Tag Archives: Buffalo and WNY Economic Development

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)

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?

WNYMedia Canalside Input

18 Nov

The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation is taking a pause to listen to the community. Outstanding. Through out this process, clearly the one event that has not taken place enough is a public hearing.  However, they are hosting a series open houses over the next several days as we reported earlier this week.

WNYMedia has been your reliable source covering the courtship of Bass Pro, the lawsuits and protests, the development silver bullets and missed shots, the demise and fall from grace. And while opinion has always been part of our reporting, we have never sought direct input.

That changes now.

At the upcoming hearings, well-meaning ECHDC board members will hear a variety of extremist views, from “Elimate the Incentives” libertarians to pro-Union, living wage activists. They will hear very little middle of the road, pragmatic, grounded, practical advice that is actually achievable. Which is where we step in. Consider this the input of the Coalition of Enough Already, whose only agenda is to get something built that is fun, feels like Buffalo, and is a good place to take out-of-state family when they come to visit.  After five decades of it being a parking lot, “kinda nice” is a huge improvement.

Brian Castner’s Input:

1) If a canal used to be there, dig it back out. If it didn’t used to be there, don’t make one up. Fake canals are fake. Real canals are fun to skate on in the winter time. Ask Ottawa.

2) Put in underground parking. Most people drive cars, and will into the foreseeable future. Underground parking is better than ramps, and there is a giant hole already dug in the ground. Duh.

3) Cobble streets are fun to walk on. Keep those. But build a bridge to the Outer Harbor. I can see the lighthouse from the Marina – I should be able to walk there in less than 2 hours.

4) Canals and cobble streets are fun to sit next to and eat dinner. Ask San Antonio. Make sure there is room for restaurants, and places to get ice cream, and a couple non-Elmwood shops, and coffee on a cold day. This is what we mean about somewhere to take the family.

5) Buffalo has great parks. We have great parks on the waterfront. We have new green space around the commercial slip, big enough to hold concerts. We don’t need more parkland. We need more stuff to do. No more green space please, except as a place holder to more stuff.

6) An Aquarium of the Great Lakes sounds like fun, but 1.2 million people don’t need, and can’t support, two aquariums. Open one at Canal Side if Niagara Falls will close theirs. Make the one at Canal Side look like the Wild Center in the Adirondacks – the kid’s love it. Why should Niagara Falls have to close their aquarium and move their animals to Buffalo? Because we’re a region and should start acting like it. The Niagara Falls aquarium is old and smells funny, and before they invest a bunch of money in it, we should do better at Canal Side. Niagara Falls has a great casino and waterfall and 5 million visitors – they aren’t left in the cold.

7) A Mall of Museums sounds like Main Place Mall – empty and FAILy. A museum related to the Erie Canal makes sense. So does the aerospace museum to coordinate with Naval Park. But every homeless museum doesn’t need to set up shop at Canal Side. Putting a picture of Irv Weinstein next to an old bike and couple used accordions doesn’t like fun.

8 ) Public Markets are fun, but hard. Pike Street Market in Seattle is old, covered, and heated. Saturday Market in Portland is under a bridge (Skyway bonus!), but closed half the year for the weather. Start small, on the existing park space, because we don’t need a replica of the Broadway Mausoleum on the waterfront.

9) Waterparks are tacky. Like really tacky. And not the kind of destination that really fits with Canal Side. We already go to Great Wolf or Darien Lake for that. Let Niagara Falls have their fake snowslide, and leave well enough alone. See #6.

10) Build the whole thing using the new Buffalo Smart Code. Because the old code is really . . . old.

This is the most reasonable advice you will hear the rest of the year. Please write it down.

Chris Smith’s input:

The short answer: Finish implementing the approved and funded Tim Tielman 2004 master plan, fill in the hole where the Buffalo Auditorium once stood, run commercial grade sewage and utilities, plant some grass, throw down a bench or two, zone it with the upcoming form based code, cobble the streets, escrow the currently available public monies, offer incentives to developers (i.e. tax free zone) and call it a day.  All done.

The long answer:
I’m in favor of progress, but I’m opposed to the dictatorship of a community. What does that mean? I’m opposed to groups who claim to represent “the” community when they actually represent “a” community, a group of like-minded associates who share an ideology.  We currently have a group of people and organizations taking up the majority of the planning time and discussing what they want to see on the waterfront, based on their own likes and dislikes.  There is nothing inherently wrong with that, it only becomes a problem when they deign to say they represent “the community” writ large.  They do not.

