Tag Archives: Elmwood Village

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.