– If you’re Carl Paladino, you’ll still be able to build a 14-story, half-million-square-foot stand-alone tower on prime waterfront property! –
Call me a cynic or, perhaps, just plain dumb. But I can’t quite comprehend what the City of Buffalo is doing. On one hand, it announced plans last week to realign historic Erie Street to reopen vistas from downtown to its precious waterfront. On the other hand, it modified its proposed zoning and development law last month in such a way that a hand-picked developer – Carl Paladino and his Ellicott Development Company – will be able to construct a freestanding tower on city-controlled property precisely in a location that will obstruct the view of the waterfront from a realigned Erie Street . But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The “happy talk” about walkable cities and the Congress for New Urbanism [CNU] conference held last week in the Queen City has finally subsided. Despite listening to and reading many useful suggestions on how to make a city, village, or neighborhood more attractive and safe, I can’t say that I’m overflowing with optimism over Buffalo’s future (although I’m appreciative of its past glory).
I share the uneasiness expressed by Buffalo News columnist Colin Dabkowski regarding the concept of “urban triage” espoused by one of the New Urbanist’s bright lights, Jeff Speck. A philosophy that leads to infrastructure investment going primarily to a city’s downtown and more affluent areas – at the expense of the residents who live in its blighted neighborhoods – is difficult to embrace in a community with a thirty percent (30%) poverty rate (more than twice the national average). CNU needs to go well beyond a simple recognition in its charter “that physical solutions by themselves will not solve social and economic problems” for me to welcome a philosophy that focuses on making cities “useful, safe, comfortable and interesting” for “creative-class citizens.”
But my main concern with New Urbanism goes beyond the “urban triage” approach. The process of selecting one project or neighborhood over another means that the people in power, in the words of Mr. Speck, get to “PICK YOUR WINNERS.” In the City of Buffalo, that often translates to the Mayor choosing the “winners” and “losers” – especially when the Common Council has abdicated its role as an active and effective second branch of government. And, it all-too-often means that the decisions will be based, not on sound planning principles or a desire to improve the lives of the municipality’s most impoverished, but on political expediency.
Ironically, one has to look no further than to the latest installment of Mayor Byron Brown’s oft-praised Buffalo Green Code [“BGC”] – described on June 5, 2014 by the editorial staff of the Buffalo News as “Buffalo’s proposed, urbanism-influenced zoning code that could soon be a national model” – for a perfect example of politics prevailing over sound planning principles.
On June 3rd – the day before the CNU officially opened its conference at the Buffalo Niagara convention Center – the Brown administration issued for public review, as part of the BGC process, its Draft Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan [LWRP]. Although the text of the 178-page LWRP document fails to mention it, changes have been quietly made to the proposed Green Code that would allow Carl Paladino’s company, Ellicott Development, to proceed with its plans to construct a massive project known as “The Carlo” on prime waterfront property. More precisely, the parcels – currently owned by the City of Buffalo’s Urban Renewal Agency [“BURA”] – are located on Wilkeson Way and LaRiviere Drive across Erie Street from the Marine Drive Apartments and a stone’s throw from upscale townhome complexes such as Gull Landing.
As currently envisioned, the project – named after Mr. Paladino’s grandfather – includes a 14-story tower, approximately 143 hotel rooms, a banquet facility, 120,000-square-feet of office space, 36 apartments, two restaurants, retail space, and a parking ramp. Notably, the version of the Buffalo Green Code released to the public in the spring of 2012 would not allow such a massive structure at this valuable waterfront site.
The following chronology demonstrates how Mayor Brown’s administration has allowed politics, rather than the lofty planning principles purportedly personified by the Buffalo Green Code, to dictate future waterfront development:
JANUARY 26, 2007: As part of Mayor Brown’s “Queen City in the 21st Century” comprehensive plan, the City’s Office of Strategic Planning issues its draft LWRP. Included in its discussion of proposed uses and projects is the re-alignment of Erie Street which, historically, “was one of the most direct and important connections from downtown to the waterfront.” The expressed purpose of realigning Erie Street is to “expand the City across the I-190 and into this area, transforming the bridge underpasses from barriers to gateways, recreating uninterrupted sight lines and improving development opportunities…” According to the draft waterfront plan, “The realignment of this roadway is proposed to be complemented with the development of low-rise mixed office, commercial and residential development.” [Emphasis added.]
