000.

True, they are more beast than beauty, comparatively closer to mastodons than to mermaids. Yet to this Buffalo transplant, they always seemed like concrete dinosaurs, rising from the scrub brush along the Buffalo River plain like frozen-in-time fossils. Their inert mass stamped Buffalo’s broad-shouldered identity and shouted “sense of place” in an increasingly homogenized world. What was not to like?

For decades, [grain elevator aficionado Lorraine] Pierro has been their fiercest champion. “This is our history,” she said. “It seems like there is a new appreciation and recognition of them.”

FFZ Holdings is located at the same 26 Mississippi Avenue address as Savarino Companies, and it was named as a co-developer of some apartments on Ohio Street in the remnants of the “Erie Freight House”. Remember how receptive Esmonde’s friends in the preservation community were to the Savarino-proposed demolition of the freight house? I wonder how much taxpayers will be on the hook with various and sundry incentives and corporate welfare schemes to renovate Mr. Esmonde’s beloved concrete monstrosities. 

Is there a similar preservation movement in Europe to preserve Soviet-era concrete apartment blocks because “sense of place” and historical significance? 

Maybe more people could learn about the historic freight houses of the Erie Canal and the reasons why grain elevators are important if schools weren’t being starved into oblivion by alleged school reformer tea party hacks such as the ones Donn Esmonde now promotes

This is part of a new, ongoing AV Daily series, Donn Esmonde is an Ass.  Email us ways Donn Esmonde is an ass here

Surface Parking Protectionism

13 Feb

The image shown above is a rendering of the HARBORcenter – the Sabres’ proposed hotel, restaurant, retail, and indoor hockey destination planned for construction on the long-abandoned Webster Block.  It’s no Fallingwater, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s not ugly and it’s wholly functional, and will bring people and their money to a fledgling entertainment district that’s growing in fits and starts of its own accord. 

Buffalo antideveloper Tim Tielman has started a company named after the “neighborhood workshops” that have been part and parcel of the formulation and implementation of Buffalo’s soon-to-be “Green Code” zoning law. On Tuesday, Tielman, on behalf of his “Neighborhood Workshop, LLC” appeared before the Planning Board to complain about how the Pegula-led “HARBORCenter” project for the Webster Block isn’t pretty enough for him and his clientHi-Temp Fabrications, which occupies an eyesore across the street from an HSBC Atrium surface lot. 

Four speakers, including the owner of a neighboring business, spoke against the project during a City Hall public hearing today.

Speakers said the development would contribute to congestion and that it did not resemble historic architecture styles.

“The central planning issue that we’re facing in Buffalo today … is how to connect downtown to the waterfront,” said Tim Tielman, whose Neighborhood Workshop consultancy developed an alternative concept on behalf of John and Shelley McKendry, who own Hi-Temp Fabrication, at 79 Perry St. Tielman said the project adds to the separation of downtown and the water, as the Skyway does.

Yes, it’s time to hold our horses and literally obstruct something being planned imminently to replace a surface parking lot.  Perhaps we can make it more historically interpretive by adding hay bales and hitching posts? A museum of downtown surface parking might be good for the cultural tourists? Or maybe we can just re-pave and re-stripe the lot? Perhaps we can retain Fred Kent and his extortionate traveling “placemaking” salon to discuss “flexible lawns” and colorful benches? Where are the solar-powered carousels?

Better yet, maybe we can tell the Sabres to go to hell and construct some ugly hodgepodge of buildings with outdoor rinks as an afterthought up on the roof. 

Mr. Tielman and his uncharacteristically disclosed patrons are coming to protect downtown’s connection to the waterfront – that is, if you ignore the fact that the railyard and the really big hockey arena both do that very thing already. 

Who are we in Buffalo to expect or want a nice hotel and hockey facility to help build on a solid entertainment district foundation now anchored by CanalSide, First Niagara Center, and Helium Comedy Club? 