I’m hopeful when local development projects are announced, but I know that ideas and plans in this region must endure a Bataan Death March style process if they are to become reality. I also know that any idea will have to withstand the microscopic criticism of thousands, the planning board, the political process, the talk shows, the blogs, the demagoguery of activists and usually face some sort of legal challenge if it is to become anything more than a dream.  We’re currently in the midst of that march right now on waterfront planning.

A basic place to begin the discussion is to ask a simple question.  Is this a sensible or reasonable way to run a city?

Thousands of words and tens of thousands of man-hours have been spent contemplating what should happen on our inner harbor. We have Buffalonians looking to start the whole she-bang from scratch in order to crowdsource ideas for waterfront development…because we definitely need more ideas that come without capital or a group who would implement such a crowdsourced plan.

Isn’t that our problem, in a nutshell?  Instead of an established or formalized hierarchy of decision makers in this town, we have lots of people with their ideologies and -isms trying to have their ideas heard when none of them have the capital or resources to get in the game.  Most of these people mean well, but in a local economy which lacks widespread wealth generation, we have a lot of underemployed smart people using their ideas and positions as capital.  It creates a battlefield of ideas, with everyone screaming from the rooftops that their idea is the one we should adopt.  It’s a cacophony of nonsense and it’s tough to make sense of the future when all we do is argue about the present based on what happened in the past.  It’s time for a compromise.

So, what’s next?  A refreshing attempt to wipe the slate clean and allow the market to decide what goes on the waterfront in a regulated and form-based process. Last time we tried “development” in a similar manner, we got the historic waterfront of the late 19th century everyone pines for today. Maybe we should try it again.  I encourage you to post your ideas here and we will submit them with our statements or send your support for this “zone it and get out of the way” plan to the ECHDC.

Alan Bedenko’s Input:

Frankly, I agree with everything Brian and Chris wrote.  But I’d add that no matter which side of this you’re on, this project is going to involve some form of retail goods and services.  That means Canal Side will immediately be competing with the Niagara outlet mall and the Walden Galleria, not to mention the McKinley, Boulevard, and Eastern Hills Malls.  What gets built and how it looks is only part of the problem – the real challenge is to get people to come down there after the initial public curiosity dies down.

We can tout the wonder of the inner harbor and its rich, sordid history all we want, but if you look at the empty blocks of nothing surrounding Niagara Falls, natural wonders and rich history don’t automatically equate to success.

What Canal Side – and possibly more of downtown – needs is a sales-tax free zone.  When it comes to retail, there is practically nothing downtown nor has there been for many years.  Taking the 8.75% sales tax and getting rid of it would be a big draw for locals, suburbanites, and Canadians alike.  There would be an outcry that this is unfair to other retailers, but the argument can easily be made three ways: (1) it’s no more or less fair than shopping on an Indian reservation or downtown exclave; (2) it’s no more or less fair than the duty free at the border.  It’s also unfair but a fact of life for local retailers when the Canadian dollar isn’t at par – I fondly recall shopping in Canada all the time because the rate was 65 US cents for one Loonie, and I could get the GST back on many purchases at the border (those days are long gone).

I attended the first ECHDC public hearing yesterday afternoon, and I was pleased that most of the speakers took the time to thank it for holding them and taking the demanded “pause”.  People came with good ideas – festival space, green construction – and one guy came dressed like a tree and regaled those present with a lengthy missive about the region’s Indian folklore, history, and mythology.

The modified plan that ECHDC put forth is quite reasonable and not widely known because they haven’t put it online.  Bass Pro is now simply the “Aud Block”, and there will be a central canal for skating in the wintertime, and an interpretive, landscaped “little Buffalo Creek”.   The criticisms of opponents against “faux canals” and “parking” are silly and need to be countered.  The “faux canals” track the exact path of the Canal as it existed in that area in 1825, and cannot be made authentic thanks to the Hamburg Drain.  It makes for a charming promenade along the side of the Canal (hence, the project’s name).

