- To allow displacement of the less affluent as a consequence of medical campus expansion will violate SEQRA and the health profession’s precept, “first, do no harm” -
A July 29, 2014 editorial in the Buffalo News proudly proclaims: “New Buffalo – Development near the Medical Campus shows the city is shaking off its despair.” The opinion piece praises the creation of wealth for developers, landowners, and business owners who “rush to take advantage of the multiple opportunities” created by the still-growing Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. According to the editorial, “It’s a thing of beauty.”
What is not beautiful is the callousness shown by the Buffalo News editorial staff towards “people without means [who] may also be squeezed out of their homes” as “the line marking ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ is moving further east.” According to the July 29th editorial: “Those are the disadvantages and consequences of gentrification, which is not only wholly desirable, but as inevitable as the laws of supply and demand.”
I beg to differ. Displacement of the population that lives adjacent to the eastern edge of the growing Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus is unjust and unlawful, and – metaphorically – makes a mockery of the healthcare profession’s maxim, “first, do no harm.”
The so-called “people without means” who may find themselves displaced by the gentrification process are the nearly 2,000 residents of the historic “Fruit Belt” neighborhood – thirty-six (36) blocks of mostly quiet residential streets located directly east of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus [BNMC], extending roughly from High Street on the north, Jefferson Ave. to the east, the Kensington Expressway to the south, and Michigan Ave. on its western edge.
The tree-lined streets, with names such as Maple, Mulberry, Lemon and Grape, are home to a predominately African-American population with an average household income of around $23,000 a year – less than half of the Buffalo area as a whole. While approximately twenty percent (20%) of the Fruit Belt’s residential units are vacant, more than forty-percent of the occupied units are lived in by the property’s owner. And the pride of ownership is readily apparent when walking passed a mixture of century-old and recently constructed houses.
Gentrification – considered “wholly desirable” and “inevitable” by the Buffalo News – is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.” A good summary of the “displacement” phenomena associated with the gentrification process can be found at Wikipedia:
“Displacement in the context of gentrification is defined in The Gentrification Reader as ‘forced disenfranchisement of poor and working class people from the spaces and places in which they have legitimate social and historical claims.’ … What is generally agreed upon … is that those displaced are primarily minority, elderly, and transient groups, and they are nearly always driven out in areas where gentrification occurs. Studies have also shown that there seem to be two waves of displacement of these original residents. In the early stages, renters are largely driven out because of the changing incentives of landlords. With the rising interest in a particular neighborhood, they have no motive to retain their current tenants over the new, more affluent rent seekers. As the process continues, owners of single residential units are strained with the surge in property values that translates to increased tax assessments. Often their incomes cannot continue to cover these increased living costs. Those who are ‘gentrified’ not only lack the economic resources to compete with these changes, but stereotypically lack political power, are easily exploited by landlords and developers, and eventually are simply forced to leave due to these inabilities to resist the gentrification process.”
No doubt, where market forces are allowed unfettered rein, the displacement of poor and working-class people from their neighborhoods is quite inevitable. After all, we can hardly expect “the big three” developers who have been “reaping many of the benefits” of the BNMC’s establishment and growth – Paul Ciminelli, Carl Paladino, and Carl Montante Sr. – to unilaterally and voluntarily take steps to prevent displacement of the long-time residents of the Fruit Belt if – in doing so – the bottom-line is adversely affected.
But what excuse do Buffalo’s elected officials and bureaucrats have for their failure – for more than a decade – to take steps to prevent the inequities and personal burdens that will accompany gentrification of the neighborhood adjoining the ever-growing medical campus? Why wasn’t a sense of decency and compassion sufficient motivation to compel the City’s politicians to seek effective mechanisms to buffer and protect Fruit Belt homeowners and tenants from the radiating effects of the BNMC expansion? Why didn’t the obligation to comply with the law, more specifically, with SEQRA, New York’s State Environmental Quality Review Act, lead to meaningful action?
I don’t have answers. But I do know that SEQRA requires every local and state agency asked to approve or help finance a construction project to consider potential adverse impacts that might result from that project. Not only should there have been an objective and thorough assessment of the adverse environmental impacts likely to occur as a result of the medical campus growth and expansion, SEQRA placed an obligation on the involved agencies to avoid or reduce the identified adverse impacts “to the maximum extent practicable,” and to incorporate practicable mitigation measures as conditions to any approval or financing of a project.
