Tag Archives: Main Street

Battlezone: Webster Block

30 Jul

Late last week, two proposals to redevelop the Webster Block – across from the First Niagara Center and Canal Side – were put before the public. Physically similar, the major differences between the two plans is that one includes publicly accessible indoor ice rinks, costs more money, will take longer to build, and relies more heavily on public money. 

Submitting the two proposals for public vetting and comment, for the use of land the City currently holds, is laudable. However, I will be not at all surprised to see it devolve right into bitter litigation, because of the ease with which that can happen, and stymie the whole project. It’s cost of doing business in our so-called “lighter, cheaper, faster” placemaking/crowdsourcing development culture in contemporary Buffalo. It’s also why our skyline has not changed significantly since the 1960s. 

First, the Sabres’ proposal. Costing over $123 million, with a promise of 450 permanent jobs, “HarborCenter” is projected to open in mid-2015, include two ice rinks, and rely somewhat heavily on public incentives and subsidies, although the exact figure hasn’t been determined.  It features a sports bar, hotel space, retail space, and a 965-space parking garage. 

Next, here’s a proposal put forth by “Webster Block, LLC”, a joint venture led by Carl Paladino’s Ellicott Development. It features retail space, residential condos, a hotel, office space, and 1,089-space parking garage. 

 

Recognizing that design is largely subjective, I somewhat prefer the Paladino proposal. I don’t like the overuse of brick in every new development save the Avant, and these two proposals incorporate that. The archways over the street-level retail in the Paladino plan, along with the awnings and other features one typically sees in big-city urban developments appeal to me. I have seen some criticism about the visibility of the parking ramp in the Paladino proposal, but the Sabres’ renderings seem to conveniently omit that, so Webster Block, LLC gets points for transparency on that point. 

But the brick-and-windows designs are, to me, so late-80s post-modern. The clean simplicity of the Avant should be a model for contemporary high-rise design in Buffalo. This all looks like an NYU or BU dorm, ca. 1986. 

Aside from money and the need for subsidies, the major difference here is the Sabres’ inclusion of two rinks. I think it’s a pretty neat idea, especially if there’s non-hockey related just general skate time available to local and visiting families. Adding amateur hockey space to downtown is clearly a positive, and would be a great asset to have to attract league play and tournaments to downtown. 

But either way, Buffalo wins. This isn’t currently a site, but a blight; another surface parking lot in a city jam-packed with them. It’s the site where the Adelphia Tower was supposed to go – first 40 stories, then 15, then zero as Adelphia went out of business, in disgrace during the last decade.  Anticipating complaints about parking – of course you need parking. It’s not the existence of parking that’s bad, but its visibility and use – a surface lot is an utter waste of space, but a parking garage nestled within a larger project and hidden from view is an absolute necessity. Anticipating complaints about the historic nature of the site of some sort, any such complaints would be disingenuous nonsense. No one moaned about historical significance during the decades during which it was a parking lot. Is someone going to complain that it should be a replica of the original Webster Block? A low grouping of brownstone warehouses

Either proposal would enhance the area around the Arena and Canal Side. Either proposal would be a net plus for the inner harbor area of downtown Buffalo. Either proposal would be a welcome change from the status quo. We have to get past the mentality where one person can halt civic progress for the public benefit with one lawsuit. I wonder if we’ll get there with this project. 

Looking up Main Street 1905 (Shorpy.com)

If you want to add your two cents, you can email the city at websterblockrfp@city-buffalo.com.

Cars To a Tax-Free Main Street

14 Dec

Inch by inch, block by block, the city of Buffalo is getting ready to correct what’s turned out to be a mistake that hastened downtown’s demise. The federal government has given the city a $15 million grant to return vehicular traffic to Main Street’s 500 block, approximately Mohawk to Huron – Lloyd‘s downtown corner to the Hyatt.  The 700 block has been done, and the 600 block is in the works.

Pedestrian zone in Delft, Holland

In my experience, most successful pedestrian-only shopping zones aren’t located along main thoroughfares; they’re instead made up of a jumble of side streets, creating what amounts to an outdoor pedestrian retail zone.  Simply removing cars from a main arterial street doesn’t seem to have worked, and the decline of downtown shopping that was hastened by Metro Rail construction disruption never had a chance to rebound.