Parking is necessary, and not a necessary evil.  If it’s to be built, build it underground where it won’t bother anyone or harm the project’s aesthetics.  Large swaths of Boston’s Common and Public Garden are above a massive multistory parking ramp.  No one complains because no one can see it, and no one cares.  Given the choice of seeing parked cars and not seeing parked cars, I’ll take the latter.  To the people who point to existing surface parking and say there’s plenty there already,  I’d prefer that surface parking be consolidated into one multistory lot to let other plots be built upon.  Furthermore, those lots are packed from 9 – 5 Monday through Friday.  If you want out-of-towners to take the train, that’d be a great idea, but the closest Metro Park & Ride to the I-90 is at the LaSalle stop.

We focus a lot on the built environment, and the project’s design should be as similar as possible to what existed during the canal terminus’ heyday.  What we don’t focus on is actually getting people to keep coming down there.  Give downtown and the inner harbor a fighting chance by giving people a tax-free incentive to open businesses, and patronize them.

And here’s the plan for the Aud block.  Re-create the street grid that used to be there, above the underground parking lot.

From gapfel.com

Downtown Buffalo 1895

Buffalo’s Waterfront: The Pause that Refreshes

16 Nov

The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation has agreed to Mark Goldman’s call for a pause, and set up some public hearing times and dates.  If you want to see the “modified plan” being tabled, click here.  The ECHDC’s press release follows:

ECHDC Tables Vote on Modified Plan, Announces a Series of Open Houses

General Public invited to attend sessions and provide input into waterfront development plans

The Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC) announced today that it will delay its vote on the Canal Side Modified General Project Plan (MGPP.) The MGPP emphasizes the development of public infrastructure on the Aud Block, including a series of public canals, walkways and a parking garage. In order to solicit more input from members of the Western New York community, ECHDC will be sponsoring a series of open houses over the next two weeks.

The open houses will begin Wednesday, November 17, 2010 and continue through Wednesday, November 24, 2010. For two hours on each of those days, the public will be invited to participate in a public session that will be attended by representatives from ECHDC. These sessions, which will be simulcast on the web and transcribed, will allow the public an opportunity to convey their ideas and opinions regarding waterfront development.

“Our goal is to provide the community with a forum to express their views,” said ECHDC Chairman Jordan Levy. “These new sessions have grown out of the feedback we have received from the community and an opportunity for the citizens of Western New York to make their opinions known directly to ECHDC, without any filter. Coming on the heels of our successful public hearings, we wanted to extend the opportunity for both ourselves and for members of the community to continue this dialogue before any decisions are made. Board members will be provided with transcripts from these sessions in advance of the final vote on the MGPP, and it is my expectation that they will use them as a resource to aid in their decision. The members of the ECHDC board are stewards of public resources and public dollars and they seek to be fully informed as they weigh their vote.”

In addition to the open house sessions, ECHDC will conduct a series of meetings with elected officials and community leaders which will include invited representatives from several leading Western New York organizations and advocacy groups. Stanton Eckstut, the master architect for Canal Side, and a nationally recognized innovator in public design, will also attend these sessions in order to fully inform them of the development that ECHDC is proposing on the Inner Harbor.

The schedule for the open house sessions will be as follows:

·        Wednesday, November 17, 2010, 2:00-4:00 p.m.

·        Thursday, November 18, 2010, 5:00-7:00 p.m.

·        Friday, November 19, 2010, 2:00-4:00 p.m.

·        Monday, November 22, 2010, 10:00-12:00 p.m.

·        Tuesday, November 23, 2010, 5:00-7:00 p.m.

·        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

“It remains our intention to make certain that Canalside is a model for world class re-development projects across America.  It was our intention when we began this project almost nine years ago to build a place that Buffalonians and all people from throughout Western New York will be proud of and will take full advantage of for generations to come. Adding a few more weeks to the schedule can only serve to help us to achieve that objective” said Levy.

Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation is a subsidiary agency of Empire State Development Corporation whose vision is to revitalize Western New York’s waterfront and restore economic growth to Buffalo based on the region’s legacy of pride, urban significance and natural beauty.

Waterfront – Everyone Relax

16 Nov

Norstar Rendering of the Outer Harbor: 2005

WestEnd (Jerde/Ciminelli) Plan for the Outer Harbor

Buffalo Lakefront Development

While Mark Goldman and the “Canal Side Community Alliance” call for a four month “pause” in the Canal Side development project, I thought it a perfect time to revisit Buffalo’s other waterfront – the outer harbor.

