Tag Archives: Urban and Regional Planning

Obvious Does Not Mean Correct

11 May

For those that do not follow urban planning issues regularly, locally in Buffalo or nationally, note that this graphic has been making the rounds:

Image courtesy joeplanner.blogspot.com

Chuck Banas, on his blog Joe the Planner, used the map in a piece he wrote on sprawl. It was picked up by Urbanphile and the generally well-respected Aaron Renn, urban policy commentator, and then later viralized to sites such as this. The national pro-urban/anti-sprawl advocates did not develop a sudden keen interest in Buffalo and our individual issues. Rather, in a classic example of shopping for facts to reinforce an already set opinion, the combination of Buffalo’s growing urban footprint and stagnated population numbers provided another stark (and seemingly newly discovered) example to use to support their agenda.

The headlines of the later pieces make two claims: 1) sprawl causes government deficits, and 2) you are stupid to believe otherwise. I find this to generally be a theme in anti-sprawl advocacy – the evils of this scourge are so self-evident that they don’t require explanation or defense. Are you an idiot? Don’t you get it? Sprawl is bad. See – it makes us broke (and causes obesity, and all other manner of societal ills of the day).

Note how blissfully free of facts or figures each piece is (to be fair, Mr. Banas provides more stats than the rest combined – more on his figures in a moment). In fact, only the much-reported census numbers get any real mention by Urbanphile or Streetsblog. One is then left to intuitively assume that an urban area three times larger is three times as expensive, and that this expensive infrastructure is causing bankruptcies.

Allow me to now intrude some of those facts and figures into an otherwise pristine echo-chamber. For Buffalo, or the Erie/Niagara County metro-region, to be used as an example of sprawl + population loss = bankruptcy, one would think we should actually be bankrupt. But of course we aren’t, and after parental supervision control boards were set up for the City of Buffalo and Erie County, we have been running surpluses. Municipalities that are going bankrupt have been in the South and West, that experienced both sprawl and population growth.

Likewise, if excess infrastructure was causing municipal financial pressure, one would think that spending on such would be a significant portion of the budget. That too, is wrong. Erie County has a total budget of $1.14 Billion. The Highway Department’s budget is $20 Million, or 2% of the total, of which the county pays $12.8 Million. The Highway Department’s budget could double, and pick up the federal matching share, and we’d still have surplus money from this year left over.

Of course, the cost of sprawl is more than the county’s highway budget. There are town highway budgets, sewer districts, longer garbage collection routes, longer commutes for workers, redundant school districts and a host of other costs. Let’s look at a few of these one by one, starting with the sprawliest spots. The cost for Erie County to provide sewer services to exurban areas, the fringe of new subdivisions, is $45 Million. The Town of Clarence spends $4.6 Million on their highway budget, and another $4.3 Million on water and sewer. Amherst spends even more – $40 Million combined on highways and infrastructure. Grand Island drops $2.8 Million on roads, and with its own water district and lots of sewer pipes, another $10 Million on total infrastructure. Real money, certainly, but small as a percentage of total government expenditures or compared to budget surpluses. Older towns and cities (Buffalo, Lackawanna, Cheektowaga, Tonawanda, Kenmore – the yellow spaces on the map) have costs too, of course, as infrastructure ages, but these would not be sprawl costs.

Which gets to the root of the problem. Teasing out how much of each budget is sprawl induced, and how much would exist anyway, is challenging. Transit Road would exist, sprawl or not, but would require less regular investment. Unfortunately, Clarence’s town budget in 1950 is not readily available. Even if it were, however, it would be overly simplistic to attribute every change in the budget purely to sprawl – the cost of materials, maintenance standards and practices, salaries and benefits matter at least as much as total mileage of roads maintained. 

Determining the cost of sprawl in school district budgets is also difficult. The school district in our region with the largest student population, Buffalo, also spends significantly more than most, $22,000 per pupil at last reckoning. Amherst spends $15K and Lancaster $14K. Would the total cost of teaching every pupil in Erie County go down if everyone lived within the 1950 boundary line? How can you be sure when some school districts, less dense but with the same geographic size as Buffalo (or larger), are spending less per pupil? Perhaps geography isn’t the main cost driver. But more on this in a moment.