APRIL 2, 2012: The proposed Buffalo Green Code’s draft “Future Place-Types” map shows all of the BURA land in and around the proposed site for “The Carlo” as Future Place-Type “N-1E (Downtown Edge).” The N-1E Downtown Edge zones are described as follows:
The edges of downtown composed primarily of connected, moderate-scale commercial block structures with consistent pedestrian-oriented frontages. [Emphasis added.]
JUNE 4, 2012: A BGC document entitled, “A Preview of Buffalo’s New Zoning,” includes a table that allows a “tower” in only one zone, “N-1D (Downtown Hub).” A tower, defined as a stacked unit or commercial block building “of 12 stories or more,” is not permitted in the N-1E Downtown Edge zone.
FEBRUARY 22, 2013: During Mayor Brown’s “State of the City” address, he surprises the audience by announcing that Carl Paladino’s plan for a mixed-use hotel/apartments/ office space project – rejected six months earlier when proposed for the city’s Webster Block where Buffalo Sabres’ owner Terry Pegula’s hockey-oriented project is presently being constructed – would be upsized to a 14-story development and built on prime Waterfront Village property owned by BURA. Following the announcement, Mr. Paladino told the media:
“We worked out a deal for what we feel is now a better piece of land. It’s a better location for what we want to do, the best downtown location for that type project.”
FEBRUARY 28, 2013: The Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency unanimously grants Carl Paladino’s Ellicott Development company “exclusive development rights” for the prime 5.5-acre site near the entranced to the Erie Basin Marina. Mayor Brown is Chief Executive Officer of BURA, chairs its board, and controls a majority of its members. The BURA board awards Paladino’s company the right to develop the waterfront parcel WITHOUT FIRST SOLICITING COMPETITIVE BIDS, depriving other developers an opportunity to present alternative proposals, and preventing public dialog on the desirability, nature and scale of the project.
Note: By awarding development rights to Mr. Paladino’s Ellicott Development Company, BURA instantly converted the Mayor’s long-time nemesis into a supporter just in time for his 2013 re-election campaign.
FEBRUARY 27, 2014: The BURA board unanimously approves a request to extend the Ellicott Development Company’s exclusive right to purchase and develop the Waterfront Village property. According to the minutes of the BURA board meeting, “the conceptual plans for Phase I envision a fourteen (14) story building of a total of 574,298 square feet and include a 660 (plus/minus total spaces) car parking garage, 32 apartments and a 135 room hotel.”
Note: In addition to Mayor Byron Brown, the BURA board members present and voting for the extension of exclusive developer rights to Mr. Paladino’s company included Common Council President Darius Pridgen, North District Common Councilmember Joseph Golombek, Jr., the City’s Corporation Counsel Timothy Ball, the City’s Commissioner of Administration and Finance Donna Estrich, and Executive Director of the City of Buffalo’s Office of Strategic Planning Brendan Mehaffy. It is Mr. Mehaffy’s office that is in charge of preparing the Buffalo Green Code.
MAY 2014: The Office of Strategic Planning issues the current version of the Draft Buffalo Green Code [a/k/a “Unified Development Ordinance”] for public review. In an apparent effort to eliminate confusion resulting from the terminology used in the earlier versions of the draft BGC, the term “N-1E – Downtown Edge” is replaced by the term “N-1C (Mixed Use Core).” The “Draft Zones” map places the proposed site of “The Carlo” in the N-1C zone. When describing the various “neighborhood zones,” the May 2014 version of the BGC provides the following “purpose” for the N-1C Mixed-Use Core zone:
“The N-1C zone addresses the edges of the downtown core to facilitate mid-rise development with an intense mix of uses.” [Emphasis added.]
Despite this reference to “mid-rise development,” and in contrast to the BGC’s 2012 material, the table of “Building Types” included in the May 2014 BGC documents allows construction of a “tower” in both the “N-1D (Downtown Hub)” zone AND the N-1C (Mixed-Use Core) zone. No explanation is provided.
JUNE 3, 2014: The Office of Strategic Planning issues for public review the “Public Review Draft” of the Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan as part of the Draft Buffalo Green Code process. The document, referred to as the “Buffalo Waterfront Plan,” includes the following information and proposals:
A. A table summarizing “the major development nodes and sites” within Buffalo’s LWLP area references seven (7) acres of land on LaRiviere Drive and Wilkeson Way as being located within the “Erie Street Corridor” and owned by “Ellicott Development through 2014.” It indicates (using outdated terminology) that the parcel is located in “Future Place Type” N1-E Downtown Edge.