Significantly, the term “environment” is broadly defined in SEQRA to include – not only physical conditions – but also “existing patterns of population concentration, distribution, or growth, and existing community or neighborhood character.”
Nearly three decades ago, our State’s highest court, the New York Court of Appeals, in a case called Chinese Staff and Workers Association v. City of New York, 68 NY2d 359 (1986), held that “population patterns and neighborhood character are physical conditions of the environment under SEQRA” and must be given consideration “regardless of whether there is any impact on the physical environment.”
The Chinese Staff decision went on to rule that “potential acceleration of the displacement of local residents and businesses” is an effect on population patterns and neighborhood character that must be analyzed pursuant to SEQRA not only for the actual property involved, but for the community in general. And these socio-economic impacts must be considered whether the proposed project may effect these concerns “primarily or secondarily or in the short term or long term.”
In short, the environmental review mandated by SEQRA placed an obligation on city and state officials to protect Fruit Belt residents from the adverse effects of gentrification. In effect, SEQRA provided a mechanism to objectively gather pertinent data, and to incorporate enforceable mitigation measures that would help ensure that expansion of the medical campus would, first and foremost, “do no harm” to the residents of the nearby Fruit Belt neighborhood.
It is important to note that SEQRA requires that consideration of environmental factors occur “at the earliest possible time” in the planning and decision-making process. [6 NYCRR 617.1(c)] In the context of the medical campus, an objective assessment and identification of potential adverse impacts on “existing patterns of population concentration, distribution, or growth, and existing community or neighborhood character” should have been conducted a decade or more ago, at a time when substantial flexibility existed in the planning process. In failing to do so, Buffalo’s leaders – political, business, and institutional – ignored their legal obligation to protect the Fruit Belt neighborhood and the people who reside there.
An opportunity to remedy that failure was presented to the City of Buffalo in 2010. A “Master Plan Update” commissioned by the Board of Directors of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus was issued in December 2010. That document included a so-called “Fruit Belt Neighborhood Strategy” which expressed the following sentiment:
* “The transition between the medical campus and the Fruit Belt neighborhood must be carefully considered to take advantage of proximity while also mediating building scale, character and use.” *
Although the master plan update did not expressly address the displacement effect of BNMC expansion on existing Fruit Belt residents, it did recognize the constructive role that SEQRA and the City of Buffalo could play in regulating future activities related to medical campus growth:
* “SEQRA would provide a neutral platform within which all the various agencies and proponents could contribute information and weigh development options and impacts in a public forum… Ideally, the City of Buffalo would be the lead agency and would submit a full Environmental Assessment Form (EAF), cooperating with UB, Kaleida, RPCI, the BNMC and other agencies.” *
To that end, the master plan update’s ten recommendations – labeled “Collaborative Opportunities for Moving Forward” – included the following call for a comprehensive environmental review under SEQRA:
* “Create a campus-wide Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) in order to facilitate future campus development and assess the environmental, social, and economic impacts of growth.” *
The lateness of the BNMC’s call for a Generic Environmental Impact Statement – underscored by the update’s observation that by 2013, “over 2.3 million square feet of new construction and renovated space will have taken place since the campus first emerged” – made a prompt and committed effort by City officials and all involved stakeholders imperative.
Despite that fact, Buffalo’s leaders have once again failed to protect the Fruit Belt neighborhood and its residents. Forty-four months after the December 2010 Master Plan Update was adopted by the BNMC Board of Directors, there is no evidence that the proposed GEIS review process was ever commenced – much less diligently pursued – by the City of Buffalo.
This failure to act occurred even though the BNMC Board of Directors includes Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown and the President of the City’s Common Council (at the time of the master plan update, Richard Fontana).
It is time for Western New York’s leaders – local and state officials, the business community, and the institutions comprising the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus – to put into place effective and enforceable safeguards that will preserve the character of the Fruit Belt neighborhood and prevent the displacement of its residents. The law – and common decency – demand no less.
With All Due Respect,