If Hi-Temp Fabrications wants to weigh in on a development’s design, it should invest in the development or buy the parcel. The 11th hour unwanted micromanagement of a $170 million hockey destination and for what? For this eyesore, which looks like a Crayola marker box come to life; Curaçao by the Arena.


 This isn’t a case for historic preservation or even one where a better design is being proposed in place of an existing one. This is about ego, power, and subjective design prejudices. That hotel would look great in coastal Florida. In 1977. Those little phony colorful row houses look as stupid as they do out of place. The idea of outdoor rinks completely flies in the face of the Sabres’ intent – to design a destination Division 1 AAA hockey facility to attract tournaments of all ages from all over. Just leave the Sabres alone. When it comes to attracting people and money, they’ve already got things figured out pretty well. 

The Curiousness of Selective Preservationist Outrage

1 Nov

Earlier this year, Donn Esmonde applauded the fact that Howard Zemsky and Larkin Development had retained the services of preservationist Tim Tielman, and that the whole project served as a model for how development could work hand-in-hand with preservation.  My takeaway, however, was that Tielman’s involvement in that project amounted to Zemsky and Larkin paying Tielman off; essentially, paying protection money. As with Canalside’s retention of Fred Kent’s “placemaking” sideshow in order to placate an irascibly relentless Mark Goldman, what better way to silence your litigious critics than to co-opt them? 

Andrew Kulyk in the comments section of my post essentially laid out the theory in so many words, even though I didn’t get many other takers.  And without a test, a theory is just a theory, right?  

My theory may be tested this week. As it happens, a subsidiary of Larkin Development is applying to Buffalo’s preservation board for permission to demolish an entire row of houses on Seneca Street in the Larkin District on what appear, on their face, to be flimsy grounds.  More details on that below.

Buffalo without its relentless preservation and planning conflicts would be a better Buffalo; however, some developers have figured out ways to ingratiate themselves or join with the preservationist near-west side elites, and from that derive a real benefit.  For example, Buffalo Rising writers and commenters are not shy about criticizing developers for poor design; e.g.,  inveighing against Dry-Vit (modern stucco) facades.  Yet Karl Frizlen puts bland, Dry-Vit-heavy buildings on Elmwood and there’s nary a peep. Is it a coincidence that Frizlen also happens to be a favorite with that audience, having founded the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers Market, and collaborating with Buffalo Rising founder Newell Nussbaumer?

And aren’t Buffalo’s preservationist/New-Millennium types supposed to like businesses on Elmwood to be 2 stories or more?  They do, except when the owner of the Acropolis personally offends them by not asking their permission first before trying to expand to a second floor, and even co-opts their favorite tactic of appealing to blogs and social media.  The preservationist/planning elites came down on Pauly and Acropolis with downright viciousness

Then there’s developer Sam Savarino, who somehow has managed to get even individuals and blogs that normally display their preservationist street cred like badges of honor on his side, even as he plans to knock down buildings, or takes on the Elmwood Village in a cat fight over a charter school.  Then again, Buffalo Rising and its leadership were charter tenants at his Cobblestone District development; could that be the reason?

It all suggests that perhaps BNMC might have actually had some success with its plan to begin demolishing the Trico building this year, if only their leadership had hired a preservationist as a “consultant”. Sort of like how Tony Soprano was a consultant to the waste management industry. 

But Howard Zemsky may be far and away the savviest of all in this regard.  No one could begrudge a businessman – especially a developer – seeking to learn everything about how business “really” gets done in his city. He goes with what works, and avoids what doesn’t.  With that said, look what Zemsky has managed to do: 

In the broadest terms, he’s used old buildings to, essence, create a suburban office park in the city, right off an expressway, set far apart from the downtown core, and surrounded it with a sea of free surface parking and some landscaping, and he’s given people there something to do other than work, making it superficially attractive and rendering trips downtown for lunch moot. His biggest cheerleaders are the very people who are the most rabid enemies of expressways, suburban office parks, surface parking, free parking, etc.  The one thing the Preservationist/Hipster/New Millennium Group axis especially hates about suburban office parks is that they drain tenants away from historic downtowns.  Although Larkin has drawn some tenants in from outside the city, some of the most prominent ones moved out there from downtown.  But no worries; if you read the recent Buffalo Building Reuse Plan, overseen by the Buffalo Niagara Partnership at Mayor Brown’s behest to look at strategies to combat an expected glut of vacant office space downtown, it simply redefines downtown to include the Larkin District, despite its separation from it by over a half mile of post-industrial wasteland. 

