Tag Archives: urbanism

Donn Esmonde, Ass and Other Things

1 Jun

1. The Buffalo News’ Jerry Zremski has an interesting piece about Williamsville native Andrea Bozek, the current head of communications for the National Republican Campaign Committee. Tagged as fighting a war on the “war on women”, the actual substance of the piece reveals something quite different. Rendered an embarrassment by the ignorant mouth-noises of some Republican politicians and commentators, the Republicans realize that they need to attract women by, e.g., not repelling them. So, she’s not so much going after Democrats as much as she is counseling Republicans to tamp down any misogynistic utterances or actions they might be contemplating, and to focus on a handful of issues affecting contemporary women that won’t offend any Republican principles. 

The fact that this sort of thing is novel or revolutionary is the story, here. 

2. Back when a few Clarence parents put together a hit list of “offensive” books, (articles here and here) I wrote this to Donn Esmonde, the tea party retiree who inexplicably continues to write for the Buffalo News: 

Mr. Esmonde, 

Last year, you threw every Clarence family who believes not just in public education, but excellence in public education, under the bus. Specifically, you wrote about Marlene Wacek, Lisa Thrun, and the Showalters in glowing terms about how hard they were working to prevent runaway spending (which didn’t exist) and runaway taxes (which was, at best, a wild tea partyesque oversimplification of the facts).  You told all of us working diligently to maintain funding that they wouldn’t really cut anything – that these threats were part of a  “false choice”. 

They weren’t false at all, but you never corrected yourself.  All the threatened cuts to teachers, programs, sports, classes, and electives took place. Families had to scramble to raise money to restore some of what we lost. 

You never addressed how wrong you were about the emptiness of the threats because you saw everything through your facile suburbs-suck lens. 

Well, the Showalter-Lahti family (Roger Showalter and Jason Lahti are related by marriage, and both are now on our school board) are creating a brand-new crisis out of whole cloth. Showalter’s sister & Lahti’s wife Ginger Showalter-Lahti has circulated a letter demanding the banning of certain books and texts, and her husband has added this as an item on the agenda. 

These are the people whom you so uncritically promoted as a new breed of school reformer. I hope you’re satisfied. 

(Here is the letter Mrs. Lahti has circulated to certain, selected local families: http://www.scribd.com/doc/211263269/Clarence-School-Curriculum-Letter-March-2014  Here is the letter I sent to the school board: http://blogs.artvoice.com/avdaily/2014/03/09/clarence-schools-urged-to-ban-books/

Some “reformer” you’ve found.

Surprisingly, Donn Esmonde never replied to me. He can dish it out, but can’t take it. Mostly because he’s an asshole who can’t be bothered to defend himself or admit he’s wrong, but also because the whole debacle was an acute embarrassment for him. 

Here’s another one. 

Detestable creature that he is, Esmonde whines about how – boo hoo – a lot of suburban electeds aren’t going to show up for the new urbanism conference that’s being held in Buffalo this coming week. So, he’s trying to shame them.

“It’s disappointing,” said George Grasser, urbanologist and co-chairman of the CNU host committee. “These are the people who can change zoning laws to spur development, who foot the cost for sprawl. This is all about making their communities more livable. They should be here.” Tell it, George.

If our village mayors, town superintendents and council members drop in on even a few of the dozens of CNU events, tours or presentations, they will be less likely to sign off on awful, neighborhood-assaulting hotels; ugly strip malls; Lego-like office buildings; stores fronted by parking lots; and vehicle-first, people-last communities – all of it hard-wired by zoning laws from a previous, car-centric century.

That’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it? “Liveable”? It used to be “walkable”. Who is to determine what is and isn’t “livable”? Isn’t the homeowner the best arbiter of what is “livable”? Who would move to our suburban ticky-tacky if it wasn’t “livable”.

Zoning codes and design standards aren’t sexy. But they make the difference between walkable, people-magnet neighborhoods like Hertel Avenue or Hamburg village, and irredeemably ugly stretches like Harlem Road in Cheektowaga or Niagara Falls Boulevard. A numbing succession of boxy buildings fronted by parking lots is an awful, inedible fruitcake of a “gift” that gets passed from generation to generation. So is the corrosive cost – in tax dollars and urban abandonment – of sprawl.