Back in 2005, when the concept of “New Buffalo” had caused otherwise perfectly normal, Buffalonians to temporarily replace cynicism with “hope”, the NFTA solicited bids from three development groups to answer the question, “what the hell do we do with the outer harbor?”

At the time, the NFTA was in its fifth decade of controlling (read: neglecting) the windswept ruins of Buffalo’s Lake Erie waterfront.  Shown above are the three forgotten, scrubbed-from-the-website proposals for the NFTA’s outer harbor.  This was a time when the last half-assed proposal had been Joel Giambra’s “E-Zone” tented amusement park nonsense.

The images above represent – from top to bottom – the three plans. Norstar’s emphasis was on green space;  the WestEnd proposal was a reasonable mixed use development; and then there was the Buffalo Lakefront Development plan, which I derisively termed the “everything but an elevator to the moon” plan.  It included a 3,500 room convention hotel, a 300,000 SF convention center,  (the current one has only 110,000 SF), a 500,000 SF “festival pavilion,” 200,000 SF of Class A office space, and a 215,000 SF sports center.  Just what a shrinking city with dysfunctional state authorities, a horribly ineffective city government, and fights to the death over the smallest development plan needs.

Seriously, you have to see the whole thing in detail to believe it. Click below.

Click to enlarge

What we’ve got on the waterfront now are mistakes that can’t be undone, and I think people want to be exquisitely careful to not make the next 100-year screw-up.  So, while we can’t do anything beyond cosmetic with the Marine Drive blight, we have some plots of shovel-ready (or soon-to-be-shovel-ready) land that were all set for a bait shop that isn’t coming.

On the one hand, we have an ECHDC that has a plan that is missing a huge puzzle piece. On the other hand, we have the “Community Alliance,” which is railing against “faux canals” and underground parking.

Well, maybe we don’t need faux canals anymore.  But I’ll tell you that no matter what ends up down at Canal Side, it’ll need some parking.  And if it’s going to need some parking, might as well do it underground.  And if you’re going to do underground parking, might as well do it now, before you figure out what will go above it.

Five years after the NFTA decided that it absolutely lurved the elevator-to-the-moon plan, and subsequently did nothing about it, the only thing that’s happened out there has been improvements to the waterfront, a walkway, and the much-improved Fuhrmann Boulevard, and access to it from Route 5.  There is no plan, no developer for the outer harbor.  There isn’t even so much as a street grid, zoning, or utility service there.  Because that’s what government ought to do – ready the area for future growth, not create artificial “growth” out of whole cloth.

Likewise, the inner harbor is in a state of flux now that the anchor tenant idea seems stalled.  Bass Pro is gone, and there’s no one lined up to replace it.  I don’t think there’s an anchor tenant worth pursuing for that spot.  Without the anchor tenant, the Benderson mixed-use plan is probably due for a re-think.  So, ECHDC should plan to re-create the street grid that existed before the Aud and the Donovan.  It should pave them, zone the resulting lots, add utility service, and let people put in whatever they want.  Let people buy the property and build on it.  Set up very stringent design criteria for any buildings so we don’t have a waterfront packed with beige Dollar Generals and TJ Maxxes.

I think everyone can get on board with that.

Finally, the issue is – without the anchor tenant, how do you draw people to the waterfront?  How do you get businesses to build? Why would tenants open there? Why would people from the city come down there on a snowy day?  How do you get suburbanites or Canadians to take a detour downtown as opposed to the Niagara Outlets or the Walden Galleria?

You turn the downtown area under the jurisdiction of the ECHDC into a sales-tax-free zone.  That 8.75% discount on almost everything would be a big draw.  ECHDC ought do an RFP for property maintenance and security services to ensure an appealing and safe day or night out.

This stuff isn’t all that complicated, and it doesn’t need to be ridiculously expensive for taxpayers.  The last thing the waterfronts need is more decades-long delays because everyone wants to turn what should be reasonable discussions into Albanian mountain blood feuds.

Shorter NFTA

22 Oct

Shorter NFTA:  Despite our decades-long track record of sitting on outer harbor land and doing nothing with it, we will not turn it over to ECHDC until we are satisfied that ECHDC will not sit on that land for decades doing nothing with it.