At least Larkin has a free London cab service for tenants to use. 

And what else?  To do historic research for him, Zemsky hired a prominent preservationist who also happens to be one of City Hall’s top green code planners.  To design Larkin Square – the centerpiece of the district – he turned to Tim Tielman, who, as far as I can determine, hasn’t actually planned or designed a single other thing, anywhere, ever.  Despite that the Larkin District is home to several firms that do a combination of planning, preservation, and architecture.

To create a plan for the overall district, Zemsky several years ago turned to UB’s Urban Design Project, headed by Robert Shibley, an insider central to many planning and development issues in the city.  It turned out to be a good bet: Shibley is now dean of UB’s architecture and planning school, and played a major role in the development of the regional economic development plan that so far seems to be working to our benefit with the Cuomo administration.  Hey, if Howard Zemsky’s savvy insider knowledge about how to get things done in Buffalo, and his strategic creation of networks of allies can create positive results for the community, it’s no problem if  they also create positive results for him at the same time.

The icing on the cake: Zemsky and Larkin Development hosted a bash for preservationists last year.  Held in a reused church (the Montante Cultural Center at Canisius College), and promoted by Buffalo Rising, several major figures in the preservation community were invited to speak, and Tim Tielman’s plan for Larkin Square was unveiled.

But back to Seneca Street, and that overall plan for the Larkin District, and the threatened row of houses.

Not surprisingly, the plan talks a great deal about historic preservation, and even shows improvements to enhance Seneca Street where the houses are located.  Even a quick peek at the Google maps satellite imagery shows that the row of houses along both sides of Seneca in the Larkin District just west of Smith Street are the only set even remotely still intact from downtown all the way to the Seneca/Babcock neighborhood.  Isn’t “intact streetscape” something the planning and preservation community is supposed to value?  And what about real economic value, considering that just two years ago Larkin Development and their new anchor tenant First Niagara Bank invested millions of their own funds creating the very enhancements along Seneca Street that their master plan called for?

Doesn’t this place matter? 

Why would Larkin Development be looking to “de-enhance” this part of Seneca Street, which they recently invested in enhancing based on their own master plan, by creating a largely vacant block?  Even more pertinent to this theory, why are they proposing these demolitions in what seems to be a ham-handed way such that it looks sketchy to even a non-preservationist?  Could that be because they are expecting essentially no opposition from a preservation board they see as “friendly”? It’s the Buffalo version of wink, a nod, and some thick manila envelopes. 

As you can see for yourself from the November 1st (today’s) preservation board agenda, the demolition justification for the row of houses is copy/paste identical: “The foundation has shifted, and after years of water infiltration the floor has heaved. It has now been deemed unsafe.”  What, every single one?  Was there a localized earthquake there, or a flood?  According to City of Buffalo property records, these buildings are all owned by Mill Race Commons, LLC, a subsidiary of Larkin Development.  (COBIS).  Dan Reilly is Project Manager with CityView Construction Management (the construction arm affiliated with Larkin Development Group).