If sprawl is so horrific, why does it lead to “urban abandonment”? Perhaps it’s a more complicated equation than whether you can walk to the local quinoa stand. 

If nothing else, there is a bottom line that should speak to elected officials: The more livable a place, the higher the property values and greater the tax revenue. It’s no coincidence that values in Elmwood Village soared in recent decades, as more people grasped the appeal of back-to-the-future commercial/residential neighborhoods.

“Livability” involves a lot more than mere walkability and mixed use. It also has to do with functioning government and school district.  It can’t just rely on whether you can walk to the store to buy a pack of gum, but also whether you’re going to need to scramble to enter a lottery for your kid’s school, or pony up for private.

New Urbanism already has traction here. Such villages as Hamburg and Williamsville are recapturing their micro-urban essence. Buffalo is reshaping its future with a progressive “green” zoning code. The downtown waterfront’s “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” mantra is a CNU staple. What we’ve got, from waterfront grain elevators to walkable villages to a resurrecting downtown, lured CNU here. Many events are open to the public.

Not everywhere wants or needs to be Hamburg and Williamsville. Niagara Falls Boulevard and Transit Road serve their own purpose, just like Delaware Avenue is different from Hertel is different from Elmwood is different from Broadway.

New urbanism is great. Walkability is great. 

But people like Esmonde who proselytize new urbanism to neanderthal suburbanites are like that nightmare friend everyone has who aggressively shoves veganism down everyone’s throat.  There are ways to be something, or to believe something – and even to promote something – that don’t sound like a condescending lecture from an annoying evangelist. 

I wonder what sort of genuine outreach took place between the CNU organizers and suburban electeds – was it an email invitation and a shaming column from Donn Esmonde, or were there visits to planning boards and town boards? Were there in-person pitches or just “your town sucks, you should really go to this”? 

Elmwood Avenue gets a lot of ink and pixels, held up as the model for new urbanism and of what generally should be. But Elmwood Avenue today is not significantly dissimilar from Elmwood Avenue of 10 years ago. The storefronts that aren’t vacant (thanks to short-sighted landlords who demand exorbitant rents and use the empty locations as a tax hedge) are mostly independent local shops.

If we had a vibrant economy, those Elmwood vacancies would be filled, and indies slowly replaced by chains. (Replacing a Blockbuster with a Panera hardly counts). The Gap, Urban Outfitters, Banana Republic, and other mall staples would be filling in the spaces and pushing independents out to new frontiers like Grant Street or Broadway.  We have that small-scale gentrification taking place in fits and starts on Grant, but without the concomitant economic and population growth that happened in places like Brooklyn or Boston’s South End. 

The key to making Buffalo better isn’t to shame suburbanites or laud buildings, but to attract people and their money. While the real estate market is hot in certain Buffalo neighborhoods, we still haven’t tackled the systemic problems that help to prevent population decline or spur population growth and attract wealth. These are people problems – political problems – that no volume of urban planning hand-wringing will solve. 

I get that some town and village executives have day jobs. But there are night and weekend CNU sessions, and a roster of talent that is worth missing work for.

What a condescending ass. 

3. If the new owner of the Buffalo Bills wants a new stadium, he, she, or it will likely build a new stadium. If such a stadium is built, it will likely be done with some contribution from the public through subsidies, tax breaks, and other incentives. The hope is that the Bills will stay somewhere in the region, mostly because of the blow it would deal the local psyche if they were to move somewhere else. Esmonde wrote pieces about how Bills fans would shun the team if it moved out of town, and that the Bills need a new owner who “values loyalty over greed“.

So, Esmonde believes that the community values the Bills, and that we should find an unusually ungreedy billionaire to buy the team. If the new owner decides that there’s value to, say, moving the stadium to a different location – perhaps one more convenient to fans from Southern Ontario and parts East – why not examine and support that? Where is the fundamental flaw? If the new owner decides that a retractable roof would draw in more crowds, then this should be looked at closely. If the new owner decides that the best way to keep the team in the region is to fundamentally change the location and design of the team’s physical plant, then do it. 