Shorter Shorter NFTA: We know fail.

Paladino? It’s All Our Fault

15 Oct

Bruce Fisher wrote another screed about everything that’s bad about Buffalo. I’ll save you the time of reading it yourself. What is bad? In “Paladino Country,” everything.

I don’t want to write, and you don’t want to read, a blow by blow rehash and rebuttal of Bruce Fisher’s article. His facts are selective, his analysis blinded, and his solutions few. A couple simple examples: Medicaid is 20% of the county budget, but Bruce cites a figure of 5%. How? Who knows. He claims county investment in the arts yields a 60:1 return, as if the arts exist only on the county’s whim and for its funding, and no donors, members, foundations, federal and state grants, or (least of all) patrons keep the arts flourishing here. He boldly states that the region has grown economically in the last decade, when every statistic (population, per capita wealth, average wages, total jobs, unemployment rate) is worse. He clearly wants traditional economic growth, but rails against federal, state and local infrastructure projects, new private home construction, “big box” retail, downtown retail, cross border tourism and trade, and speculative real estate development. Tell us, Bruce, what is left?

It should go without saying that if you were in a position of power to implement your ideas, and those ideas failed spectacularly, then you are no longer allowed to have a respected opinion on the subject. I don’t want to hear from Clinton on how to destroy Islamist terror networks, I don’t want to hear from Bush on how to remake the Middle East, and I don’t want to hear from Bruce Fisher on economic development or good government models for Western New York.

That being said, I will agree with his sentiment, implied in his mercifully next-to-last paragraph – it’s all our fault:

Change is upon Upstate. Shrinkage will continue. The region’s comparative advantages—namely, fresh water, cheap land, extensive pre-built infrastructure—need stewardship over the next couple of decades. What’s needed now is a leadership . . .

In other words, if we screw this up we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Buffalo could rightly feel the victim of macro-economic, cultural and technological forces up til now. Buffalo flourished because of developments outside of its control (canals, railroads, factories), and declined over the last fifty years for similar reasons (globalization, automation, air conditioning). This powerlessness is part of our collective psyche, and even feeds narratives like “Wide Right” and “No Goal.” We got screwed out of the Stanley Cup in 1999, and it wasn’t our fault. It happened to us.

That changed with the idea of New Buffalo, which my colleague Alan Bendenko recently mourned the death of. New Buffalo was as much about the realization that we could control our own destiny as it was about promoting the positive. Buffalo would no longer be the victim, and had a shared vision of success and progress. I noted recently that with the death of New Buffalo, few agree on what “success” looks like anymore.

The frustration, exasperation, anger and resentment over the failure of progress in Buffalo is accurately captured in Bruce Fisher’s piece. Because now, as it was a century and a half ago, macro-economic forces are lining up in Buffalo’s favor. Do we have the vision, gumption, and ability to steal success from the maw of decline? How many of you are shaking your head “No” right now? How many laughed at the question?

If energy, climate change and a mobile workforce are the prime drivers of the 21st Century, then Buffalo is in a position to thrive. A significant built environment, (potentially) cheap green power, roads and infrastructure to accommodate a doubling of the population, affordable housing, cool weather to drive down the energy costs of living and working, vast fresh water reserves, and an existing hub of high tech manufacturing, the roads and rails to move goods, and an international border to ship them over. What are we doing now to leverage those advantages?

Yahoo is reducing its energy use at its new data center by 40%, and its percentage of energy devoted to cooling by much much more, because it anticipates it only needs to run the air conditioning a couple days a year, due to a new layout and chicken coop design. Verizon may be following. How many more? What is Western New York doing to try to attract companies that require cool temperatures and fresh water? Or companies that want Buffalo as part of its corporate image (like Labatt, in some ways) – snow tires “tested in Buffalo.”

Call me cynical, but landing Yahoo seems more like a happy accident than a plan come to fruition. New York State has onerous taxes and regulations, but IDA’s take care of the first half of that problem, and structural macro-economic advantages can overcome too much paperwork. In any case, nothing is stopping Buffalo from having an updated Smart Code. Nothing is stopping us from consolidating town and village governments . . . or school districts, for that matter. And more money (state, federal and private) is available than ever before for Great Lakes cleanup, historic rehabilitation, and parks and recreation – all themes that play to our strengths. 