23. 866 Seneca St. ____________

DEMOLITION: The foundation has shifted, and after years of water infiltration the floor has heaved. It has now been deemed unsafe. Application received 10/25/2012. (Dan Reilly to appear @ 11/1/2012 03:00 PM 901 City Hall)

24. 860 Seneca St. ____________

DEMOLITION: The foundation has shifted, and after years of water infiltration the floor has heaved. It has now been deemed unsafe. Application received 10/25/2012. (Dan Reilly to appear @ 11/1/2012 03:00 PM 901 City Hall)

25. 870 Seneca St. ____________

DEMOLITION: The foundation has shifted, and after years of water infiltration the floor has heaved. It has now been deemed unsafe. Application received 10/25/2012. (Dan Reilly to appear @ 11/1/2012 03:00 PM 901 City Hall)

26. 872 Seneca St. ____________ 

DEMOLITION: The foundation has shifted, and after years of water infiltration the floor has heaved. It has now been deemed unsafe. Application received 10/25/2012. (Dan Reilly to appear @ 11/1/2012 03:00 PM 901 City Hall)

Beyond these four houses, according to preservation board meeting minutes, the same entity also received permission to demolish a non-residential building adjacent to these properties last spring, without even coming before the preservation board.  Instead, according to the preservation board minutes, Dan Reilly, Project Manager with CityView Construction Management (construction arm affiliated with Larkin Development Group) visited their offices, and (either on the spot, or subsequently – the minutes aren’t clear) the chair of the preservation board cleared the demolition.  Note that the chair of preservation board is also the board president of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo, of which Tim Tielman is executive director (Tim is also a preservation board member).  If this had actually come before the preservation board for discussion and decision, it would have been interesting to see if Tielman had recused himself, due to his consulting work with Larkin Development and the blatant conflict of interest.  That’s not to be overly suspicious of Tielman; as the preservation board members are mostly professionals who serve voluntarily, and Buffalo is a small town, it’s not unusual for volunteer members of all kinds of boards to be alert for potential conflicts of interested related to the work they or their firms are doing.

23. 840 Seneca St.

Mr. Dan Reilly appeared in our office on 4/12/12. Mr. Paul McDonnell – after reviewing this application deemed this building is non significant therefore the demolition was APPROVED. (Not an Historic Site / NO BLUE) (Dan Reilly to appeared @ 4/12/2012 09:30 AM 901 City Hall)

At the end of last year, the same entity apparently got no opposition (just “received & filed”) from the preservation board for the demolition of another building that, according to Google, until recently housed a sub shop on its ground floor.  Wait, I thought we were supposed to like street-level retail?

15. 763 Seneca St. RECEIVED & FILED

Demolish 2 1/2 story frame structure. (Dan Reilly to appear @ 12/15/2011 901 City Hall)

According to City property tax records (see below), Mill Race Commons, LLC, the entity that owns most of these now-vacant properties and perhaps-soon-to-be-vacant properties actually owns about 20 properties in and around the Larkin District.  Yet Mill Race Commons was announced as one of those projects that the preservationist elites gushed over, from the time it was first announced 6 years ago.  It had everything they would want: it borrowed styles from the industrial district nearby, and most of all didn’t (at least as it appeared at the time) involve demolishing any existing buildings.  In fact, its development would eliminate a bete noir: a massive surface parking lot.

Although it was thought the project would involve no demolitions, around the same time – using the Mill Race Commons LLC – Larkin Development went on a property-buying spree in the neighborhood, apparently buying properties for future development sites. In fact, in the half-dozen years since Mill Race Commons was announced (with construction to start when the building was 25% pre-leased, according to Larkin’s web site), the only activity Mill Race Commons, LLC, has engaged in seems to be purchasing other sites in and around the Larkin District.  And demolishing buildings.

SBL                             House Number       Street          Primary Owner

1222600001003000 696 EXCHANGE MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005020000 840 EXCHANGE MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222600004008000 44 ROSEVILLE MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222600003006000 106 ROSEVILLE MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1118200008004000 696 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222600002005000 763 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005003000 837 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700002006100 856 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700002011000 866 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005011000 867 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700002010000 870 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005012000 871 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700002009000 872 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700002008000 874 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005014000 877 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005015000 889 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005016000 891 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005017000 893 SENECA MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222700005018300 470 SMITH MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1118200006005000 716 SWAN MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222600003016100 159 VAN RENSSELAER MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

1222600003017000 161 VAN RENSSELAER MILL RACE COMMONS, LLC View Information

And all their subsequent interaction with the preservation board, none of it to discuss landmarking or reusing any of the buildings, suggests their intent to be demolishing all or most of them.  In fact, taken together with other activity on Seneca Street in the Larkin District, it appears there is something of a demolition spree underway there, going back at least a year and with little fanfare and no apparent outcry.

