Tag Archives: Jordan Levy

Premature Congratubation

22 Jul

The congratubation appears to have been premature.

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

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

Of course, its working

Where people go, commerce will follow.

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

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

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

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

Esmonde, of course, leaps on this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jordan Levy Takes Questions

30 Nov

As mentioned in this post,

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The Modified General Project Plan for Canal Side, Modified

30 Nov

On Monday, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation voted on the Modified General Project Plan.

Based on what you’ve read over the past several weeks, you’d be correct in assuming that this means one level of underground parking – 177 spaces – will be built under the Aud block.

You’d be wrong.

The ECHDC indefinitely tabled its vote on moving forward with the parking structure.

Based on what you’ve read over the past several weeks, you’d also be correct in assuming that this means a handful of “faux canals” would be built, marring the area with their inauthenticity.

You’d be mostly wrong.

The ECHDC has completely reconfigured how the waterways north of Marine Drive will be built and designed.

In an overt nod to Tim Tielman’s concerns, the canal will still be only 4 feet deep and will not include lake water (i.e., pollution), it will follow the elevations that existed at the time the canal terminus district actually had stuff going on – this means that the pedestrian walkways along the canal will be at an elevation lower than street level.

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The design requirements set forth in the MGPP will continue to be carried out, but Marine Drive will not be turned into a bridge, and the Hamburg Drain is staying put.  In addition to keeping lake water out, ECHDC Chairman Jordan Levy cited cost and utilities as reasons why transforming Marine Drive by the Commercial Slip into a bridge would not be feasible.

The meeting was packed with concerned citizens, activists, and press. While Tielman was cautiously optimistic about the revisions, the Canal Side Community Alliance and Coalition for Economic Justice – which dropped off about 1,000 postcard petitions for the ECHDC board calling for a community benefits agreement – were all but gushing about how pleased they were that the plan had been modified.  Mark Goldman was not present.  Tielman was displeased, however, that the modified plan did not include Dug’s Dive, and emphases on other historical aspects of the canal terminus.

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Everything was, however, refreshingly free of solar powered carousels.

Levy gave a prepared speech, acknowledging that ECHDC has done a poor job communicating to the public about this project – that most people were getting their information (much of it wrong) from other sources.  He cited a past example as evidence of that communication breakdown – the 2007 imbroglio over locating Bass Pro on the Central Wharf parcel.  When the public made it clear that it didn’t want a store on that site and Bass Pro started looking at the Aud again, ECHDC made the decision to bring the water to Bass Pro, since it couldn’t bring Bass Pro to the water.

Jordan Levy explains the new canal configuration: Click to enlarge

Because Bass Pro was coming in as an anchor tenant, ECHDC made many concessions to it with respect to the rewatered interior canals.  These “mistakes” had been carried over to the current process, and ECHDC decided to fix them over the past few weeks.  The canal will now exactly track the original wherever possible, and the project is no longer a big box lifestyle center, but instead a mixed use neighborhood.

The canal system will extend from the Commercial Slip to Main Street, and in another nod to Mark Goldman, ECHDC will retain the services of Fred Kent from the Project for Public Spaces.  Levy will also ask the NFTA to transfer its Outer Harbor land to ECHDC, which will pledge $2 million to build a new lakefront park, as well as a sand swimming beach at Gallagher Beach.  $170,000 will be used to renovate the Buffalo Light in time for next year’s preservationist confab.  While acknowledging that they can’t “please everyone”, Levy noted that the ECHDC has listened to community voices and incorporated their concerned into a hastily reconfigured MGPP.

Click to enlarge: new Canal configuration

After Levy’s presentation, Mayor Byron Brown spoke at length, mostly about the need for city people to get jobs through the development and maintenance of this project.  Board member David Colligan noted that he had heard the word “authentic” a hundred times over the past several weeks, and was pleased that the project had now become more so. Board member Julie Barrett-O’Neill thanked the public for its input and moving the project in this direction.  The Empire State Development guy in Albany appearing by teleconference thanked the ECHDC for basically changing everything, and  Stephen Gawlik from the Empire State Development Corporation then asked the board to vote on the new MGPP.