Although hundreds of thousands of people come into downtown from all parts of WNY every day, it’s a retail wasteland at all times. It’s doubtful that there’s very much that can be done at this point to reverse that.

But as we plan for a reborn waterfront at Canal Side, which will soon expand onto the Aud block and other surrounding areas, if becoming a retail as well as cultural destination is desired, then creating a sales tax-free zone downtown would have a great stimulative effect. Part of the question is – how do you attract people to shop downtown merchants as opposed to the Niagara Falls outlets or the Walden Galleria – an 8.75% discount in the downtown core would probably be a great draw.

No, it’s not fair to merchants outside the zone. But life isn’t fair. Furthermore, most of the merchants in Buffalo and outside the zone serve the surrounding residents and will still be patronized out of sheer convenience. Furthermore, the influx of people and businesses attracted by what amounts to a Buffalo Special Economic Zone will ultimately help those businesses thrive, as well.

Main Street in the 50s

Development would still be subject to Buffalo’s zoning and planning bureaucracies, but the rules would be simplified and permits & approval would be harmonized and streamlined. Property taxes would be reduced or eliminated, depending on the parcel. However, properties would be assessed not based on what they are (e.g., empty lots), but on what their value ought rightly be if developed.

By turning the central business district into a tax-free special economic zone, you give people 8.75 reasons to do business and conduct commerce in downtown Buffalo over anywhere else. Creation of a waterfront district while ignoring the decline and blight of the rest of downtown seems to me to be counterintuitive.

By executing a plan such as this, zoning the waterfront districts, and having the ECHDC or state spend public money solely on the improvement and installation of necessary infrastructure, transfer of title for all parcels to one single entity to speed development, institution of a design and zoning plan that cannot be deviated from, and – most importantly – remediating the environmental nightmares under the soil throughout ECHDC’s mandated districts, we can then auction the parcels off to qualified buyers.

That is how downtowns revive organically – through private initiative and private money. Government can do its job and merely provide the private sector with the proper environment to do business and build. It doesn’t get faster, quicker, or cheaper than that.

Merely returning cars to Main Street isn’t going to return downtown to its former glory. A coordinated effort and plan to make downtown competitive and attractive to people and businesses is needed.


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Email me at buffalopundit[at]gmail.com

The Buffalo Special Economic Zone

31 Mar

Yesterday, I posted about the Partnership for Public Space’s Tuesday presentation, which I found to be largely based on supposition, incomplete, and improperly presented to the assembled audience. I can’t believe the ECHDC spent money on that, and all to shut a couple of loudmouths up.

A camel is a horse designed by committee, so while it’s nice that we crowdsource the 9,000th iteration of what the waterfront should be, we need a real solution to downtown’s problems. The central business district is a wasteland. We’re now talking about creating a new little shopping district at the foot of Main Street out of whole cloth. But even if we build it, how do you ensure that they come, and that it’s sustainable? Just being there for when hockey or lacrosse games get out isn’t enough. Just being there in nice weather isn’t enough.  It has to be something people want to come to, and people want to return to.

In an economically depressed and shrinking town where entrepreneurship is sorely needed – especially among disadvantaged populations – we can turn downtown Buffalo into something attractive not by centrally planning a waterfront, or doing a 2011 version of what really amounts to 50s era urban renewal. Two votes and a stroke of a pen is all that’s needed.

The area outlined in red ought to be designated a special economic zone. And yes, I use that term specifically to liken it to what China has done to help build and modernize its industry.

Frankly, I wouldn’t be opposed to all of Erie and Niagara Counties being designated special economic zones, but for the purposes of this argument, I’m just focusing on what should be Buffalo’s downtown commercial core.

There are myriad problems with downtown and planning that need to be addressed – above all, modernization and coordination of parking that is relegated to ramps and underground lots. Every parcel within that red zone that isn’t built on should be shovel-ready land. The zoning code should require parking for new development to be adequate and hidden. This means extra cost, but the benefits of locating to the special economic zone means lower taxes and streamlined regulatory processes.

Within the zone, the county and state would waive their respective sales taxes.  That means businesses outside the zone would still have to charge 8.75% on purchases, while businesses within the zone would be tax-free.  It’d be like all of downtown being a duty-free shop.