Reflecting on these numbers, it appears the anti-sprawl advocates are subconsciously making an argument that duplicated and redundant services are prohibitively expensive, not necessarily expanded ones. Mr. Banas seems to understand this, as he spends considerable time in his column discussing the duplication issue, and advocating for a regional government. Here I find common cause with him, though I find it interesting that his commenters do not, and even Mr. Renn wades in to note that the regionalism solution is tangential and superfluous to the real issue at hand: sprawl. Note again the self-licking ice cream cone.

We still haven’t considered the cost to the citizen, in commute time and fuel, to live in a sprawltastic suburb. If everyone lived in a denser area, workers would theoretically have more time to be productive and extra disposable income to spend on curbside coffee houses, money formerly spent on gasoline. But here too the reality of Buffalo, our specific situation, intrudes. In a comparable orgy of statistics, Mr. Banas spends a bit of time noting driving patterns, and factors in that WNYers drive 53% more now than we did in 1980. This sounds bad, except he also notes the average American now drives 151% more. Combine that with Buffalo’s famously nation-leading low commute time, and it would seem this portion of sprawl’s ills does not unduly affect us.

Back to the original proposition: we’re broke (but we’re not – see above) and sprawl is the thing that did it. To be fair, while Erie County’s, the City of Buffalo’s, and most school district’s finances are in fine shape now, all warn of trouble on the horizon. So while the sprawl-related financial strains are a mixed bag at best, it is worth asking where the real problem is. What will make our community broke? A fair place to start is Erie County’s largest budget line: Medicaid.

New York’s Medicaid mandate is the largest in the country and costs double the national average, equal to the combined programs of California and Texas. Medicaid costs the average New York family of four $5000 a year. Compare that to the $64 a year in gasoline an idling Buffalo commuter wastes in sprawl-induced traffic under the tyranny of $4/gallon gas. Closer to home, Erie County has a Department of Social Services budget of $577 Million (the lion’s share of which is Medicaid), about half the $1.14 Billion total and far more than the sum of the infrastructure budgets of the county and assembled towns. $577 Million is more than the combined 2009 profit of all 18 public traded companies based in WNY – National Fuel, Greatbatch, First Niagara, M&T, Columbus-McKinnon, Moog, CTG, Gibraltar, Sovran, Financial Institutions, Astronics, Graham, Cleveland BioLabs, Mod-Pac, Evans Bank, Rand, Taylor and E&E. $577 Million is 1.3% of our region’s total GDP of $43 Billion. Buffalo is ranked 48th in population nationally but 55th in GDP. We punch below our weight, not surprisingly, as a third of the City of Buffalo lives below the poverty line. Providing services to the poor who cannot afford it costs money – $577 Million currently, and many advocate for more. In other words, its not the sprawl that’s going to make us broke, its our generalized poverty and neediness.

There are two sides to this social services coin. Providing healthcare and housing to the impoverished and elderly is a major industry in Buffalo – our largest employers are healthcare conglomerates who provide new hearts and knees to those that can pay, and emergency medical services and the bare minimum to those who can’t. Federal Medicare payments are a major influx of cash to our region, and we’re building new facilities at the Medical Campus and ECMC to grow the already profitable portions of the business. Likewise, nursing homes are going up far faster than downtown lofts, as our region gets greyer. And it is no coincidence that some of our most successful grassroots non-profits and social justice advocates ultimately get their funding from federal HUD block grants targeting home refurbishment. 

On the other hand, the cost to healthcare providers of caring for those on Medicaid does not match the reimbursement rate, and clinics and nursing homes are closing. Smart, able, young talent is doing great work on the West Side to improve the lives of our neediest . . . and thus they are not entrepreneurs starting innovative companies, making money and reinvesting capital in the region. Buffalo’s big business is caring for the elderly, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless, and curing the cancers of an industrial legacy. No one gets rich doing that work, and that’s why we’re broke.

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.