Tim Tielman then spoke (see above), as did Daniel Sack, who asked that committees be set up to govern design. Disgraced former Supreme Court Judge Joseph Makowski is now representing the Marine Drive residents who don’t want their surface parking lot marred by a modern parking garage, and the whole thing reeked of imminent lawsuit.

Afterwards, Levy answered press questions about the new modifications. A new PowerPoint presentation and new renderings now replace the ones shown at the recent open houses (part 1, part 2).  That video will be up later.

ECHDC Board of Directors

What Happened?  Depending on your point of view, the ECHDC either listened earnestly to the concerns brought forward by very prominent members of the public, or else it decided to call the Goldman group’s bluff.

I believe that a good plan was made better.  I reject any suggestion that the MGPP as it stood earlier today – underground parking and shallow canals – was bad, per se.  But by tabling the vote on the Aud block parking, the ECHDC has disarmed one of its opponents’ arguments.  ECHDC also appeased the protesters by modifying the canal system north of Marine Drive to more closely reinterpret the way it originally looked.  Finally, by hiring the very guy Mark Goldman brought to town – Fred Kent – no matter what ends up happening down by the inner harbor, the opposition cannot argue that “if only they had listened to the PPS“, because ECHDC hired the PPS.

Over the next several months, the ECHDC will set up committees to look at how to develop the canals, the outer harbor, and how to reinterpret the area’s history.  The focus is off Bass Pro and on the input of very specialized Buffalo constituencies – like Tim Tielman.

Add today’s events to this list of WNYMedia.net Canal Side history.

Canalside, What’s Next?

31 Jul

So, what’s next? Fishing around for a new anchor tenant, LARF!  However, if this mystical anchor tenant hunt produces any fruit and that choice is not to the liking of Mark Goldman or other interests…more lawsuits, more clamoring for living wage legislation, more talking, debating, litigating, and public hearings, scoping sessions and most importantly, more scale diagrams of the inner harbor made of foam.

Here’s how I see the next couple of months breaking down.

The Buffalo Common Council will probably not agree to the Mayor’s Community Development Agreement to transfer land in the Bass Pro Demilitarized Zone to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation because the Council doesn’t know what will be going onto the site.  The council will want input into what goes onsite, how it is placed there, living wage, how it is designed, etc.

Benderson will most likely find that their imaginary list of 10 destination retailers will not be interested in setting up shop in what amounts to an alligator pit of obstructionist nonsense.  A new retailer with a new store footprint will be subjected to a modification process of the formal SEQRA, which will add months to the development timeframe.  That time will allow demagogues to come out of the woodwork and refresh their arguments against “big box” retail.  It will require additional public hearings, going hat in hand to ask permission from the inept and obstinate Common Council for support.  Retailers do not like to put their brand at risk in a public process like this and unless the retailer chosen is Trader Ikea Foods and Barrel, whatever is chosen will be fought tooth and nail.

Aside from all of that, we are in the worst economic climate in nearly a century.  The national commercial real estate market is in shambles and retailers large and small are struggling to stay open, much less expanding with a flagship store in a depressed region where they will face significant public scrutiny and become a community lightning rod and subjected to litigation.  To take on those risks and damage to their brand, a retailer would have to be REALLY committed to the idea of being in Buffalo.

I suspect that Jordan Levy will soon cite his new responsibilities as a board member of Seneca Holdings as well as his other interests and step down from the ECHDC, to be replaced with a Higgins friendly choice.

We’ll see discussion ramp up about moving HSBC Bank from it’s 40 story tower into the Webster Block of Canalside.  Hey, relocating a huge business 300 yards and leaving our most prominent building empty is progress!

We’ll see grass planted in other areas of Canalside, an infusion of mobile meat sales, and some basic improvements made to the street grid, but FAILhole (former site of the Aud) will remain for quite some time.

Which is why I propose we implement the WNYMedia plan.  A couple of years ago, Marc Odien drew up his rendering of Buffalo’s Waterfront Future. It needs to be updated to include the Historic, Epic, Significant Taco Truck…but you get the idea.