No, it’s not fair to merchants outside the zone. But life isn’t fair. Furthermore, most of the merchants in Buffalo and outside the zone serve the surrounding residents and will still be patronized out of sheer convenience.  Furthermore, the influx of people and businesses attracted by the SEZ will ultimately help those businesses thrive, as well.

Development would still be subject to Buffalo’s zoning and planning bureaucracies, but the rules would be simplified and permits & approval would be harmonized and streamlined. Property taxes would be reduced or eliminated, depending on the parcel. However, properties would be assessed not based on what they are (e.g., empty lots), but on what their value ought rightly be if developed.

By turning the central business district into a tax-free special economic zone, you give people 8.75 reasons to do business and conduct commerce in downtown Buffalo over anywhere else. Creation of a waterfront district while ignoring the decline and blight of the rest of downtown seems to me to be counterintuitive.

By executing a plan such as this, zoning the waterfront districts, and having the ECHDC or state spend public money solely on the improvement and installation of necessary infrastructure, transfer of title for all parcels to one single entity to speed development, institution of a design and zoning plan that cannot be deviated from, and – most importantly – remediating the environmental nightmares under the soil throughout ECHDC’s mandated districts, we can then auction the parcels off to qualified buyers.

That is how downtowns revive organically – through private initiative and private money.  Government can do its job and merely provide the private sector with the proper environment to do business and build. It doesn’t get faster, quicker, or cheaper than that.

Mogadishu West

29 Sep

Thanks to the New York Times, the people of the world have learned that Buffalo is a terrible and strange place, devoid of regular people or normal life.  It is squalor and despair.  It is a civic existential crisis.

Empty of shops, it is instead full of empty people leading rudderless, meaningless lives where the only positive trend is in the number of Paladino signs being sought by flannel-clad, snowbound, axe-murdering rubes.

A city where even ennui comes to die, Buffalo is best reported on from the confines of one’s hotel room – a second-rate Priceline mainstay in a third-rate hellhole.  The remainder is best seen from the back seat of a cab, or the parking lot of a Rite Aid.

I can only presume that Ms. Dominus’ cab ride shuttled her from BNIA to the Hyatt and back.  Should she ever have the misfortune of being assigned another story on the eastern shore of Lake Erie, I have sent her an invitation by email to show her that there’s more to Buffalo than Paladino, empty Main Street storefronts, and longer-form versions of Gertrude Stein quips.

Main Street 1900

12 Jun

Here’s another photograph from Shorpy that depicts only a small portion of the complete image. I have zoomed in on the foot of Main Street, showing part of the wharf area of the inner harbor. Click the image to enlarge it. The original is here, and the original Shorpy post is here.

Old County Hall and the Ellicott Square Building are visible clearly in the background. The picture is from 1900 – 110 years ago. Looking at it, I was reminded of the inane arguments that were held back when the ECHDC had the audacity to suggest that buildings be built along the water’s edge, as if that was somehow a preservationist horror of epic proportions.

Quite clearly, buildings fronted the water throughout the history of that area. Time marches on, and as we claim that highways are ruining the city, we see here a very vibrant downtown core that is anything but aesthetically pleasing or environmentally sound.

They Call it Chutzpah

18 Nov

I don’t really have much to add to this story beyond what was written in the Buffalo News and by Mark Byrnes.  But yeah, Carl Paladino has no business complaining that someone – anyone – is getting tax abatements or other forms of incentives to renovate a building that is the heart of downtown Buffalo.  And Pat Hotung has no business complaining that the Main Place Mall is empty and whatnot, since the place is a depressing shithole and relatively new.

For this crowd to go to a meeting of the pointless Buffalo Place and complain about Rocco Termini getting available state incentives so as to renovate AM&As is the very manifestation of chutzpah.

Main Place Mall – It’s Failtastic!

1 Jun

Becky from Clarence Grad 72 took a trip to the Main Place Mall, and posted some pics and some reminiscences. The only thing I think of whilst strolling through the Main Place Mall is that it needs the Aud Treatment®. Just rip it down.

In any event, this made me laugh:

The “All About Buffalo” icon upstairs looks rather lonely, like “I stepped out of the nickel for this??”