B. The waterfront plan “encourages new water-enhanced infill and redevelopment of waterfront vacant land and buildings through mixed use zoning at … Erie Street between Main St and Lakeside Boulevard (a Brownfield Opportunity Area Strategic Site).”
Note: The site for “The Carlo” is actually located to the south of Lakefront Blvd.
C. The waterfront plan proposes implementation of the “Erie Street Waterfront Connection” project utilizing language similar to that found in the January 2007 draft LWRP:
“This project involves the realignment of Erie Street to reopen the connection between Main Street and the waterfront. This effort would re-establish the vista of the waterfront from downtown, recreate the radial street pattern, improve pedestrian access and safety, and provide new urban development sites to help move the City to the waterfront…” [Emphasis added.]
D. The waterfront plan boasts of efforts to obtain input from stakeholders on projects and programs within the LWRP area with “outreach activities” conducted “in each affected neighborhood in an effort to hear a range of feedback and address the concerns of those most likely to be affected by the proposed changes.”
Oddly, the Buffalo waterfront plan is devoid of any specific discussion of Ellicott Development’s plans for the prime waterfront parcel it has the right to purchase and develop – no description of its proposal to construct a 14-story tower with more than a half-million-square-feet of uses ranging from a hotel, banquet facilities, and luxury apartments to office and retail space, and a 660-vehicle parking garage. No mention is made of the fact that the only “stakeholder” with input on the proposal to construct “The Carlo” was, apparently, Mr. Paladino and his agents. Thanks to the backroom negotiations between the Paladino camp and City officials, and the pre-ordained nature of BURA’s decision-making process, the people living across the street from the site in the 600-unit Marine Drive Apartments and the owners and residents of the nearby townhouses and condominium units, have been left out of the “outreach activities.”
The waterfront plan also fails to explain why an LWRP that has long sought to re-establish the vista of the waterfront from downtown through realignment of Erie Street would acquiesce to a 14-story stand-alone tower obstructing that view.
Contrary to the hopes expressed in the June 5th Buffalo News editorial mentioned above, Mayor Brown’s decision-makers have already strayed from “the path of smart growth, people-first development and preservation of the neighborhoods.” By elevating politics over intelligent, informed planning principles, the latest version of the draft Buffalo Green Code embodies the kind of governance that is criticized on the very first page of Jeff Specht’s latest book, “Walkable City”:
… In the small and midsized cities where most American spend their lives, the daily decisions of local officials are still, more often than not, making their lives worse. This is not bad planning but the absence of planning, or rather, decision-making disconnected from planning. [Emphasis added.]
Unless and until Western New York’s citizenry demands otherwise, there will be little, if any, change in the way Buffalo officials arrive at important development decisions – regardless of how many well-meaning and informed “new urbanists” visit the Queen City.
With All Due Respect,
P.S. I purchased Jeff Specht’s “Walkable City – How Downtown Can Save America, One Step At A time” immediately following his June 5th lunchtime presentation at Buffalo’s convention center, and got in the signature line. I wanted to let him know how troubling it was for me to think of City of Buffalo officials “picking the winners” given the politically-inspired decisions I had observed over the past two dozen years while representing ordinary citizens in land use and environmental matters. I must admit that I still don’t know how to construe Mr. Specht’s blank stare in response to my expression of concern.
P.P.S. Plans for Phase II of Mr. Paladino’s waterfront development remain sketchy. An article by Jill Terreri published in the Buffalo News on February 28, 2013, titled, “Paladino gets go-ahead from city agency on waterfront project,” described the second phase as consisting of “small-scale, lower-density buildings is planned on greenspace and part of the parking lot that is north of where the complex will be.” It appears that Phase II would be adjacent to, and adversely impact of serenity of, the “Irish Famine Commemoration Monument,” which, since 1997, has quietly and solemnly commemorated the millions of people who suffered and died in Ireland’s Great Famine, and honored Buffalo’s present-day Irish community.
P.P.P.S. The “SAVE OUR WATERFRONT” button inserted below was created by the late Mildred Harrington, artist and long-time resident of the Marine Drive Apartments. Read about Millie’s efforts in 1989 – as an octogenarian – to preserve the quality of life of residents who treasure Buffalo’s waterfront.