Last year, for example, Larkin Development demolished a connected set of old industrial buildings at 111 Hydraulic Street (at Seneca Street) on the grounds that they were too environmentally contaminated to reuse, to construct a new building custom-designed for a single tenant – a collections firm.  That may sound not unlike the situation with the Trico Building that has led to great outcry in the preservation community, yet engendered not a peep when carried out in the Larkin District.  That’s despite the fact that the replacement building includes a large amount of surface parking, and isn’t even built to the curb.  

This year, on a block across Seneca, a large former industrial plant that closed just last year, was demolished.  According to their Brownfield Cleanup Program application at page 24: 

At this time, future development plans have not been defined for the Site, and future land use cannot be determined. The site is currently zoned for light manufacturing.

In other words, a former industrial plant with some environmental contamination issues was razed (with State aid) to create a shovel-ready parcel for, essentially, real estate speculation in a suddenly hot location.  Yet did preservationists rush to its defense as they did the Trico building this spring?  Nary a peep, except for photos of the demolition and a historic photo in activist David Torke’s Flickr photostream.

This despite that the preservation board denied permission to demolish the building at the December 15, 2011 meeting.

So attempting to tie all this together: in the recent case of the Bernstone Cigar Store downtown, a relatively non-descript building drew a howl of outrage from the preservation community when it was demolished by its Canadian owner.  The outcry over the planned Savarino demolition of the decrepit and nondescript, unused Erie Freight House to build an apartment block has also been quite vocal. The cry to save the Trico Building has been deafening, and led to, as always, stasis. Not to mention, preservationists are forever birddogging their arch-nemesis, Carl Paladino. The three things the city desperately needs are uniformity, predictability, and smart parking. Not a soul is pushing for proactivity, relying instead on reaction and litigation.

Yet a recent demolition tear in the beloved Larkin District has drawn nary a peep from the preservationists.  Is that because of some perhaps inherent east-side/west-side bias in preservation?  Or are the preservationists just too cozy with the folks doing the demolitions there?  How the preservation board handles these requests on Thursday afternoon may shed some light on that question.


And An Elevator To the Moon

23 Oct

Not real, authentic (This Stadium Matters; Stadium, For Real)

Way back in late 2004/early 2005, one of the first Buffalocentric topics about which I decided to write was an NFTA debate that was then brewing over three competing plans for Buffalo’s beleaguered, forgotten Outer Harbor. Eight or so years later, it remains almost equally beleaguered, with some aesthetic and functional improvements in access, but still amounting to grass and weeds. Eight or so years later, the NFTA still controls it, while the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation and the City of Buffalo bicker over who should control its development, and the contracts and jobs that go with it. 

What else have we seen? We’ve seen that while civic debate focuses on extremes, we are capable of reaching compromise when necessary. For instance, attracting a Bass Pro to the waterfront – it wasn’t at all a bad idea. Putting it in the Aud, on the Aud site, or even right up against the water at the foot of Main Street – none of those were per se bad ideas. But Bass Pro isn’t coming, and that, too, is OK. We don’t need it, but it wouldn’t have hurt. On the other side of the argument, we had the armies of preservation demanding green space, no buildings against the water, “authenticity” as defined by them, and now a fetish for defunct grain elevators and warehouses that haven’t been demolished because there is no one to pay to demolish them – haven’t been used because they are economically difficult to justify re-using. In spite of the Fred Kent placemaking sideshow scam, Buffalonians seem pretty happy with the compromise Canalside being built, the Pegula hockeytorium, and the other incremental – but, finally, visible and palpable – improvements being done to the Inner Harbor. 