We are at a cross roads where not only does Buffalo have geographical advantages, but a Great Recession has caused a Great Reset. The 18-45 age set, which does work and builds wealth, is increasingly mobile and have few barriers to where they live. How do they see Buffalo? What are we doing to lure them? Our banks are international leaders and national players. Our universities are a net importer of students and growing. Will we leverage our other resources? If we don’t, it’s our fault, and no one else’s.

So how do we get back to Carl Paladino? Bruce Fisher mixes the ideas of Buffalo’s failure with Paladino’s ascendency, but Carl’s existence and hereto success can not be pinned purely on Western New York, no matter the 93-7 win in the Republican primary here.

Carl Paladino can only exist as a force because of a nexus of New York State’s dysfunction and the wretched swamp that is American politics. Don’t you pine for the days when we had a smart, successful governor who simply cheated on his wife with a prostitute? What were we thinking, wanting him gone? It seems almost quaint that Spitzer would resign over a little tryst, when we now have a horse porn forwarding, possibly racist, possibly homophobic, definite philanderer making a serious run, and his opponent (no squeaky clean pol himself) can get away with saying “Look at that guy!”

Paladino’s extremes are conscionable to voters because American politics is replete with politicians asking for sex in bathrooms, asking for sex from their underage interns (same and opposite sex), and getting serviced in the Oval Office. Buffalo gave Paladino his wealth, America’s political climate enabled him and provided the opportunity, and the horrendous state of New York allowed him to flourish. Thus enters the only possible defense of Paladino: since it is now possible to ignore any amount of porn, cheating, and awful statements, who is more likely to cut the state budget and lay off union workers? No reasonable person can claim the most mainstream of New York Democrats has in his gut the natural inclination to cut taxes (instead of raise them), and cut benefits (instead of increase them). The vote in two and a half weeks pits those upset enough about New York’s state to ignore any personal indiscretion or public verbal failing, against those who are not.

A Microcosm of Buffalo

19 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Correct. Sarasota is not #Buffalo

20 Aug

Shorter Bruce Fisher:

In growing, business-friendly Sarasota, Benderson is paying for the privilege of building something.

In shrinking, business-hostile Buffalo, Benderson needs loads of incentives in its quiver just to attract someone – anyone – to something it wants to build.

While Fisher’s article is dismissive and critical of Benderson, Canal Side, and ECHDC, and while it advocates for a park along quite literally every sliver of dry land within rock-throwing distance from Lake Erie or the Niagara River, the point he completely ignores is why Benderson would be spending big money to build on the Gulf of Mexico, and looking for handouts and incentives to build in Buffalo.

As an aside, isn’t it interesting how ArtVoice commentators are oftentimes individuals who have directly injected themselves into the controversies about which they’re commentating? First Bruce Jackson, now Bruce Fisher. Fisher who, whilst Deputy County Executive under Giambra, helped to obtain Canal Side subsidy money from county government. Fisher, who is a plaintiff in the Goldman v. Bass Pro, ECHDC suit.

Frankly put, Florida isn’t hostile towards businesses. I’m not saying New York should emulate everything Florida does, because Florida’s meteoric boom has turned into a massive bust. We’ve just had an even malaise for 30 years, and there’s something positive about that when everywhere else is failing. There are many reasons why Sarasota is an attractive location for people and business, the weather and setting being among them. But so is the business climate, and – as Fisher points out – the fact that Sarasota actually has a plan.

Erie County has no plan, and attempts to begin the process of a countywide regional planning board last year were met with scoffing and derision from a county government that above all cherishes the status quo. We can’t have a deliberative process because no one wants to deliberate.

So, we have a hostile business environment, a bureaucracy and nomenklatura that would make the Soviets proud, development and planning by litigation, and a chronic disease called nostalgiitis. It’s not that we’re fearful of success, nor is it that we’re content with our stagnation. It’s just that we don’t even know how to begin talking to one another about rational ways to help ourselves without waiting for Albany or Washington to fix everything for us. It’s about how we cling closely to what we perceive to be the good old days of Buffalo and WNY, ignoring the very possibility that with some changes to the status quo, we may be able to create newer, better days.

The saddest part of this is that (a) it wouldn’t be that hard to make some changes to make it easier for businesses to start up and operate; and (b) there are thousands of other municipalities throughout the country from which we can learn.