If moving the stadium so that it can attract big business and big money from the greater Tor-Buff-Chester megaregion, then moving away from the Southtowns might make a lot of sense. 

Neither Esmonde nor the professors whom he cites own or operate an NFL team, so maybe leave that decision up to the people who are taking the economic and political risk of doing that.

Oversell at the Times

29 Mar

The New York Times published a piece a few days ago entitled, “Reinventing America’s Cities”. It recounts how during the ’80s and ’90s, while the US was in full Reaganomics-small-government-is-good-government mode, Europe was building things like an efficient high-speed rail network, and doing so in an environmentally sensitive way. The piece mentions how several European cities are contemplating change.

It then turns to US cities and brings up the New Deal’s WPA and Eisenhower’s interstate program as examples of our country making that sort of groundbreaking change.

The problem in America is not a lack of ideas. It is a tendency to equate any large-scale government construction project, no matter how thoughtful, with the most brutal urban renewal tactics of the 1950s. One result has been that pioneering projects that skillfully blend basic infrastructure with broader urban needs like housing and park space are usually killed in their infancy. Another is that we now have an archaic and grotesquely wasteful federal system in which upkeep for roads, subways, housing, public parkland and our water supply are all handled separately.

With money now available to invest again in such basic needs, I’d like to look at four cities representing a range of urban challenges and some of the plans available to address them. Though none of the plans are ideal as they stand today (and some of them represent only the germ of an idea), evaluated and addressed together as part of a coordinated effort, they could begin to form a blueprint for making our cities more efficient, sustainable and livable.

  • New Orleans: needs to rebuild almost from scratch.
  • Los Angeles: give the Los Angeles River its natural flow and riverbank again, and the Metro should run along Wilshire Blvd.
  • the Bronx: demolish some of the Bruckner and Sheridan Expwy, freeing up 28 acres of land for housing
  • Buffalo: don’t expand the Peace Bridge plaza, thus requiring the demolition of 5 blocks’ worth of homes on the West Side.
  • Regardless of how you feel about expansion of the Peace Bridge plaza (I favor shared border management, with all inspection carried out on the Fort Erie side of the river), I fail to see how that would be a “reinvention” of Buffalo. Halting yet another in a long line of bad ideas? Sure. A victory for that neighborhood? Naturally. But reinventing the city?

    Seems a bit of an oversell.

    Batavia Before

    14 Aug

    Before urban renewal tore down half of downtown Main Street and replaced it with the fugliest “mall” in the area. Found at the Batavian.

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    Cities Speak

    30 May

    Via Richard Florida’s blog, this essay:

    Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.

    The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.

    What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you’ve been meaning to.

    When you ask what message a city sends, you sometimes get surprising answers. As much as they respect brains in Silicon Valley, the message the Valley sends is: you should be more powerful.

    (Read the whole thing here)

    What is Buffalo saying?

    Walkable Communities: Everywhere But Here

    28 May

    This story in the Buffalo News is frustrating as all hell. My own town of Clarence has two quaint little shopping districts – the Four Corners and the Hollow – and then there’s Transit Road. Two of three of those are walkable. Guess which.

    I honestly cannot fathom why anyone in suburban Buffalo would be opposed to the idea of a walkable neighborhood. Would it kill people to be able to walk down to a corner store or florist or dry cleaner or coffee shop? I’m lucky. I can do that. There are loads of people who can’t, and I’m shocked that a lot of them don’t want to.

    Walkable neighborhoods don’t just give you exercise and gas savings. Walkability helps build community. You see your neighbors. You walk by their homes. You become a regular at a local business. Buffalo’s suburbs need more – not less – walkability and mixed-use neighborhoods. But the suburbs aren’t the only victims. Any shops at Waterfront Village?

    The Town Centre development that Benderson wants to build in Amherst is a start. It will feature retail, hotel, residential, and commercial in the complex. In Lewiston, there’s the Village at Oxbow – the first new walkable community being planned and built in WNY. I guess, as per the News article, it behooves those of us who support these sustainable, walkable communities to show up at town board meetings and speak in support of them.

    How much Buffalo area progress has been stanched by an exceedingly vocal and obnoxious minority>