So, we look again to the Outer Harbor and we have a new proposal being trial-ballooned whereby we build a billion-and-a-half-dollar stadium for the Buffalo Bills with a retractable roof, a new convention center, a hotel complex, and 5,000 parking spots. Of the silver bullet proposals to come down the road, this is the silveriest, bulletiest of them all.  This has a former county comptroller candidate involved in commissioning an epic set of images showing off our newest Elevator to the Moon, complete with a sports museum to be built and run by the people behind Rochester’s Strong Museum of Play. 

Neighborhoods crumble under the weight of economic decay and desperation, and we have $1.5 billion to spend on playing catch? We struggle to make ends meet with Medicaid funding, heating assistance, and day care for the working poor, and we’ll throw a billion dollars at a hotel and Buffalo Skydome? Is there even a local corporate sponsor who will buy naming rights, or will we just name it after Ralph Wilson, too? Renovating the Ralph is estimated to cost $200 million, which is also a tremendous sum of money for this area, and even that is a deal not yet done. For decades this region has been trampled underfoot by opportunistic politicians with toxic policies, and we have yet to devise an attainable vision for the future and a concomitant plan to get there.  But, hey – domed. Stadium

Functionally, the Outer Harbor is a geographical bottleneck – accessible by Skyway or on Route 5 from the South or in from Tifft Blvd from South Buffalo.  Three points of entry to get to 5,000 parking spots to service a stadium for 72,000 people. Arithmetically, the people behind this proposal think that the state will pony up $400 million, and that the NFL will provide between $200 to $400 million. That leaves a gap of $700 to $900 million that needs to be filled by private investment and, presumably, county money. That kind of money approaches the county’s entire annual budget. As a practical matter, the soil on the Outer Harbor is toxic and in need of multimillion dollar remediation. 

But we’re still debating the likelihood that the Bills stay in this region after their owner inevitably passes away in the near future. The team is more than just a sports franchise – it’s a powerful symbol reminding Buffalo that it was once in the major leagues; a legacy we cling to by a thread.  Does this area have enough idle money lying around to (a) enable local investors to buy the Bills and keep them here when Wilson dies; and (b) fund a massive stadium project for the Outer Harbor, which would effectively prohibit any other kind of development from happening there? 

So here we are, with a massive silver bullet pipe dream to try and keep our disappointing football team in town. A shiny object to raise the hopes of the few not yet beaten down by inevitable cynicism; something to occupy hours’ worth of inane AM talk radio chatter, with angry people talking angrily about their anger over money and the crappy team. This has the appearance of being aspirational, but is really evidence of desperation. If we give the Bills this nice new home, maybe they’ll stay. Maybe they’ll stop sucking. On the other hand, we’ll have the self-appointed masters of authenticity decry any proposal involving sports, parking, roadways. We’ll have arguments about how we should spend a billion dollars to improve storefronts on Grant Street, or maybe to spend on more ancillary projects at the Darwin Martin House. We’ll hear how Buffalo is “real” and “authentic” and that this monstrosity does nothing to further enhance our standing as a tertiary stopover on the cultural tourism checklist. We’ll ultimately argue over how many trees and painted Adirondack chairs are available on the grass, whether the water taxi will be able to accommodate gameday crowds, and hey, how about a solar-powered carousel? 

But let’s cut through all the hype. The people proposing this have two things – a corporate entity and some diagrams. They haven’t talked to the Bills. They haven’t talked to the NFL. They haven’t talked to the State. They haven’t talked to ECHDC. They haven’t talked to the NFTA. They haven’t even taken a survey of the local population to vet the idea of a billion-dollar domed stadium on the Outer Harbor. So far, they’re scheduled only to speak with the City of Buffalo – an entity that has, and would have, no say in the matter whatsoever. We haven’t yet figured out how we’re going to fix up Ralph Wilson Stadium, and we’re already talking about out-Torontoing Toronto’s downtown Rogers Centre. 

This ought to be fun.